January 24, 2014 Last Updated 11:02 am

The Mac at 30: what publishers can learn about innovation, obsolescence, and persistence

The Macintosh went on sale for the first time on this day 30 years ago – January 24, 1984. Newspapers, magazines and tech sites will run down the history of the Apple product, probably spreading as much of the myth as the reality. But, as an Apple computer user, I too am a bit nostalgic when it comes to Apple Computer Inc.

It is a bit incredible to think that one would have to be around 50 years old or so to truly remember the early days of the consumer PC. When I moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1981 to work at Hearst’s Herald Examiner there were zero PCs to be found in the building, one front end terminals for inputting editorial and classified advertising. Even all the ad billing was done on pieces of paper fed into mainframes.

In 1983 I bought my first PC, and Apple IIe, the freshly released update to the Apple II. I loved everything about it as I had made the big upgrade to buy two disk drives, not just one, so that I could run a program at the same time I could save a file! It cost a fortune and so I financed it and received an Apple credit card, which I still keep.

apple1984mac-featureThe Mac was released the following year, and like the iPhone in 2007, I failed to immediately see what the big deal was. I wanted my Apple PC for better typing, not to play around with programs.

When the ad director of the Herald Examiner first brought in a PC, probably in ’84, it was a big deal. The Compaq computer sat on a desk all by itself and no one was allowed to touch it – even its owner, who was too afraid to even turn the thing on. When word was received that I owned a PC myself I was brought in to be the wizard that could make the thing do magic.

It was not until I joined McGraw-Hill in San Francisco in 1991 that I worked in an environment where desktop publishing was being employed properly. Our production staff all worked on Macs, probably at first Mac Classics then LC series Macs. McGraw-Hill at that time budgeted for new computers every year and so there was always an older Mac lying around. One found its way onto my desk in 1992 – that was the first Mac I worked with every day as that old Apple IIe was still my “home computer”.

My first Mac that I bought for myself was a Performa Series. That underpowered Mac was what I used when I built a massive membership directory using QuarkXpress in 1995. From that time on I tried to keep up to date regarding desktop publishing so that I could communicate effectively with not only my editors and sales people, but the art directors and production managers, as well. As a publisher, I believed, I needed to be technologically savvy, since publishing had become a very tech dependent profession – or so I believed.

Did you notice something about the story above? The PCs changed over time. Today, 30 years after the Mac went sale, we can talk about all the different model Macs Apple introduced, how the company has evolved from strictly a computer company to a consumer electronics company. Today there are still Macs, I am writing this post on one now. But next to my Mac is an iPad, a Kindle Fire, an iPhone.

The products have changed, yet we still talk of “Macs”. Yet many publishers still think of their products as they might have 30 years ago – as the same words on paper product that has always existed. Sure, the pages have been redesigned, but what they basically sell is that collection of paper pages.

Am I wrong? Look inside LinkedIn and read the questions being asked by publishers concerning digital. They rarely ask how to create new digital products, they ask how they can get their print products onto an iPad. They ask which PDF vendor is better at making their paper product into a digital one. For them, the perfect digital publication is one that would be indistinguishable from the print product. (I fear that one day these publishers will be launching replica editions onto smart watches.)

Tech people know that Apple wants to sell hardware. But for Apple, software is actually the product. Macs, iPads and iPhones will change, but the software is the base product. This may seem odd, doesn’t the software get updated all the time, with a major update each year? Yes. But OS X and iOS are the key. If Apple introduces OS XI it will be a massive event, far bigger in importance than that year’s new iPhone model.

For publishers, their software is the content – the features, news, commentary they produce. The hardware is the end product – the print and digital products consumers buy. The content is actually free, just like Apple offers its Mac and iPhone software for free (that is a new development on the Mac side of things).

Today many publishers are frustrated with the commercial success of their tablet editions. I can understand, I have been terribly disappointed that so few TNM readers have expressed any interest in our Tablet Publishing magazine app. I’ve probably received a hundred requests for promo codes, $3.99 being deemed too much to pay for a digital magazine, even one about their industry.

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It might be good to remind publishers that the first Macs received only mixed reviews: it had too little RAM (and so was underpowered), it had only a single floppy drive (even my Apple IIe had two) and obviously no hard drive (a computer without a hard drive!), the system was monochrome (no color monitor), it didn’t work with MS-DOS (though that was the point).

In fact, Mac sales, like iPhone sales in 2007, did not immediately explode. It took awhile. Now 30 years on, the brand we know of as “Mac” still exists, though it does not run the same software, does not look the same, does not have the same hardware components. (In fact, when Apple dumped floppy drives everyone went crazy – how could they do that? Then they dropped CD drives – again, are they crazy?)

Likewise, some media observers dissed the iPad, as well. One media guru, who today speaks at media events and advises one large newspaper company, said “I simply don’t see a good use for the machine.” He then went on to insult anyone who defended the iPad as a “fanboy”.

So the lesson to take from the Mac is not that one should launch a product, then shove it down the throats of consumers for 30 years, but that one should not be afraid to innovate, even if that means changing your product beyond recognition, or launching new ones that eat into the sales of your old one. We celebrate 30 years of the Mac not because we have 30 year old Macs on our desk, but because of what it launched, how it changing things, and how its spirit of innovation has carried on to today.

30 years after the first Macs went on sale, loyal Apple customers constantly ask the company what new products they will have to offer, what new experiences will the company offer us, what surprises lay in store? Shouldn’t readers have the same expectations of us, as well.


Lots of sites will be featuring the famous 1984 commercial, shown first during the Super Bowl. But the Mac was actually introduced at Apple’s annual sales conference in October 1983. That is the video that really gets me (listen to that music!). It was actually at that event that the commercial was shown publicly.

Here is Apple’s own video celebrating 30 years of the Mac.

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