January 22, 1984, the Superbowl Sunday of that year, did not remain in collective memory because of the clear 38:9 victory of the Los Angeles Raiders against the Washington team. The halftime show was not a scream either: no international superstar was a guest on a hastily erected stage (this year “The Weekend” is supposed to present its art to television audiences all over the world), but a marching band ran across the artificial turf with a lot of blowers and drums. The Superbowl XVIII was remembered for being refinanced through TV advertising. Because of a commercial.
The product was not shown in the 60 second, not even its name was mentioned, and it was only two days later that it saw the light of day. And the name of the manufacturer appeared shortly before the end of the clip, in a text on the screen, which a dark voice from the off also read: “On January 24th, Apple will show that 1984 will not be like ‘1984’”.
The reference to the totalitarian state in the Orwellian style was shown in the gloomy short film by director Ridley Scott. Willing subjects stand in line in front of a giant screen showing a speech by the “Big Brother”, then a blonde hammer thrower, who successfully escaped sinister captors, throws a hammer at the screen ripping it to shreds.
Apple’s board of directors had known the spot a few days longer than the impressed television audience of the Superbowl XVIII. And almost stopped it! The usual questions: Why is our product not visible? What is the dark mood about? Yes, we live under a dictatorship, but does that have to be? Apple’s luck: it was too late to cancel. You could have withdrawn the spot, but then still had to pay for the entire minute. A new advertisement could not be produced in a hurry.
The short film could only be seen on television that once, although it also aired once in a small, largely unknown cinema. Now the world memory of YouTube has preserved the 1984 advertising into the digital era. The original suffered a lot over time, but Apple itself reissued the strip in 2004 with an iPod dangling from the athlete’s belt.
For 37 years, Apple has been showing us where the hammer hangs and where it is going. In the meantime, unfortunately, many of Orwell’s dystopias seem close to become a reality. But we don’t have to put a constant sending and receiving televisor in our apartments – we just do it voluntarily with our SmartTVs and smart speakers. At least there is no totalitarian state power at the other end of the line, just one of the companies that want our best: our money.
The rule breaker in beige
So 37 years ago today Steve Jobs, not quite 29, pulled the Macintosh out of its unspectacular shell and had it speak to the assembled audience at the Apple shareholders’ meeting in the Flint Center on Cupertino. The rule-breaking computer promised nothing less than the profound revolution that the computer should be accessible to everyone and be operated without the need for expert knowledge. “Big Brother” from the commercial from the previous Sunday was a symbol for the large, inflexible, and yes, dictatorial company IBM, whose computers could only be operated by specialists and were fed with data by wage slaves at terminals.
Well, it wasn’t quite like that. At that time, IBM had long since released personal computers and thus coined the term PC in the first place. The IBM PC, though, was actually a reaction to the Apple II, with which the California start-up had turned the world view of computing on its head and introduced the colour beige seven years before the Macintosh.
The Mac was the first truly personal machine that people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere had dreamed of. The computer’s speech at its birth was not generated by the machine’s artificial intelligence, but written by its developers working with Andy Hertzfeld. The Mac is only now really talking to its users via Siri – and that’s still at a basic level.
But with the Mac, unlike the year before with the Lisa, Apple succeeded in bringing the concept of the graphical user interface onto the market at a reasonable price. You no longer had to spend hours, days or weeks learning commands to be able to do something with the machine, but simply looked around the screen and recognised its similarity to your desk, filing cabinets and files – and even the office trash can. The price: $2,500 or £1,840 in the UK. That was a lot more than T Apple engineer Jef Raskin intended. He thought the Mac should only have cost around $500. But when Steve Jobs took over the project, the demands on the machine increased as did the price. From today’s perspective the right decision.
What Apple introduced as a standard in the first place back in 1984 – the beige computer – it later criticised, saying: “Sorry, no beige” when in 1998 the colourful iMac saw the light of day. That world was amazed by the semi-transparent case and it’s window to the innards of the all-in-one. But rules – especially your own – should only be broken when you have new, better ones. “Only the master can break the form” – as said by Schiller in the 18th century (Friedrich, not Phil).
Seven years ago when the Mac turned 30 we produced a series of features about the Mac that you might be interested in reading:
We also have an article detailing the history of Apple.
This article originally appeared on Macwelt. Translation by Karen Haslam.