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The Birth of the Mac: Rolling Stone's 1984 Feature on Steve Jobs and his Whiz Kids

When Apple's Macintosh took on IBM, 'the Darth Vader of the digital world'

October 6, 2011 2:50 PM ET
steve jobs apple macintosh 1984
Steve Jobs, Chairman of Apple Computers, and John Sculley, Apple's president pose with the new Macintosh personal computer in New York.
Marilyn K. Yee/New York Times Co./Getty Images

This the future of computing.

Here in Silicon Valley, there is a room ringed with nondescript cubicles. Each contains a small, beige box not much bigger than two shoe boxes stood on end, a box that emanates a whitish glow of a nine-inch video display. The box is a computer called Macintosh, and the people who sit in the carpeted commons in the center of the room are some of its designers. They call themselves pirates. On the wall is a skull-and-bones pirate flag; one of the skeleton's eyes has been replaced by the rainbow-colored Apple Computer logo.

They are ten weary computer wizards. Average age: well under thirty. Standard dress: blue jeans and T-shirt. Standard look in the eyes: crazed by fatigue. One of the wizards, blond-haired, twenty-two-year-old Randy Wigginton, has been riding the fluctuations in the word-processing program he's been writing for Apple Computer's messianic new machine for over two years. Now that it is two weeks from his absolutely, positively final deadline, his face has the dull pallor of a torture victim. His tormentors are two cheerful software hackers, dressed in shorts and hiking boots, who, at this intolerably late date, are blithely revamping the part of the computer operating system called "the Finder."

Despite the looming deadline, things are upbeat. For many of the wizards, the bulk of the work is done. Burrell Smith, designer of the digital guts of the new computer, is already working on his next Apple project. Two key wizards who masterminded the "ROM" – the program on a chip that contains much of the magic within the computer – are here, but now they're assisting with software debugging. The industrial designer who originally drafted the computer's simple profile is checking out the first run of casings from Apple's completely automated $20 million factory.

But the Finder, the part of the computer that greets the user and finds files, is not yet done. And if it doesn't get done, the programs won't work right, Macintosh will be seen as a dud, and Apple Computer – the one corporate nexus of vision and capitalism, the dream company of the Eighties – could turn into a nightmare for the billion-dollar firm's employees and investors. Worse, the personal-computer industry would then be dominated – lock, stock and microprocessor – by IBM, the Darth Vader of the digital world.

This is the showdown at the Silicon Corral, and Apple has only one bullet left in its chamber against IBM's well-funded arsenal. That bullet is Macintosh. Steve Jobs, the twenty-eight-year-old multimillionaire chairman of Apple's board of directors, has staked his reputation (and the value of his approximately 7 million Apple shares) on the machine. He describes the situation: "It's kind of like watching the gladiator going into the arena and saying, 'Here it is.' It's really perceived as Apple's do or die. And it goes even deeper... If we don't do this, nobody can stop IBM."

Randy Wiggington, one of Jobs' wizards, is more succinct: "The whole company is on the line. It's put up or shut up."

Apple made a $400,000 tv Commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. The ad, in washed-out gray tones, shows rows and rows of emaciated men with shaved heads, dressed in the faded pajamas of concentration camps. Inside a large auditorium, a Big Brother type on a projection screen drones on about the triumphs of the electronic age. This scene is intercut with flashes of a stunning young woman in red gym shorts, sprinting like an Olympian and holding a sledgehammer. She rushes into the auditorium, swings the rope attached to the sledgehammer and flings it toward the screen. Everything explodes in fiery light; the mouths of the stunned masses drop open in astonishment. There is transcendent, blazing chaos. Then the screen goes black, and these words appear:

On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'

Can a $2500 computer, weighing under twenty pounds and taking up no more desk space than a piece of paper, change the world? Improve your life? Foil Orwell's prophecies? Save Apple from the clutches of IBM?

For your answer, meet Macintosh. Put in a three-and-a-half-inch disc, plug in the keyboard and the "mouse" – the palm-sized device that moves a dark pointer around the screen – and flick on the machine. That act alone may dispel your doubts

If you have had any prior experience with personal computers, what you might expect to see is some sort of opaque code, called a "prompt," consisting of phosphorescent green or white letters on a murky background. What you see with Macintosh is the Finder. On a pleasant, light background (you can later change the background to any of a number of patterns, if you like), little pictures called "icons" appear, representing choices available to you. A word-processing program might be represented by a pen, while the program that lets you draw pictures might have a paintbrush icon. A file would represent stored documents – book reports, letters, legal briefs and so forth. To see a particular file, you'd move the mouse, which would, in turn, move the cursor to the file you wanted. You'd tap a button on the mouse twice, and the contents of the file would appear on the screen: dark on light, just like a piece of paper.

This seems simple, but most personal computers (including the IBM PC) can't do this.

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