Mac at 30: The Shadow of a Smile

by Steve Wildstrom   |   January 24th, 2014

happy-macBen Bajarin points out that a key characteristic of Apple for the past 30 years has to make things as simple as possible for users and the same spirit that motivated the Mac in 1984 drives the iPad today. I’ll agree and go further: Apple’s dedication to user experience extends to making its customers feel happy.

As Steven Levy notes in his outstanding reflection in Wired on the launch of the Mac, “it opened with a smile.” To be precise, with the friendly “happy Mac” icon, designed with the rest of the original system icons, by
Susan Kare. The disk would spin for a while and eventually a “desktop” would appear, filled with more of Kare’s icons. Click one, using that other novel device, the mouse,  and something interesting would probably happen.

Unless you were using computers back in the early 80s, you probably don’t realize how stunningly differnet the Mac was. When you fired up an IBM PC , you heard some beeps (the Power On Startup Test). Then some cryptic configuration information appeared on the screen. Finally, if all went well, you would be presented with a line on the screen that looked like:

A:>

or, if you had a hard drive

C:>

followed by a blinking cursor. If you typed in a valid DOS command, something would happen.

The Mac wasn’t always happy. If the boot disk was missing or unreadable, it would show this puzzled icon

mac-question-mark

mac-bombAnd if the Mac crashed, as happened not infrequently in those days, you would get the dread system bomb. This was the Mac at its most DOS-ish. The Resume button, like the Continue button on early Windows error messages, did nothing useful, even when it wasn’t greyed out. And the ID number, more often than not negative, provided no useful information, at least not to ordinary mortals. But, at least, there was always that whimsical bomb.

The original Mac belonged to what was still a primitive era of personal computing. Things went wrong at a rate we would not tolerate today. But the Mac managed to mostly make its users happy by making things easy and friendly, while IBM PCs remained hostile, intimidating devices (the first usable version of Windows was six years in the future when the Mac launched.)

Apple has never lost this impulse. The original iPhone was far more complex and capable than the smart phones then on the market, but no one needed an instruction manual. You picked it up and you could figure out how to use it. The iPad, by virtue of being a some level just a big iPhone, was even more obvious.

Microsoft, by contrast, has never quite gotten the hang of this art of making users happy. The Windows 7 and Mac UIs are closer than they have ever been, and Windows Phone, while introducing a whole new UI metaphor, was relatively comfortable. Unfortunately, the effort to translate it to the PC with Windows 8 produced a hybrid mess, in which you can never live completely in the familiar world of Windows 7 or the new, but well conceived, world of the Phone-like Metro UI. It does not open with a smile, and it doesn’t make many users smile either.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • klahanas

    We sure tolerated a lot (and still do). We would have thrown our washing machines and toasters out the window for similar performance, and our cars wouldn’t be street legal. But dang it, computers are just so enabling!

  • Space Gorilla

    I still have my original 1984 Mac sitting on my desk. I used it to write essays (and more) until the early 90s. Not sure about later models, but the first Mac has the signatures of those who worked on it, inside the case, they look kind of embossed in the plastic.