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"Mac Is Back?" Hey, It Never Left. Macintosh Turns 25

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Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh at the Apple shareholders meeting in Cupertino, California 25 years ago today.

Whenever John McCain and his backers would start up one of their chants in the campaign that "Mac is back," I'd say, what the heck are they talking about? It's never left.

So here we are, 25 years to the day since Apple launched the Macintosh computer. And the Mac, unlike my old friend John McCain, is going as strong as ever, maybe even stronger. It hasn't taken over the world, as Steve Jobs hoped. But it's changed the face of computing in many ways, and is doing a lot better than any other computer in this global recession.

I'm a Mac guy since the '80s. I run what we laughingly call my operation, a one-person operation, that is, as a Mac shop. Two recent Apple laptops on a wireless network, with a six-year old iBook as an emergency back-up.

But it's deeper than that. I was there in Silicon Valley 25 years ago when the Macintosh was launched by Steve Jobs.

I was working with Senator Gary Hart then, and had gotten to know his backer and advisor, Apple's marketing and PR guru Regis McKenna (I later worked with him as assistant to the chairman at his firm). Regis, who came up with the Apple logo, told me that I really didn't want to miss the 1984 Apple shareholders' meeting. As usual, he was right.

Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) and the Chiat/Day agency's creative director Lee Clow produced this classic ad: 1984.

Two days earlier, Apple had spent a fortune for the one-time airing of the now legendary "1984" TV ad during the Super Bowl. But, for all its fight-the-establishment (then IBM) imagery, it hadn't actually shown the little 'puter outside some still photos.

Jobs rectified that two days later at the Apple Computer "campus" in Cupertino, as you can see in the video above.

There it was, looking a bit like R2-D2, talking away, flashing its crisp, 9-inch, black-and-white screen, "luggable," as the phrase went in those days, in a way that the IBM PC never was.

It was a remarkable day in a remarkable time.

I'd already gone off to Iowa to help Hart in what turned out to be his national breakthough, but had to return to California for this. The air in Cupertino was palpable with change, the atmosphere -- even though everyone was an Apple stockholder or staffer -- exactly like that before one of the blockbuster movie premieres of the era, a la Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The computer did not disappoint. It was a quantum leap forward beyond what was then on the market, though it took years to live up to its potential.

This viral mash-up ad for Barack Obama in 2007 shows the lasting iconic power of the 1984 spot and the Mac.

Apple, co-founded by the charismatic Jobs and the ever intriguing Steve Wozniak -- who I once left at breakfast with Gary Hart at the Fairmont Hotel as I went off to make a pay phone call only to return in the midst of them arguing over whether humanity was better off in the Neanderthal days -- was the first company to create a successful personal computer. That was the Apple II, Woz's late '70s invention, one of whose early adopters was then California Governor Jerry Brown. But IBM and Microsoft trumped that with the kludgier PC.

So Jobs determined to up the ante.

Which he and his team did. The Macintosh was the first computer to bring the graphical user interface to commercial computing. The Mac created desktop publishing, enabling people like me to work free of a huge corporate operation. On the strength of Macintosh, Apple went on to create the first handheld computer, the ahead of its time Newton, introduce the iPod and iTunes and transform the music business and online video, create the smallest full-featured notebook computer, and be a major design icon for decades. Amongst other things.

The Mac is truly an iconic product. (One of the original Macs sits on the hearth of my fireplace, beneath a Lichtenstein.)

But it is wildly underpowered by the standards of today.

Consider its specs upon its introduction.

It cost $2,495 ... Introduces the 32-bit 68000 CPU - Memory: 192k - ROM 64k - RAM: 128k - Introduces the 3.5" (400k) floppy disc as the "disc of the 80s" - RS232, RS422, and AppleBus Interconnect ports. - Built-in voice and sound speech - HD, super-crisp, bitmap, 9" screen.

Just so we're clear. That's 128K of memory. No hard drive. A nine-inch black-and-white screen that is hardly "HD" by today's standards. And $2495. Not counting tax. $2495?! I don't want to think what that is today. I'd want a supercomputer for that in today's dollars.

The MacBook I'm writing this on has 4 gigabytes of RAM and a 300-gigabyte hard drive.

I can actually light up that original Mac on my hearth. But I have no idea what I could do with it. No matter.

"Think different."

Think of it as the lungfish of today's computing, as IBM has collapsed into mega-corporate sloth, having long since shed its PC division to the Chinese, and Microsoft has made a business out of copying most of Apple's innovations.

Ironically, this anniversary comes less than two weeks after Steve Jobs -- ousted by Apple as its CEO just a few years after the Mac's launch yet returned to take the company to even greater heights -- stepped away from the CEO post amidst a cloud of confusion about his health. Whatever the facts are regarding his health, Jobs, who seemed to recover from pancreatic cancer a few years ago, is one of the key figures in the history of global technology. Jobs also created Pixar, which revolutionized computer animation and the movie business. Just check the Academy Award nominations for best animated film. This only heightens the significance. And increases the poignancy.

"I'm a Mac" ... "I'm a PC."

What will the Mac be in another 25 years? Undoubtedly part of my flying car.

Really, that is another column. But the wireless networked notebook Mac, tied into a global network, is already bringing the Star Trek future into reality. Macs will undoubtedly get even smaller, faster, and more integrated into ourselves. Perhaps the Mac at 50 will be much like an iPod linked to a Bluetooth earbud. Whatever it will be, it will be.

You can check things out during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com