System 1.0: A Revolution Called Macintosh
Mac OS X turns ten this week. That's ten years since the first public release of the jewel in the crown that signifies Apple's rise from the brink of death with a modern and "revolutionary" clean slate. But it wasn't the first time a piece of Apple software saved the company -- that honour goes to the original Macintosh operating system: System 1.0. Read on to learn how Apple changed its fortunes and revolutionised computing back when the terms GUI and mouse were foreign concepts.
The core of the Macintosh experience was never the attractive industrial design, the sense of superiority, or the use of a strange one-button mouse -- although those elements were vitally important. From the very beginning, even before the first Mac hit the market in 1984, right through to the latest iMac or Macbook models, the Macintosh was about providing the most accessible and intuitive interaction possible between humans and computers.
Computers should be easy to use, with user interfaces that Jack and Jill Smith who just walked in off the street can use comfortably with almost no instruction. Gestures, not typed commands; desktops, buttons, and icons -- not command lines, carriage returns, and terminals -- have clear analogies to things from everyday life that people without a degree in computer science can understand. This is at the heart of the Apple philosophy, as it has existed since that fateful trip to the Xerox labs in December 1979.
System 1.0 was the first Macintosh just as much as -- if not more so than -- the hardware components that made it work or the industrial design that made it look so iconic. It was a gamble of astronomical proportions; the latest product billed as the future of computing by a company that had floundered in its attempts to follow-up on the immensely popular Apple II. The Apple III had been a complete failure, with early hardware flaws of such magnitude that thousands of first-run machines had to be recalled, and a dismal sales total of around 120,000 units in its four year life (due presumably to its early problems and high price in the face of mighty IBM’s PC). The Apple Lisa was proving to be a similar failure -- despite its revolutionary GUI-toting operating system -- partly because it was expensive and slow, but also as a consequence of the conservative nature of big-business, which often led to the Lisa being considered too risky.
The company’s long-term future depended on the success of the Macintosh -- the Lisa was too expensive and alien to compete with IBM and another high-profile failure so soon after the Apple III could have left Apple entirely dependent on the aging Apple II. Apple had only really managed the one hit at this point. As much as the company had grown, and despite being widely credited as having created the multi-billion dollar personal computer market, Apple was still a small fish compared to IBM, the long-time leader in the computing business, and was stuck with the label that the Apple II was more toy than office computer -- even after the arrival of the “killer app” that was VisiCalc.
The aim of the Macintosh’s market-positioning was to take a chunk out of the lucrative business market, which IBM had been rapidly conquering with its decidedly un-revolutionary PC. Apple hoped to compensate for the better reputation of IBM through an innovative GUI, high resolution screen, and ease of use, wherein the desktop metaphor extended to every possible action. The hardware only really needed to work -- good or iconic design was little more than a bonus, if anything -- but the software had to blow people’s minds. System 1.0 and its co-conspirator Finder formed the core of the software; the layer upon which programs would run. If it didn’t work, the Macintosh would have died a bloody and devastating death. (And Apple with it.)
Apple’s engineers wanted to change the world; to “put a dent in the Universe.” That was the purpose of the Macintosh: why aim for good when you can have “insanely great” -- something that will shape the future and dominate the present. They were backed by the uncompromising vision of Steve Jobs, the graphic design talent of Susan Kare, and the programming brilliance of Bill Atkinson, who designed and implemented QuickDraw -- the “toolbox” that formed the core of the Macintosh GUI. They were, quite simply, trying to make a computer for everyone at a time when computers weren’t really designed for anyone -- not even the computer scientists, businessmen, and hobbyists that adopted them so enthusiastically.
System 1.0 introduced many people to the idea of a virtual desktop and the concepts and objects that are considered integral to that experience. Most people had no idea what a mouse was, let alone how to use one. Consequently, dragging and dropping, double clicking, and selecting files -- all of which we tend to do without thinking today -- were alien concepts. Apple’s engineers had the uneasy task of introducing much of the world to the GUI-based, mouse-gestured computing experience.
