Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the original Apple Macintosh. This company is on top of the world thanks to the hugely successful iPad and iPhone, but it has also seen years of struggle in the previous three decades. Fortunately, it has learned from its mistakes.
The Mac was introduced at a time when the personal computer industry was in its infancy (and close a decade before anyone outside of academia had even heard of the Internet). There were home computers before the Mac, but what Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did was offer the first one that was easy to use.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that has been the company’s strategy time and again: it didn’t make the first MP3 player, but it made the first that was painless to use. Apple’s wasn’t the first smartphone, but it was easier to understand than its predecessors. The iPad broke no new ground, but it created a huge product category by being simpler to use than its predecessors.
That’s the company’s strength — Not innovation, but taking already-existing product categories and creating devices that work better than anything that came before.
How Apple Has Learned from the Past
After the debut of the original Macintosh, Apple spent the remainder of the 1980s competing with PCs from the likes of IBM and Radio Shack. Apple’s strength during this time was the Graphical User Interface. This system of on-screen icons that could be clicked on with a mouse made personal computing vastly easier than its rivals’ computers, which required users to memorize and type in arcane text commands.
Despite this advantage, the company quickly fell into second place in the personal computer market and underwent a slow decline until it almost went bankrupt in the 1990s. The debut of Windows 3.1 (the first version that was somewhat comparable to Mac OS) was almost the final nail in the coffin.
Much of the reason for this can be demonstrated with its famous “1984” commercial during the 1984 Super Bowl, with a woman tossing a sledgehammer through a giant video screen. Millions of people watched it and went away saying “Cool ad. I wonder what product that was for?”
All the company’s advertisements of the 1980s emphasized that buying a Mac made one a rebel, while only boring corporate types bought IBM. Its commercials never pointed out how much easier a Mac was to use than DOS or the early versions of Windows — and this was during a time when most Americans were buying their first computer and struggling to learn how to use it.
Because very few had any idea what Apple had to offer besides a spirit of rebellion and a device named after a fruit, millions of people took their money elsewhere.
Fast forward a couple of decades and you’ll see a completely different situation. Apple’s ads now emphasize what its tablets and phones can do. There are exceptions, but the vast majority demonstrate in one way or another how useful an iPad or iPhone is.
It would be interesting to see what the world would be like today if Apple had made Macintosh ads like that 30 years ago.