The Computer for the Rest of Us ...
In 1984 Apple introduced the computer "for the rest of us"—the Macintosh—with a historic Super-Bowl television ad. It was an attempt to break both with the past and with ongoing computer trends, and in the process Apple brought to market something revolutionary in the world of personal computers: a GUI, or graphical user interface. No longer would users be tied to the "cryptic" command line interface of Microsoft's DOS, Apple's ProDOS, and other similar operating systems.
1984, however, does not mark the "birth" of the Macintosh. Indeed, its genesis can be found either 5 or 10 years earlier, depending on how far back on looks. In the mid 1970s, the first "GUI" was created at Xerox PARC. At the end of the 60s, the mouse had been created. Xerox, despite being the birthplace of many new technologies relevant to the world of personal computers, failed to market the results of many of its research endeavors. Such was the case with the GUI. In 1979 or there about, Steve Jobs got a "tour" of PARC, and what he saw there forever influenced Apple's direction. Even before Jobs' visit to Xerox, Apple been designing a successor to its Apple II line. The visit to PARC converted those efforts from text-based, command line machines to GUI-based computers: the Lisa and Macintosh.
Released in 1983, the Lisa sold for around $10,000 US, which—many argue—led to its poor sales and eventual downfall. The Lisa sported a multi-tasking operating system, GUI, and a suite of office/productivity applications, as well as a complete programming/development environment. (After its failure, Apple remarketed the Lisa a few years later as the Mac XL). It had a built-in monitor and floppy drive(s). The first Macintosh computers were pale imitations of their mighty sibling, the Lisa. With only 128K of RAM, no hard drive, and a watered-down operating system (no multi-tasking), the early Macs—feature-wise—had a hard time even competing with Apple's other offerings (such as the //e and //c). Some writers of Apple (Lisa) histories have argued that the Macintosh, which came out one year after the Lisa, was meant as a sort of "network computer" to a Lisa "server". In any event, after the essential failure of the Lisa, the Macintosh became Apple's flagship product.
The early Mac operating system (Mac OS) was single-tasking, which was not a terrible limitation on machines that stored all their programs on floppies. The Mac GUI consisted of a "desktop," on which icons and application windows were placed. Rather than typing commands, users clicked on icons to open files, launch programs, etc. In contrast to the Windows series by Microsoft, one can argue that Apple's OS was very document-oriented. For example, each window does not, in many cases, "contain" the whole application, but only a document (be it for a word processing file, a drawing, etc.). Any menus that an application had were placed at the top of the screen.
The original Mac OS consisted essentially of a system file and the "Finder." (The "Finder" concept was first used in the Lisa's OS, which is/was incompatible with the Mac OS, even though they look alike, and the same concept was later used in the OS for the Apple //gs line.) Extensions, which add functionality could also be loaded. In the transition from the System 6.x line of operating systems to System 7, Apple introduced the "Multi-Finder"—in some System Software releases, there is the option of loading either the older Finder, or the newer Multi-Finder (which used more RAM, but added functionality by allowing more than one application to be open at once). Since the Mac OS kernel was not a multi-tasking kernel, the type of multi-tasking allowed by the old Mac OS was cooperative (similar in this regard to multi-tasking under Windows in the 3.x series).
Furthermore, through use of the Mac Toolkit—the APIs and/or Widget-set for the Mac OS—all applications that used the Toolkit obtained a similar look and feel, which, in addition to the extensive human interface research Apple put into the design of the Mac OS, led to the Mac having a consistant, clear, and clean interface. Due to its GUI, in-house development, and committment to quality, the Mac has traditionally enjoyed high customer satisfaction. Before the early 90s, it would have been difficult if not outright impossible to say that "IBM-Compatibles" loaded with Microsoft's DOS and Windows could match the "user-friendliness" of the Macintosh.
Early Macintoshes ran on Motorola's 68K line of processors. Since 1984, Apple has continued to release new and improved Machintoshes at regular intervals. In the early/mid 90s they moved away from the aging 68K line of micro-processors and collaborated with Motorola and IBM in the development of the PowerPC, a RISC chip. The transition to the new platform went rather smoothly for Apple. Apple has also continued to release new versions of their OS—after the aging 7.x series, Mac OS 8.x, and later 9.x appeared. 8.5 and onwards were for PowerPC machines only (and only a few pre-PowerPC Macs could run 8.0 and 8.1).
In the 90s, Apple realized that not only their hardware line but also their operating system was aging. One attempt at providing so-called "modern" features (such as preemptive multi-tasking and memory protection) to the Mac OS—Copland—failed after several years and millions of dollars. Then, in 1997, Apple bought Apple founder Steve Jobs' NeXT for use in the development of a "modern" Mac OS. Code-named "Rhapsody", this new OS was based upon NeXT's technology: BSD UNIX on top of a Mach micro-kernel, using the OpenStep APIs to provide a consistant and powerful object-oriented environment. Many months, and several releases later, Rhapsody was re-named "MacOS X."
If you already own and love the Mac, there may be no question of remaining true to Steve Jobs & Co. However, for new users looking at sub-$1000 PCs flooding the marketplace, what is the incentive to buy Apple?
Some would argue that the OS X is still easier to use, easier on the eyes, and just plain better than the most recent version of Windows, and there is considerable truth in that claim. More importantly, the Mac OS has a more consistent interface between programs. Installing programs can be easier for new users, and due to Apple's tight control over hardware, "Plug & Play" works rather well on the Mac. For those who do not want to deal with stray DLL files and such as one may occasionally have to do with Windows, the Mac OS provides a good alternative.
In terms of hardware, Apple's offerings are competitive with "WinTel" systems at this point and are a viable option, especially in the laptop realm. In addition, many older PowerMacs—and Mac-clones—can be easily upgraded, and in gerneral, many (though not all) Apple computers have a long upgrade life. Recent Macs use commodity IDE drives, video cards, and the like, just like PCs.
In the software market, there are plenty of SOHO applications for the Macintosh, as well as Internet applications, Adobe's Photoshop, multi-media tools, and numerous high-end applications that are too expensive for the average user to worry about. Making and editing movies is straight-forward with a Mac. With its color-sync technology, Apple has always had a strong presence in the publishing market. The Macintosh has never had a reputation as a gaming platform, but there are plenty of games for the Mac, including modern shoot-em-ups, adventure games, etc. Also, given emulation programs, it is possible to run many Windows programs on the Mac, albeit with a performance hit. Furthermore, there as many computer, arcade, and console emulators for the Mac. In short, there is no lack of software for Macs; however, the Mac's relative obscurity works in its favor—all the computer viruses you hear about? they're a Windows problem.
Far from being the computer "for the rest of us," the Macintosh was never "the" market leader, and at times Apple priced itself out of the market, selling for hundreds more than a PC able to run similar software. Shortly after Apple released the Macintosh, Commodore unveiled its own advanced system: the Amiga, which was an excellent multi-media computer, GUI and all, costing much, much less than a Mac. In addition, Bill Gates' Microsoft "developed" Windows, a GUI extension for DOS. Even Atari got a GUI—Digital Research's failed GEM for DOS was ported and adapted for TOS. Even at home, the much less expensive Apple //gs remained very popular, threatening Macintosh sales until Apple finally killed it.
In addition, it is no longer a world of Apple vs. the "IBM Compatibles". IBM lost the race, we got "WinTel," and now AMD has a strong market presense. The PC, not originally conceived as a home productivity platform, has come to one-by-one reduce the Mac's advantages, and whereas all major PC makers have entered the sub-$1000 PC market, Apple's low-priced iMac (cute as it is) was introduced at $1299 (of course, this is years ago). By doing its R&D in house, Apple—so the claim goes—has had to maintain high prices, and its failure to licence the Mac OS at a crucial moment further marginalized the platform.
Most of the anti-Mac arguments speak to the Mac of years ago; the current Mac is much like a PC with a different processor and better design. Indeed, where Apple goes, others soon follow, even all these years later.
If you're deciding between a Mac running OS X and a PC running Windows XYZ, do yourself and favor and buy a Mac. Unless you are a hard-core gamer, you won't miss anything on the Mac that you could get on a PC. If you have parents thinking of getting a computer (perhaps for the first time), buy them a Mac and save yourself some tech-support calls.
If, on the other hand, you want to run Linux or some other UNIX-like OS, a PC might be a better choice; note, however, that Mac laptops run Linux beautifully, they are lightweight, and OS X itself is UNIX-based.
Below you will find some useful links to Mac-related sites.