While the result was far from flawless, it was nevertheless impressive. So much so, in fact, that many journalists given a chance to try the Macintosh around the time of its release wrote of their awe. (It should be noted that some offered harsh criticism in lieu of awe.) The March 1984 issue of Popular Science described the Mac as “a remarkable machine, leapfrogging what has gone before it,” before writer Jim Schefter discussed its versatility and power as a faster and easier-to-use alternative to the IBM PC, which faced only the challenge of IBM’s marketing muscle in achieving success. Neil Shapiro wrote in the May 1984 issue of Popular Mechanics that the Macintosh was the computer that people should buy, citing its ease of use and impressive graphics and software as reason. Writing in the March 26, 1984 issue of InfoWorld, Thomas Neudecker described the Macintosh as “the summation of hundreds of tiny details, each superbly executed,” and “the one machine with the potential to challenge IBM’s hold on the market,” although Robert Nichols (in the same issue) worried that the machine’s “cuteness” might turn off many potential buyers because, despite its impressive capabilities, “It just does not project the image of being a capable business computer.” (How right he was.) Bruce F. Webster’s review in Byte praised the Mac in spite of its shortcomings as “a breakthrough in adapting computers to work with people instead of vice versa.”
A Revolutionary Interface
Apple devised The Finder -- a special kind of program that ran as a layer between the system and other applications -- as the model of the desktop metaphor. It launched automatically on startup, and presented the user with a virtual desktop, which featured icons that represented files and folders, a cursor for selecting objects, and a menu at the top of the screen for more advanced actions. Icons could be dragged around and dropped into folders (although at this point folders were nothing more than an abstraction) or onto applications. You didn’t need to remember any typed commands or file paths; every task could be accomplished with mouse and/or keyboard gestures that were visually represented on-screen. Keyboard shortcuts were the same for all applications, while the File and Edit menus were likewise universal. An Apple menu, conveniently located in the top left corner (where it could be quickly and easily accessed at all times), dropped down to show the seven “desk accessories” that came with the system. Copied text or images went into the “Scrapbook.” A calculator and note pad performed the same function as their real-life counterparts, while a simple alarm clock, a puzzle, and a “Key Caps” accessory were of little practical use. The final desk accessory was the “Control Panel,” which let you tweak the appearance of the desktop background, change the volume, adjust keyboard and mouse sensitivity, and modify the speed at which the text cursor or selected menu command blinks. Curiously, the Control Panel had no text labels whatsoever -- users were left to figure out the functions of each element by a mixture of experimentation and interpreting the small graphical labels.
Unlike the Lisa, which represented the mouse cursor with a small, translucent square, the Macintosh used a black arrow, with the point hovering directly over the pixel that was the cursor’s internal position. A separate tutorial disk called Mousing Around came with System 1, aimed at teaching users the basics of controlling a mouse -- including very simple tasks such as a single click or moving the cursor, as well as more complex tasks such as click-and-drag or double- and triple-clicking.
There was no use having a revolutionary operating system and bundled software if nobody knew how to use them. Everything that could be done to ease the transition to the world of desktop computing was attempted, from explicit tutorials like Mousing Around to more subtle elements of the interface such as visual cues and button or menu placement. Apple even commissioned graphic designer Susan Kare to create icons and assist with the look and feel of the system. The result was a consistent user interface that oozed personality, with the more memorable icons including Happy Mac (boot-up icon for “everything’s fine”), Sad Mac (boot-up icon for a hardware failure), the trash can, and the bomb icon (displayed inside the system error alert box).
From a technical standpoint, System 1 was advanced but with some serious issues. Most importantly, it had no memory protection (a feature that would not arrive until OS X), which meant that a program crash would take down the entire system -- and with no measures in place to handle memory leak this was a too-common occurrence. The system also lacked a hierarchical file system -- everything was stored in a flat file system, which had just one level. This means that folders were nothing more than an illusion. The appropriately named Hierarchical File System was introduced as a replacement in September 1985. The shutdown command did not arrive until System 2.0, making for a sometimes frightening process of turning off the computer (for fear of data loss).
