Don't look Mac in anger: 20 years of change for Apple

15th Jun 2013 | 09:00

Don't look Mac in anger: 20 years of change for Apple

The highs and lows of the the most powerful tech company in the world

In 1993, Future Publishing (which also publishes TechRadar) launched MacFormat magazine. There were lots of good reasons to launch an Apple magazine back then. In retrospect, though, MacFormat was launched just as Apple was about to enter one of the most confused, creatively bankrupt and turgid periods of its history.

These were the infamous years exemplified by CEO Gil Amelio. Though Amelio did some good stuff at Apple - not least buying ousted co-founder Steve Jobs' NeXT, which became the foundation of OS X - the mid-90s were worrying days for Apple.

The habit of never mentioning Apple without the prefix 'beleagured' began at this time, and it's easy to see why. Not only was its share price suffering - by October of 1993, it dropped to a third of the value it had started the year with - but this period saw the Mac line-up balloon in complexity.

This was also the time when PCs started to actually get good. The release of Windows 95 that year was a genuine catalyst for change, however much we might complain that it copied Mac OS. Worse, Macs started to fall behind in power, but much more fatally they began to lose the magic that differentiated them from beige Wintel boxes.

Then came the G3 chip, and Apple got some attitude again. It was soon followed by the iMac, and we could all see that Apple was back.

We want to show how Apple's products, its attitudes and its fortunes have changed in the 20 years that MacFormat has been here to cover them, so we've picked some things that exemplify these shifts.

It's by no means a definitive history of Apple since 1993. Rather, it's a selective look back at 11 things that for us represent how the slick, powerful and successful company we know today came to be.

1. Newton MessagePad

Apple's original tablet computer (prototypes notwithstanding) was introduced the same year MacFormat launched. You might be tempted to point and giggle at its monochrome screen, its heft, its stylus even, and scoff at how primitive it looks next to the iPad mini. But the whole Newton system wasn't just prescient, it was ahead of its time. Even today it's still a delightful, characterful thing to use.

2. iPad mini

iPad Mini

It's amazing to see how far technology has come in just two decades. It's not only the obvious stuff, either; Wi-Fi, cameras, battery capacities, materials technologies, the internet - all have either improved almost beyond recognition or were unheard of in 1993.

The biggest expansion storage card you could add to a MessagePad at the time was 4MB - over 4,000 times less than even the smallest iPad mini. That might become less relevant in another 20 years as we move to cloud storage.

What's the best cloud storage? We pit Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs iCloud

3. Apple peripherals

Apple printers

Now that Apple has a pretty tight focus on its products, it's easy to forget that it once made a wide range of traditional computer peripherals. Well, we say Apple made them, but it often just slapped on a logo.

For example, the first consumer digital camera, 1994's QuickTake 100, was actually made by Kodak, while Fujifilm made the QuickTake 200. For inkjet printers, Apple partnered with Canon initially, though the Color StyleWriter 4500, with its separate tri-colour and black cartidges, was made by Hewlett Packard.

4. ClarisWorks

claris works

We've included ClarisWorks here mostly so that Mac users of a certain vintage among us can go a bit dewey-eyed and distant as we lovingly reminisce. This was Apple's office suite, the spiritual ancestor of iWork, and it's held in a position of great affection by many people.

It was actually remarkably rich and capable. For example, you could mix elements from the different modules with comparative ease, pasting something from the drawing module onto a database, say. And do you remember Publish and Subscribe? It let you place a live document inside another, keeping it up to date when it changed.

5. Lots of uniform, bland beige boxes

The Power Macintosh 6500 from 1997 is a good example of the era in which Apple's line-up was drab, complicated and uninspiring. It's not just how it looks that's underwhelming; even though this was the first mainstream desktop to reach 300MHz, its PowerPC 603e processor was never a strong CPU for desktop computers.

Worse, it was when Apple released essentially the same computers in a range of confusing configurations, in part thanks to the Performa initiative: Apple strove to create computers that appealed to consumers, but the differences between Performas and their equivalents was often minimal - sometimes it was just the bundled software that distinguished them.

6. The puck mouse

Apple Puck Mouse

Apple is rightly lauded as being a company that gets design. Design, as Steve Jobs famously said, is not how something looks; it's how it works. It's more akin to most people's definition of engineering than they realise.

But even Apple has its missteps, and the mouse it introduced alongside the original iMac was one of the worst. Not only was the round shape uncomfortable to hold, because it was symmetrical it was too easy for it to rotate in your hand. It was such a problem that companies made adapters that clipped on to transform it into a more traditional mouse shape!

7. Easy upgrading

expansion

In most cases these days, we're forced to accept that the Macs and iOS devices we buy are essentially sealed systems. That's good in some ways - it allows Apple to tightly optimise the space inside its devices, and frankly, for most people the out-of-the-box experience is good enough without the need to add anything extra.

But we can't help missing case designs like this one, in which the bulky components swing up out of the way to let you access RAM, PCI slots, the hard disk and more.

8. The saviour of Apple

Saviour of Apple

Any history of Apple has to talk about the iMac's introduction in 1998. If you're ever asked to point to one device as the single thing that turned a company around, point to the iMac.

It was introduced by original Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on his return after being kicked out by the board in 1985. It didn't just mark a return to a focused product line, it also became an example of how Apple is happy to piss people off if it thinks it's doing the right thing. Witness here the adoption of USB and the ditching of floppy drives, for example.

9. Progress can leave good stuff behind

iMac G4

The current iMac is, of course, a beautiful and powerful thing. But for our money, nothing has equalled the charm of the iMac G4. Its rotating, pivoting, Anglepoise lamp-like neck isn't only pretty and practical - no desktop Mac before or since has made it easier to swing the display around to share funny cat videos with colleagues - because you can adjust its height (unlike modern iMacs), it's also a much better design ergonomically. We miss you, iMac G4!

10. Computing 3.0

Computing 3.0

A computer used to be a person who did calculations, and then it came to mean one of the big, complex, intimidating machines that specialists could program for number-crunching.

Thanks to its mouse and graphical user interface, the original Macintosh's introduction in 1984 saw a fundamental shift to computers that the rest of us could use. And with the iPhone and iPad, now Apple's defining the conversation about the next major shift in computing: into our pockets.

11. The halo effect

iPod nano

People laughed at the original iPod. It was expensive, and nobody could really see the point. Then came the iPod mini, and everyone laughed at it too; it wasn't much cheaper and had much less storage. But it was cheap enough, and soon rocketing sales meant people weren't laughing any more.

What's more, once people got an iPod, they learned how good Apple stuff is; and when they came to buy their next laptop…

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