When Apple made a CD-ROM to help your Mac's true colors shine through

There was a time when Apple had to show you why you'd want to use color on a computer.

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Credit: Christopher Phin

Against all writing advice, let’s kick off this week’s Think Retro with an utterly banal statement: Tech evolves quickly. And then to compound the transgression, another: We take things for granted now that would have been borderline inconceivable just a few short years ago.

Yet while these statements are indeed trite and facile, you nevertheless tend to lose sight of the extent to which they are true. This week’s topic is a case in point: a CD-ROM, produced in 1991, called the Apple Color Graphic Sampler.

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To quote the liner notes, it’s “designed to help you easily see the benefits of using color on the Apple™ Macintosh™ computer. We’ve provided the sampler so you can quickly see color performance—right after you pull your Macintosh monitor out of the box.”

“To help you easily see the benefits of using color.” The benefits. Of using. Color.

So you see, when I talk of taking things for granted now that were exceptional in the past, I’m not talking about failing to get excited about a slightly faster interconnect, or noting that the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is 15 ounces lighter than its predecessor. I’m talking about something as fundamental as color.

Here was a CD which existed because even in 1991 having color on your Mac was enough of a curiosity for it to be something you got excited about, something you wanted to explore and show off in and of itself. No, it wasn’t new in 1991—even the Apple II could do rudimentary color in 1977—but the fact that this CD-ROM exists at all shows that it was still notable. It’s like devices such as the Oculus Rift today. Virtual reality has been around in various forms for decades, but strap a VR headset to your face in an office in 2015 and everyone will gather round and want to try it.

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The CD contains demo applications—Photoshop, MacDraw Pro, Pixelpaint Pro, MacroMind Director and more—and some screensavers, but the real delight for me at least are the “examples of color graphics that you can cut and paste into other applications.”

There are two folders of images, one called “24-bit” and the other “8-bit.” Sometimes 24-bit color is called “true color,” since at a raw numerical level it means images can contain more colors than the human eye can actually discern. The examples in this folder are quite something, though; they range from simple, innocuous photographs such as this one, which apparently shows the team behind the 21-inch Studio Display I’ve featured in a previous Think Retro

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…to this quite wonderful poster design for Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

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There’s more. There is, for example, this document, whose filename is simply—and I don’t feel there’s anything further I can add—“Eagle & Cool Balls.”

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The file name for the next shot, though, is a little unfortunate. It is, quite simply, “face.” It’s like feminism never happened.

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There’s also some quite dreary photography. In part this was just how much photography looked at the time thanks to the limitations of the film emulsions and lenses, such as in this characteristic shot of some flowers.

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But you still have to be slightly wary of a mind which thought that a good way to show off the color capabilities of a Mac was by including this unprepossessing and ill-composed shot of some cooling towers. It’s not even straight!

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Dull subject, dull colors, dull photo.

The folder of 8-bit images though—images which contain no more than 256 colors—is truly wonderful. Thanks to that limitation, colors and designs often had to be carefully and meticulously thought-through and handcrafted. Oh, sure, some of it is rubbish, or at least very much of its era…

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…but there are some genuinely glorious little masterpieces here, painted with the care and reverence of a medieval icon.

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That last is one of my favorites. Just a handful of colors and yet such an evocative, atmospheric picture.

The system requirements for this CD say that you need “a modular Macintosh, a color monitor,”—uh-huh—“and at least 4 megabytes of RAM. Some of the color software requires 8 megabytes of RAM.” That alone is a reminder of the pace of change in technology, and of how the things we take for granted today—that 8 gigabytes of RAM is considered by some a practical minimum—were once extraordinary.

But the fact that a special CD-ROM was produced to show off how awesome something so basic, so unthinkingly elementary as color was is a better reminder still.

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