Perhaps the biggest problem with System 1, however, was the Macintosh itself, which could barely handle the memory requirements with its paltry 128 KB of RAM. Accounts of ridiculous slowness were commonplace until System 1.1 and the more reasonably-equipped Macintosh 512K superseded the original model several months later, fixing a major bug in the Finder and the serious memory issues, respectively.
Yet System 1 was an incredible feat of engineering. The entire system, including the Finder, took just 216 kilobytes of space, which is several orders of magnitude smaller than any version of OS X. Bill Atkinson, creator of the QuickDraw graphics API used by System 1, managed to write code that could draw circles and ovals quickly on the 68000 processor used by the Macintosh (which didn’t support floating point operations and so could not efficiently use the standard square root method). With some clever adjustments, this allowed the Macintosh to display rectangles with rounded corners -- another of the little touches of personality found in the user interface. Windows could be moved around, overlapped, scrolled through, and resized at will. Multiple fonts and text sizes could be displayed on-screen simultaneously, allowing for what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) document editing. And documents could be saved with descriptive filenames up to 255 characters in length. All of this was visible on a (comparatively) high-resolution bit-mapped screen. Just in these features, System 1 was nothing short of a revolution for home and office computing, which still toiled in the realms of DOS prompts and plain-text word processing.
Whereas Lisa came with a full suite of powerful office applications, System 1 and the Macintosh were initially bundled with just two productivity apps: MacPaint and MacWrite. Apple had learned from its mistake in making the Lisa’s bundled software too powerful for 3rd-party developers to carve out a meaningful niche, and offered these programs as a mere starting point for users, who would need to buy software to fill the rest of their needs. MacWrite was a standard word processor (with the bonus that it was GUI-driven and WYSIWYG, unlike most of its contemporaries), and MacPaint was a remarkably powerful drawing program, which pushed the hardware to its limits with its advanced features -- including a lasso tool, a magnification mode (FatBits) that zoomed to individual pixels, and the ability to export graphics to other applications. Other 1st-party software became available a little later, including MacDraw, which could be used for creating geometric shapes and adding a little text, alongside 3rd-party applications such as Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word.
In their essence, the Mac OS and Finder have remained largely unchanged since these early days (at least on the front-end). The Finder looks much the same and is still the first thing you see when booting is complete. It still runs as a separate program, on top of the OS, which can launch other programs, traverse the file system, and organise your files and folders. Mac computers today still have a menubar at the top of the screen, with drop-down “Apple” and “File” menus visible no matter what the application, and “Edit,” “View,” and “Help” menus visible for most programs. And you can still eject disks by dragging their icon to the trash. (Although it actually made sense back then, where ejecting a disk, which was done with a separate command, left a grayed-out icon for that disk on the Desktop, because its contents were cached to improve performance on disk-swapping, and the grayed-out icon could be dragged to the trash to clear that cache. The two actions could be combined by dragging the icon straight to the trash, without first performing the eject command.)
It’s hard to say how successful System 1 actually was, given that on the one hand uptake was slow while on the other Apple’s competitors scrambled to copy its innovations. Apple’s concern about the Mac being labelled a toy led to the discouragement of games for the system, but it was somewhat ironically called a “graphics toy” by business people, who doubted its ability to run high-end business software (such as relational databases), and scoffed at its attractive design. As a result, the Macintosh struggled to make a mark outside of graphical design and publishing, and only really changed computing for a majority of users indirectly (by influencing the development of Microsoft Windows). But System 1 was nonetheless groundbreaking. WIthout it, the world may have become a very different place. It didn’t take over the world, but it certainly put a dent in the universe. And for that it should be remembered as truly “revolutionary.”
- The Macintosh Way, Guy Kawasaki
- Insanely Great, Steven Levy
- Apple Confidential 2.0, Owen Linzmayer
- Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made, Andy Hertzfeld
- GUIdebook's Macintosh GUI article archive
- Making the Macintosh: Technology and Culture in Silicon Valley