30 years of Apple: Assessing Apple's impact

Apple turns 30 April 1, no small feat in an industry where today’s leader is tomorrow’s answer to a trivia question. Apple has come a long way since its 1976 founding, evolving from a pair of electronics-minded buddies trying to sell printed circuit boards at their local amateur computer club to a 14,800-employee company with more than $14 billion in sales and an internationally recognized product line.

Apple’s accomplishments include a checklist of memorable products—the original Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod. But what kind of impact has the company had over the last three decades? Outside of the people within its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, who should be celebrating Apple’s 30 years of existence?

Pretty much everybody, as it turns out.

On the eve of Apple’s 30th anniversary, everyone from former employees to industry watchers agrees that the company has had a profound impact on technology, innovating and influencing not only how we use computers but the what we use them for.

Computers for the rest of us—including Windows users

Apple’s accomplishments in producing consumer-friendly computers such as the original Macintosh and the iMac are widely known—just in case you might forget, the company mentions both products at the bottom of every press release it sends out. But Apple's efforts to make computers accessible to a wider audience began long before the Macintosh made its first appearance in a Super Bowl XVIII TV commercial.

“Apple instigated the personal computer revolution with the Apple II, which was the first mass market personal computer as we know them today,” said Andy Hertzfeld, a former Apple employee who was part of the original Macintosh team, and author of the book Revolution in the Valley (O’Reilly, 2004).

But a key part of making computers that the masses could use was developing an interface that ordinary people could use. Apple didn’t invent the graphical user interface—rather, the company drew inspiration from what Steve Jobs and software engineer Bill Atkinson saw on their fateful trip to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1979. Much of the work that Xerox put into the Alto, the first real personal computer, became the first Macintosh. And elements like the desktop, windows, and a mouse are what helped make the Macintosh such an appealing machine.

“The angels started singing, the clouds parted, it was a religious experience,” said Guy Kawasaki, an early Apple employee, describing the first time he used a Mac. “I’ve never had the same reaction to a product, not in 25 years.”

Many of the features popularized in the Mac OS soon started appearing in competing operating systems, notably Microsoft’s windows. But even that illustrates the scope of Apple’s influence, pundits say. Apple’s advances pushed other companies to make their offerings significantly more user-friendly.

“The people that have the most to celebrate are Windows users,” said Paul Saffo, director of the nonprofit Institute For The Future research group. “But for Apple bringing out the Macintosh and demonstrating the [windows] interface and the mouse, we would all be stuck with a C: prompt.”

A new direction

Nevertheless, Apple lost significant market share to Windows-based PCs. Microsoft’s operating system could run on any hardware maker’s machine—Apple’s software ran on Macs and Macs alone.

However, the fact that Apple soon found itself unable to compete with other PC makers for business users may have been a blessing in disguise, said Phil Leigh, an analyst and founder of market-research firm Inside Digital Media. Apple made the move to improving its computers’ graphics and multimedia capabilities; that, Leigh said, made the Mac the preferred platform for artists, designers and musicians.

“Since the market has, for the last 10 years, been steadily trending toward digital media, this has worked towards the advantage of Apple,” Leigh added.

“Apple has a rare opportunity that is seldom provided, at a second chance at greatness,” Leigh continued. “Digital media is becoming the dominant application on computers. Ten years ago, Bill Gates wrote a book called The Road Ahead and he pointed out that the computers of tomorrow are not going to be used to do word processing 1,000 times faster, they are going to be used to do entirely new things. It’s pretty clear that digital media is at the heart of that right now.”

Jobs, front and center

Most agree that Apple’s focus on digital media or other innovations wouldn’t have happened to as great a degree without the involvement of Steve Jobs, the company co-founder who was forced out in 1985 only to return as an advisor and interim CEO 12 years later before shedding the “interim” tag in 2000. Jobs has had a profound impact on how Apple—and thereby the entire computer industry—evolved.

Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., remembers Jobs return to Apple after the company purchased Next Inc.

“Apple had just lost $740 million in the first quarter of 1996 and things looked very bleak indeed,” Spicer said. “In my opinion, no one but Jobs could have brought the company back. He’s the only one who can lead Apple internally and inspire Apple customers externally. Basically, Jobs is Apple, which is both good and bad for the company. This has not changed over the 30 years.”

What the company has up its sleeve next is anyone’s guess. Many analysts say that Apple is bound to release some type of set-top media player to play digital media. Even the former employees aren’t sure—although many ideas have been floated.

“The iPod will get wireless features soon and eventually morph into a cell phone,” Hertzfeld said. “The Macintoshes will eventually be able to optionally run Windows applications, removing the most prolific excuse for not buying a Mac.”

Most expect Apple to continue innovating and pioneering new technologies, as it has over the last 30 years.

“I hope [Apple is] creating a computer that is to the Macintosh what the Macintosh was to Apple II,” Kawasaki said. “That’s the test, that’s the main thing.”

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments