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Happy 40th birthday to the one computer I love

Apple’s Mac has been around since 1984 and is still getting better

The Mac – the computer synonymous with Steve Jobs, launched by a famous Ridley Scott-directed Super Bowl ad in January 1984 – is celebrating its 40th birthday. If you’d talked to me in the mid-1990s, when I regularly wrote about Apple, I’d never have predicted such longevity.

Back then, Apple was in serious financial trouble, stranded in the creative doldrums. Jobs had left a decade earlier, and the Macintosh product line was bland, sprawling and confusing – so many indistinguishable beige boxes.

I’d wondered if Apple’s last unperceptive gasp would be the infamous “20th Anniversary Mac”, released in 1997 to mark the anniversary of Apple’s founding, not the Mac itself. Beautiful, cutting edge and retailing at $7,000 (over $13,000 today), it was well out of reach of 99 per cent of the “Mac Faithful” who stuck loyally by the company, praying for better products. I saw it that year at an event in Cannes, the centrepiece at an Apple shindig for journalists. This elegant, costly computer, enthroned on a table in a Cannes villa, was the perfect metaphor for Apple’s customer-blind hubris, the ludicrously wrong product at the wrong time.

Yet, as any Apple history buff knows, 1997 was a pivotal year. At the end of 1996, Apple had announced it was to acquire Steve Jobs’s company NeXT, to use its OpenStep operating system to revamp MacOS. In the process, Jobs returned to the Apple fold in 1997 as “special adviser” to company chief executive Gil Amelio. At the big annual MacWorld consumer event in San Francisco in January 1997, I was in the audience for Amelio’s keynote, and felt a real thrill at seeing the legendary Jobs, who took the stage to whet Mac-lover appetites with an OpenStep demo.


Thanks to the genius of Jobs and Apple’s former industrial designer Jony Ive, Macs are alluring proof that tech can be graceful, tactile, responsive, personable and usable

Yet 1997 was as rocky as could be. Mac sales hit their lowest point ever in the third quarter of that year. Market share had shrunk from a one-time 18 per cent to 3 per cent, and suddenly – though not really to anyone’s surprise – Amelio was out and Jobs was interim chief executive or “iCEO” (and so, Apple’s first i-product). Jobs didn’t waste time. The following year, Apple launched the groundbreaking, multicoloured iMac. In January 1999, I watched Jobs return to the same MacWorld stage to announce the semi-transparent, “Bondi blue” G3 Macs. By this point, only two years into the new role, Jobs was golden and the iMac had become the biggest-selling PC in the US. Macs now had mojo.

The Mac was definitely back. Overall market share was still small, at 5 per cent, and remains so today. But it has steadily grown, if ever so slowly. At the end of 2023, Macs held either 8.8 or 10.1 per cent global share, depending on whether you believe analyst IDC or Canalys, respectively. Modest enough, but not too bad considering Macs & MacOS are solely the product of one company, whereas Windows-based machines, which make up 78 per cent of the global market, are made by many manufacturers.

Macs retain devotees willing to pay a premium for the devices, for a range of reasons. Primarily, many (still) find MacOS and Macs more intuitive and easy to use than Windows PCs. Thanks to the genius of Jobs and Apple’s former industrial designer Jony Ive, Macs are alluring proof that – occasional glitches notwithstanding – tech can be graceful, tactile, responsive, personable and usable.

Since Jobs’s death, many feel Apple has viewed Macs as the second-class computing citizen in its device line-up. In some ways, that’s understandable, as Apple’s cash cows are the iPad and the iPhone (and formerly, the iPod). The iPad dominates with more a third of global market share in tablets, according to Statista. Nearly one in every five smartphones sold is an iPhone. Yet the much-postulated “halo effect” – where these popular devices would lure people to Macs too – never really emerged.

Last year seems to have prompted an encouraging Mac rethink, though. After strong Mac revenue in 2021 and 2022, Mac sales slumped in 2023. Perhaps this is why Apple launched revamped MacBook laptops with the new M3 chip in late 2023, less than a year after the same computers were refreshed with M2 chips.

I replaced a failing 2017 laptop in November with a new M3 MacBook Pro. It’s a lovely, powerful, agile thing, though I’m hoping an M4 chip doesn’t slap me in the face later this year.

In the next room, I still have my first Mac, a nearly 30-year-old Mac SE with a double disk drive (a hard-drive was an external add-on that cost too much). The entire operating system sat on a single floppy disk that went in one drive. I didn’t choose that Mac; it was given to me, then a user of DOS (Windows’ predecessor). I recall being surprised at the Mac’s – yes – personality. And its charm. The Mac looked and felt like the future.

The days when that SE was the cutting edge of home computing are now so very long ago. In the decades since, I’ve liked my Windows PCs, too, especially Microsoft’s impressive Surface line. But, decades on, I still love the Mac.