Mac's Graphical Screen Transformed Personal Computing 30 Years Ago

NEWS ANALYSIS: When Apple first started selling the Macintosh, few people realized how it would change almost everything about personal computing.  

When I was introduced to the original Macintosh early in 1984, I looked at the device on the table in front of me with a sense of wonder. It wasn't because I was blown away by the technical innovation. Rather, I was wondering why anyone would want to work on a computer with a tiny 9-inch screen.

At the time I was looking at the first Mac, I was a Navy officer stationed in Columbus, Ohio, where I was the executive officer of what was then the Defense Logistics Agency's Systems Automation Center. So when the local (and original) Micro Center store in Columbus invited business leaders over to see the new Mac, I got an invitation and accepted it. This was, after all, the same store where I'd had my first look at Ethernet, another transformative event.

Of course, at the time I didn't realize that what I was seeing would prove to be transformative. I was looking at the Mac to see if there was any possibility that it might have a role in our part of the military's computing infrastructure. In those days, our primary computers were Amdahl V7c and V8 mainframe computers, which were clones of IBM mainframes.

I had been deeply involved in the earliest contracts that brought personal computers into the military. By this time, I'd already purchased the first of the Zenith computers that eventually became the standard in the Navy. These computers ran MS-DOS, but were not fully IBM-PC compatible. They also ran the old CP/M operating system, and it was the ability to run both operating systems that got our attention.

But there was a need for computers that were fairly small and simple to use, especially aboard ships where spaces are tight and training hard to accomplish. So I went and looked. That's when I wondered how this tiny computer could possibly be any use to me or my assignment. So I played with the GUI for a few minutes, found that applications were almost nonexistent and went back to my office.

I had no idea that I'd just seen the future. In fact, I thought I'd just seen the past. I was aware of the Alto computers developed by Xerox and I'd seen a mouse demonstrated, but neither had been particularly successful. But when I later talked with the editors at Byte Magazine (I was also writing for Byte in those days), they were excited to report that Byte Labs had just gotten their hands on a Macintosh.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...