It’s the 25th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh, but Steve Jobs’ eyes are dry. At the company headquarters in Silicon Valley, where he was presenting a set of new laptops to the press last October, I mentioned the birthday to him. Jobs recoiled at any suggestion of nostalgia. “I don’t think about that,” he said. “When I got back here in 1997, I was looking for more room, and I found an archive of old Macs and other stuff. I said, ‘Get it away!’ and I shipped all that shit off to Stanford. If you look backward in this business, you’ll be crushed. You have to look forward.”
Here’s what’s amazing about the Mac as it turns 25, a number that in computer years is just about a googolplex: It can look forward. The Mac’s original competition—the green-phosphorus-screened stuff made by RadioShack, DEC, and then-big kahuna IBM—now inhabit landfills, both physically and psychically. Yet the Macintosh is not only thriving, it’s doing better than at any time in its history. Much of the attention directed at Apple over the past few years has focused on new products like the iPod and the iPhone. Click wheels and touchscreens have distracted us from the news that the Mac market share has quietly crept into double digits. That’s up from barely 3 percent in 1997, just before the prodigal CEO returned to the fold after a 12-year exile. Any way you cut it, the Mac is on the rise while Windows is waning. Roll over, Methusela—the Macintosh is still peaking.
What’s behind this autumnal upswing? Apple COO Tim Cook lists six factors: better computers, better software, seamless compatibility with Windows, marketing acumen, successful retail stores, and the belly flop of Microsoft Vista. (Redmond’s lame new OS was merely the last straw; over the past two decades, millions have switched from PCs to Macs.) But the larger story of Apple’s rebirth begins with the return of its cofounder. Jobs called the company he came back to a “beautiful Porsche speedster that had been sitting in a field. And it got really dirty, covered with mud.” He slashed the product line, Picasso-ized the design, launched a wildly successful chain of retail stores, and turned the annual Apple keynote address into the high tech equivalent of a popcorn blockbuster. And yes, Apple did make better computers than its rivals.
There was something else at work, too. Unlike almost anything else dating from the era of Culture Club and The Cosby Show, the Mac has retained its vitality and cachet without ever becoming retro or kitsch. A sense of a cultural divide was there from the very beginning and persists to this day. The skunkworkers behind the Mac were self-styled corporate outcasts who flew a pirate flag and talked trash about the competition. (“We’ve made almost every computer that’s ever been made look completely absurd,” Mac teamer vgbfvrn told me back in 1983.) On the very first day I spent with the Mac team members, working on a Rolling Stone story two months before the January 1984 launch, they made it clear that they saw themselves as a new kind of digital hipster—silicon artists determined to take down the faceless giants dominating the industry. They weren’t building a computer for some wonks behind a desk; they were building it for themselves. Jobs made the case when we went out for pizza that night (he was lobbying for the Rolling Stone cover). “What if you did a story about what a group of really neat people are doing in the 1980s?” he prodded. “They aren’t in the garage with a set of drums and a few guitars. At two in the morning they’re in the lab, writing software.” (Jobs no longer begs for covers; now he manages the press so well that we beg him.)
Those original Mac rebels (including their leader) are now in their fifties, but the Mac itself has managed to avoid middle-age wrinkles and creaky joints. Forever young, it’s associated more with Millennials than geezers, even though many Millennials weren’t even born when that famous first commercial—Ridley Scott’s “1984” spot—ran during Super Bowl XVIII. The Mac is Obama, Microsoft is McCain. Computer scientist Paul Graham summed it up in a famous online essay in 2007: “Windows,” he wrote, “is for grandmas.”
That generational perception is why Apple’s long-running PC-versus-Mac ad campaign, with the nebbishy John Hodgman portraying the PC, has deeply unhinged Microsoft despite the company’s dominant market share. When I mentioned the ads to Bill Gates at the January 2007 Vista launch, he went Vesuvius on me. “I don’t know why they’re acting superior,” he said. “I don’t even get it. I mean, do you get it? What are they trying to say? There’s not even the slightest shred of truth to it!” But that’s not what the public thinks, and the sales figures prove it. Microsoft is now so rattled by Apple’s advertising that it’s running a $300 million counterpunch. The whole point of the “I’m a PC” campaign is to assure customers that they aren’t pathetic losers.
Generally, when products go mass market, they lose their edge. So it’s remarkable that with 30 million users, being a Mac person is still a statement. If the Mac share keeps growing, will that stay true? If 50 million people are using Macs, does that mean they’re still “thinking different”? How about 100 million?
We may just find out.
Wired – Senior writer Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org), who wrote about Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie in issue 16.12, still has his first Mac