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Thursday, January 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Apple's groundbreaking computer marks 20th anniversary

By Glenn Fleishman
Special to The Seattle Times

PAUL SAKUMA / AP
Steve Jobs, Apple Computer chairman, shows off a new product, the Macintosh personal computer, at a company board meeting in January 1984. Priced at $2,495, the Mac took on IBM in the PC market.
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In 1997, Apple Computer tried to celebrate its 20th anniversary by releasing a limited edition 20th-anniversary computer.

But the machine arrived a year after the actual anniversary of the first Apple computer's release, and it cost $10,000, which included its delivery by limousine and a personal technician who set the thing up.

Add to that the sour note of the occasion coming at a time Apple had suffered a billion-dollar loss and years of straying from its innovative roots.

Today, as Apple celebrates another 20-year milestone, the Cupertino, Calif., company has come full circle, with regular profits, the leading online music store and player, and piles of cash on hand.

Twenty years ago, Apple started taking orders for its first Macintosh computers, boosted by the legendary "1984" television commercial that aired on Jan. 22, 1984, during the Super Bowl.

APPLE COMPUTER
Apple's memorable "1984" television commercial, aired during the Super Bowl that year, introducing the Macintosh to the public.
The 60-second spot featured a gray Orwellian nightmare of drab workers passively watching a giant screen on which a Big Brother figure spouts lines like: "Today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive." A woman wearing a Macintosh-logo singlet and red shorts runs in and flings a hammer at the screen, which then erupts in an outpouring of white light. The commercial ends with words about how "1984 won't be like '1984.' "

Considered one of the most memorable commercials ever, it announced what Apple was introducing: a computer that brought a mouse, graphical (as opposed to text) interface and laser printer together in one of the most profound combinations since a modem, thermal printer and scanner were crammed into a fax machine.

Apple didn't invent any of the underlying technologies but it packaged them in an appealing product at a price people were willing to pay.

"We did feel like we were on a mission to change the world," said Bud Tribble, an original Mac system-and-interface developer. "We felt that this was a better way to do computing. It was revolutionary at the time of command-line interfaces."

PAUL SAKUMA / AP
Some of the first Macintosh computers shown on the assembly line in 1984 at Apple's manufacturing plant in Milpitas, Calif.
The Macintosh didn't look like any other computer, nor had but a few people outside academic circles ever touched a mouse or used a graphical interface. The commercial is etched in public memory, even though it had just two paid airings, because the uniformity and bleakness of personal computing rang so true.

Over the next 20 years, Apple moved from being the first to deliver a combination of features in software and hardware toward direct competition with Intel, Microsoft and IBM.

It initially found enormous market share and profit margins, particularly in the home and academia. Its challenge came as a court decision unleashed a wave of IBM PC clones that used cheaper hardware and Microsoft shipped version after version of Windows that would work on any of these commodity devices.

Apple fought back clone attempts through custom circuit manufacture, and it refused to license its technology until the mid-1990s but was unable to drop both costs and margins.

Analyst Tim Bajarin, president of California-based Creative Strategies, has followed Apple for most of its existence. He said the company was saved from its worst missteps after co-founder Steve Jobs was forced out by helping to launch desktop publishing in the mid-1980s and defining computer-based multimedia in the 1990s.

AP
Steve Jobs unveils a stylish new iMac desktop computer with a flat screen at Macworld in San Francisco in January 2002.
Jobs' triumphant return had its seeds planted just after he left in 1985 and founded NeXT, which created a Unix-based operating system focused on graphic design and computation tasks. As Apple reeled from nearly $2 billion in losses over two years, it purchased NeXT in 1996.

Jobs became an Apple adviser in 1997 and took over. The NeXT operating system became the basis for Mac OS X, Apple's next-generation operating system.

Tribble left Apple along with Jobs to found NeXT and returned as a vice president in 2002. He sees Apple's current operating system and software approach as a vindication of the ideas planted in 1984 and nurtured at NeXT.

"Even though I was away for a time, I see an unbroken line," he said.

Apple sold just 3 percent of all computers in the United States last year, according to figures from market-research firm Gartner. But it has managed to introduce audiences to new technologies while turning a profit from a slow-growing core market that continues to buy new machines and peripherals.

Bajarin said Apple's fortunes depend in part on whether the company can extend its success with the iPod into other parts of home and portable entertainment. He noted that critics who had predicted Apple's demise had made one consistent mistake: "You can't bet against Steve Jobs."

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column in the Personal Technology section of The Seattle Times.


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