The Macintosh

Today is its 40th anniversary, but what is the Macintosh?

macintosh Wednesday January 24, 2024

A 4k ultrawide classic MacOS desktop screenshot featuring various Finder windows and MPW Workshop

Today is the 40th anniversary of the announcement of the Macintosh. Others have articulated compelling emotional narratives that easily eclipse my own similar childhood memories of the Macintosh family of computers. So instead, I will ask a question:

What is the Macintosh?

As this is the anniversary of the beginning, that is where I will begin. The original Macintosh, the classic MacOS, the original “System Software” are a shining example of “fake it till you make it”. The original mac operating system was fake.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an impressive technical achievement to fake something like this, but what Steve Jobs did was to see a demo of a Smalltalk-76 system, an object-oriented programming environment with 1-to-1 correspondences between graphical objects on screen and runtime-introspectable data structures, a self-hosting high level programming language, memory safety, message passing, garbage collection, and many other advanced facilities that would not be popularized for decades, and make a fake version of it which ran on hardware that consumers could actually afford, by throwing out most of what made the programming environment interesting and replacing it with a much more memory-efficient illusion implemented in 68000 assembler and Pascal.

The machine’s RAM didn’t have room for a kernel. Whatever application was running was in control of the whole system. No protected memory, no preemptive multitasking. It was a house of cards that was destined to collapse. And collapse it did, both in the short term and the long. In the short term, the system was buggy and unstable, and application crashes resulted in system halts and reboots.

In the longer term, the company based on the Macintosh effectively went out of business and was reverse-acquired by NeXT, but they kept the better-known branding of the older company. The old operating system was gradually disposed of, quickly replaced at its core with a significantly more mature generation of operating system technology based on BSD UNIX and Mach. With the removal of Carbon compatibility 4 years ago, the last vestigial traces of it were removed. But even as early as 2004 the Mac was no longer really the Macintosh.

What NeXT had built was much closer to the Smalltalk system that Jobs was originally attempting to emulate. Its programming language, “Objective C” explicitly called back to Smalltalk’s message-passing, right down to the syntax. Objects on the screen now did correspond to “objects” you could send messages to. The development environment understood this too; that was a major selling point.

The NeXSTEP operating system and Objective C runtime did not have garbage collection, but it provided a similar developer experience by providing reference-counting throughout its object model. The original vision was finally achieved, for real, and that’s what we have on our desks and in our backpacks today (and in our pockets, in the form of the iPhone, which is in some sense a tiny next-generation NeXT computer itself).


The one detail I will relate from my own childhood is this: my first computer was not a Mac. My first computer, as a child, was an Amiga. When I was 5, I had a computer with 4096 colors, real multitasking, 3D graphics, and a paint program that could draw hard real-time animations with palette tricks. Then the writing was on the wall for Commodore and I got a computer which had 256 colors, a bunch of old software that was still black and white, an operating system that would freeze if you held down the mouse button on the menu bar and couldn’t even play animations smoothly. Many will relay their first encounter with the Mac as a kind of magic, but mine was a feeling of loss and disappointment. Unlike almost everyone at the time, I knew what a computer really could be, and despite many pleasant and formative experiences with the Macintosh in the meanwhile, it would be a decade before I saw a real one again.

But this is not to deride the faking. The faking was necessary. Xerox was not going to put an Alto running Smalltalk on anyone’s desk. People have always grumbled that Apple products are expensive, but in 2024 dollars, one of these Xerox computers cost roughly $55,000.

The Amiga was, in its own way, a similar sort of fake. It managed its own miracles by putting performance-critical functions into dedicated hardware which rapidly became obsolete as software technology evolved much more rapidly.

Jobs is celebrated as a genius of product design, and he certainly wasn’t bad at it, but I had the rare privilege of seeing the homework he was cribbing from in that subject, and in my estimation he was a B student at best. Where he got an A was bringing a vision to life by creating an organization, both inside and outside of his companies.

If you want a culture-defining technological artifact, everybody in the culture has to be able to get their hands on one. This doesn’t just mean that the builder has to be able to build it. The buyer also has to be able to afford it, obviously. Developers have to be able to develop for it. The buyer has to actually want it; the much-derided “marketing” is a necessary part of the process of making a product what it is. Everyone needs to be able to move together in the direction of the same technological future.

This is why it was so fitting that Tim Cook was made Jobs's successor. The supply chain was the hard part.

The crowning, final achievement of Jobs’s career was the fact that not only did he fake it — the fakes were flying fast and thick at that time in history, even if they mostly weren’t as good — it was that he faked it and then he built the real version and then he bridged the transitions to get to the real thing.

I began here by saying that the Mac isn’t really the Mac, and speaking in terms of a point in time analysis that is true. Its technology today has practically nothing in common with its technology in 1984. This is not merely an artifact of the length of time here: the technology at the core of various UNIXes in 1984 bears a lot of resemblance of UNIX-like operating systems today1. But looking across its whole history from 1984 to 2024, there is undeniably a continuity to the conceptual “Macintosh”.

Not just as a user, but as a developer moving through time rather than looking at just a few points: the “Macintosh”, such as it is, has transitioned from the Motorola 68000 to the PowerPC to Intel 32-bit to Intel 64-bit to ARM. From obscurely proprietary to enthusiastically embracing open source and then, sadly, much of the way back again. It moved from black and white to color, from desktop to laptop, from Carbon to Cocoa, from Display PostScript to Display PDF, all the while preserving instantly recognizable iconic features like the apple menu and the cursor pointer, while providing developers documentation and SDKs and training sessions that helped them transition their apps through multiple near-complete rewrites as a result of all of these changes.


To paraphrase Abigail Thorne’s first video about Identity, identity is what survives. The Macintosh is an interesting case study in the survival of the idea of a platform, as distinct from the platform itself. It is the Computer of Theseus, a thought experiment successfully brought to life and sustained over time.

If there is a personal lesson to be learned here, I’d say it’s that one’s own efforts need not be perfect. In fact, a significantly flawed vision that you can achieve right now is often much, much better than a perfect version that might take just a little bit longer, if you don’t have the resources to actually sustain going that much longer2. You have to be bad at things before you can be good at them. Real artists, as Jobs famously put it, ship.

So my contribution to the 40th anniversary reflections is to say: the Macintosh is dead. Long live the Mac.


Acknowledgments

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  1. including, ironically, the modern macOS. 

  2. And that is why I am posting this right now, rather than proofreading it further.