The 1984 Apple Macintosh — How Does It Look Today?

Dmitrii Eliuseev

9 hours ago·7 min read

Nowadays everybody knows MacBook or iMac. But when the first “Mac” was released, and what did it look like? Let’s test it and figure it out.

Hardware

In 1984 the Apple company was not a beginner on the market. The previous Apple II model had been on sale for several years. It had a sort of primitive OS, based on the BASIC programming language and the minimum ability to work with disks and files, but the computer was cheaper than its competitors and, unlike CP/M machines, had the ability to display graphics. The next model, Apple Lisa, was too expensive ($ 9,995 price in 1983, or $ 25,811 equivalent nowadays). It did not become popular but probably allowed Apple developers to tune and improve their new graphics-based UI. And finally, in 1984, the hero of this article, the Apple Macintosh was released.

© https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macintosh_128K

The computer had a $ 2,495 price ($ 6,140 nowadays) and had the following specs:

  • 7.8 MHz Motorola 68000 CPU
  • 128 KB RAM (512 KB in later models)
  • 9″ 512×342 monochrome display

It’s hard to find the Apple Macintosh now in working condition, but everybody can easily investigate how it works using the emulator. And I actually recommend readers, who are interested, to do so— booting the real system from the real disk image will get you a much better experience than watching any video or reading an article like this one.

Emulation Setup

There are several ways to test Apple Macintosh on your PC. The easiest one is to use an online emulator that can run directly in the browser. It actually works good, but the web browser obviously does not allow to install of any other software, different from a choice by the web page author. Those, who want more, should use the full-fledged simulator on their PC. There are several emulators available, and the easiest to use, in my opinion, is the Mini vMac. To run it on the PC, several components required:

  • The simulator itself.
  • The Apple Macintosh ROM image (file with the name “vmac.rom”, it has about 128 KB size). The author of the simulator did not include it for legal reasons, but the image can easily be found online. The file should be placed in the same folder where the simulator is located.
  • The boot disk image file (I used System 5.0 and System 7.1 images from this page).

Then we can start the simulator and get the “disk” logo:

Our “virtual macintosh” is running, but it cannot find the system disk. In the File menu, we should select the “Open Disk Image…” command, choose the boot image file, and the Apple Macintosh is ready to use.

Now we are ready to start. Different disk images can be found online and opened in the simulator using the same “Open Disk Image” command.

OS

The main screen, we get after the boot, looks like this:

Just to get the idea of how big was the improvement, the previous model Apple II had only a text-based console interface:

Probably Apple did not make the new UI from scratch, and they reused some ideas from Xerox Alto, but it’s not 100% clear today. Anyway, from the user perspective, the improvement was game-changing.

The “System 5.0” OS, displayed on the first screenshot, has a sort of limited functionality, but later some remarkable features were added. As an example, users were able to switch between apps (I am not sure if apps could really work in the background, or only switching between programs was possible). I can draw a picture in the image editor and have the text file to be opened in another app:

Some UI components, like the Apple logo, the “Finder” app or the “Trash” bin, still exist today in modern OS X. But Apple Macintosh had no command-line support at all, and working with files and folders was in my opinion, a bit awkward (and it keeps not better on iPhones even today, by the way). There was also no right mouse click support at all — first Apple Mouse had only one button:

And last but not least. It’s fun to see the system with a pretty complicated UI, that is able to work on a computer with 512 KB of RAM. Now, just a Windows Calculator requires about 20 MB, and the Chrome browser, where I type this text, shows about 2 GB of memory in use.

Software

Of course, when the first Apple Macintosh was released, the number of apps was limited, just because the system was new, but during the time situation become better.

It is interesting to see, that Microsoft was pretty active in making the software for Macintosh. The first version of Microsoft Excel was made for Mac, and was never released for MS-DOS:

Text editing also changed drastically. Even the idea of “Copy” and “Paste” of different objects is still in use today. I can make a drawing in the image editor:

And then paste this image into another program:

It’s also fun to see that Adobe Photoshop UI did not change drastically within almost 40 years:

There was no layers support, but lot’s of commands and menus are still in the same place today:

The number of supported formats is less than now:

There was no PNG or JPEG support yet, but TIFF and GIF formats were already existing.

Programming

The BASIC command line was not available more after the system boot, but users were able to install and run BASIC as a standalone app.

Let’s display all prime numbers from 1 to 1000:

It’s not a fully-fledged IDE yet, but it looks much better than before. Another popular programming language at that time was Pascal:

The program looks archaic with these bulky begin-end statements, and even more, the interpreter (I think, it’s not a compiler yet) is a bit buggy. I had to use the “r” variable to store the range, because the statement for p:=2 to (x-1) simply does not work. And for an unknown reason, using the break to exit the loop also gives en error.

Games

Finally, let’s test some games. I don’t think that Apple Macintosh was popular for gaming, paying attention to the $ 2,500 price, but some games for this platform were made.

This is not a 3D Shooter, but the graphics look not bad. This game was not working properly in the simulator, so I was not able to figure out, what should I do:

The idea of the next game looks strange for me, a sort of Arkanoid but with the bricks on the opposite side:

This is a sort of text quest:

The graphics of this Checkers game looks not bad:

It also looks that the idea of shooting something with a cannon appeared long before Angry Birds:

Conclusion

It was really exciting for me to test the Apple Macintosh system. The main question, I still have now, is why this system did not become popular —despite the UI and software capabilities were about 5-10 years ahead. Just to show the idea, MS-DOS users were able to use long file names only in Windows 95, and that is what Mac users already had several years before:

Why it did not become the mainstream? Actually, I don’t know the answer, readers can think about it on their own. I can only guess that IBM PC machines in the 80s were cheaper (about $ 1,500 vs $ 2,500 for Mac), and as I can suspect, Apple’s monochrome display was outdated already in the 80s. And in general, Apple UI was really ahead of the time and hardware capabilities. Working with many open windows is cool nowadays on the 28″ 4K monitor, but not on the 9″ CRT screen with 512×342 resolution. Actually, there were not so many tasks, where multitasking was really needed. But anyway, I am absolutely sure, that Apple UI had a huge influence on the PC industry and inspired many developers for improvements on other platforms.

Thanks for reading. Those who are interested in computers history are welcome to read other articles:

  1. Apple II (1979)
  2. CP/M (1979)
  3. Altair 8800 (1975)

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