The Apple Mac is 20

From icon to iPod

Will Apple introduce a 20th Anniversary Macintosh* on Monday, two days after the platform's 20th birthday?

Suggestions from some quarters suggest it might well do so, and it's hard to imagine the company not wanting to commemorate this significant milestone.

Today's Macs are arguably very different from the one Steve Jobs pulled out of a bag during Apple's annual stockholder's meeting, held in the Flint Center at DeAnza College on 24 January.

Originally conceived by Jef Raskin as a computer for the person on the street, an easy-to-use, complete ready-to-run machine with as few cables as possible, the original Mac was genuinely different.

Since then, the platform evolved into a variety of standard desktops, towers and notebooks. It's some testament to the iconic status of that original, compact all-in-one case that its descendant, the first iMac, pulled Apple back from the brink in the mid to late 1990s.

The first Mac's suitability for desktop graphics saved the company from the inevitable death of the Apple II at the hands of the IBM PC and its clones, so it's appropriate that the iMac should perform a similar trick, this time winning the hearts of consumers rather than publishers.

It may not do so next time. The iPod has arguably become the product that the Mac was back in the mid- 1980s - the icon that defines how people view the company behind it. It's not hard to foresee a time when Apple is known more for mobile multimedia devices - not to mention selling the content they play - than for making computers.

In apparent acknowledgement of the fact, Apple recently reposted its famous 1984 Superbowl ad on its web site, tinkering with the original footage to allow the hammer-wielding gurlie to be seen wearing an iPod - an act of artistic vandalism exceeded only by the special editions of the first Star Wars trilogy.

Beyond their unique styling, construction materials and superior operating system, what really distinguishes Apple's computers from the Wintel rivals? Some fans will point to their PowerPC processor, but a computer's CPU is really just a means to an end: providing a user experience.

Apple remains ahead of the pack on both user interface and hardware styling, but the gap is once again narrowing. No matter how many unusual-looking machines it comes up with - the 20th Anniversary Mac one of them, no doubt, alongside the Cube and the anglepoise iMac - they're unlikely to have quite the immediate attraction that the original Mac and the first iMac had. Or the iPod.

Indeed, the iPod's styling recalls the original Mac - the compact case, the display dominating the top half of the front of the shell, the connection points smoothly moulded into the casing.

We hope the Mac is around in another 20 years. This piece was typed on one - the fourth in this writer's ownership, and just one of many I've used since the mid-1980s. More than a few of the other Vulture Central scribes use Macs too. Mac OS X provides firm foundation for the platform's evolution toward that time.

But we have a sneaking suspicion that the next big event Apple celebrates will have more to do with its compact, user-friendly music player than the Mac, by then just one hardware line among many. ®

*The second of that name: the first was released to celebrate Apple's own 20th birthday.

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