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The Mac turns 30: a visual history

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In addition to everything else, the first Macintosh was funny. On January 24th, 1984, 30 years ago today, Steve Jobs first revealed the computer he’d been talking about so much onstage at the Flint Center at DeAnza College in Cupertino, and he let it speak for itself.

27-year-old Jobs was all but unrecognizable from the turtleneck-wearing, polished presenter he would become. With long black hair, a gray suit that appears too large, and a green bow tie, he looks like a hippie dressed up for a relative’s wedding. As he unzips an odd, cooler-sized bag and pulls out a Macintosh with one hand, he appears less confident than relieved. Even moments before he took the stage, then-CEO John Sculley told CNET, Jobs was panicked: “I’m scared shitless,” he told Sculley. “This is the most important moment of my life.”

But as the word “MACINTOSH” scrolled slowly across its 9-inch screen, as Jobs stood smiling while the Chariots of Fire theme song accompanied pictures of a calculator and a primitive drawing application, as the crowd of Apple investors went suitably insane, Jobs just smiled and began to talk more about the boxy beige computer he believed would change everything.

Now, with the benefit of 30 years’ hindsight, Jobs may have been right. Macs no longer cost $2,495; they no longer weigh 22 pounds; and changing font sizes isn’t exactly noteworthy anymore. But Apple’s vision for how a computer should work, and more importantly how it should fit into our lives, hasn’t changed a bit in the last 30 years. The first Mac ads told us to "try the computer you already know how to use," and though that promise lives on mosty intact in iOS, Apple’s never stopped making computers for real people.

When Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh in 1984, he wasn’t just introducing a computer. He was introducing an ethos, a promise to users. He was introducing Apple. Which he'd do over and over again for much of the next three decades.

Just as Apple’s first decades revolved around Steve Jobs, a radically different company in his presence and his absence, so too did the Mac. In 1984, the device was the first of its kind — a graphical user interface that was easy to understand, combined with cutting-edge design. Consumer Reports raved about the Mac. "The combination of mouse, pull-down menus, windows, and icons is more than a dazzling display of technical wizardry," it said, but a clever and simple system. "The Macintosh … is charting a simpler and more accessible path to computing — a path that almost allows you to abandon the notion that you are using a computer rather than accomplishing a task with a tool."

Byte’s Gregg Williams boldly claimed that the Macintosh would change PCs forever, that it brought us "one step closer to the ideal of computer as appliance."

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Consumer Reports noted that by the time you installed the operating system, the Mac’s 128KB of memory left it with just enough space for 8.5 typewritten pages. Loading a similar document took 27 seconds. It didn’t have color graphics or much in the way of software. Other reviewers lamented that it wasn’t expandable, incompatible with MS-DOS, that it was monochrome, and only had one storage option: microfloppy. But for everything it was and wasn’t, nearly everyone agreed it looked something like the future. Even Bill Gates. "The next generation of interesting software," he told BusinessWeek, "will be done on Macintosh, not the IBM PC."

Jobs said in his introduction that Apple had been working on the Macintosh for two years. In the next 30, it did much more. Apple changed an industry, lost its way for a while, and then found it again. It made dozens of models, many quickly forgotten and a few long remembered. These are some of the best, coolest, strangest, and most important Macs of the last three decades.

(Note: many of these photos are courtesy of Jonathan Zufi, whose website Shrine of Apple and book Iconic chronicle Apple's history.)