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The Mac is 25

Entry 933, on 2009-01-25 at 21:20:36 (Rating 1, Computers)

This year marks the Mac's 25th birthday. That's important because the Mac introduced many of the technologies we take for granted today: the graphical user interface, the mouse, easy copy and paste between applications, icons, pull-down menus, etc. Sure, Apple didn't invent all of these technologies but it was the first to make them practical and use them in a real product.

When the Mac was introduced I was working for an Apple dealer here in New Zealand. At the time I was programming the Apple II and Apple III. We had a Lisa as well but I don't remember us ever selling one so I didn't program for that. The Apple II usually booted from a floppy disk with the simple operating system, application, and data all in one place, although it was common to have a second disk for data storage.

The Apple II's disk capacity was a massive 143K and it had 48K of memory, a 1MHz 8 bit processor and a 280 x 192 graphics screen. Despite these deficiencies it was possible to do serious work on these machines. We had several small to medium sized companies using them to run their business systems and many people used them for word processing and spreadsheets - the original spreadheet, Visicalc, was written for the Apple II and it was surely one of the most important programs ever created!

There was also an extensive library of games despite the slow processor and total lack of hardware graphics acceleration. Of course, all serious programs at the time were written in assembly language. I wrote some programs that way too and it was amazing how much performance could be extracted from the machine by using optimising techniques. Real programmers back then would customise programs one machine code instruction at a time to get the best speed!

The Mac was a considerably more powerful machine than the Apple II, with a 32 bit 8MHz processor, a 400K floppy drive, 128K of RAM and a 512 x 342 black and white screen. The Mac did lack the color of the Apple II but surpassed it in every other way.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with computers, the extra power was used up by the new operating system and graphical interface, so boot times, scrolling speed, and many other functions were slower on the Mac than on the Apple II. But having WYSIWYG word processing, the ability to paste pictures into documents, and an easy to use interface made it all worthwhile.

Of course the Mac rapidly progressed to the Mac Plus (released 1986) which had more memory (a whole 1MB) and larger floppy drives (800K) plus the option of a hard disk (20M or sometimes even 40M in capacity) but the CPU and graphics stayed the same until the Mac II.

The Mac II was a modular machine with expansion slots which was a departure from the original Mac philosophy of a closed box. It also had a high quality color screen with 640 x 480 8 bit graphics and a 16 MHz 68020 processor. Very impressive! Of course, there was still no hardware graphics acceleration so the color slowed the machine down which partly negated the advantage of the faster processor.

Apple went on to use up to 40 MHz 68040 processors before moving to the PowerPC platform in 1994, 10 years after the original Mac was introduced. Those machines started at 60 MHz and were moderately successful, but it was the third generation PowerPC G3 based iMac, introduced in 1998, which really turned things around after Steve Jobs returned to the company. That processor started at 233 MHz. The ultimate PowerPC Mac was the mighty 2.5 GHz dual core, dual G5 processor Power Mac G5 which was introduced in 2005.

The PowerPC was an excellent processor but IBM just didn't put the resources in to keeping it up to date so Apple switched to the Intel processor in 2006. Initially the single core Core processor and dual core Core Duo 32 bit processors were used but now Apple only use Core 2 Duo 64 bit processors. The fastest Apple Intel Mac Pro now has dual 4 core 3.2 GHz 64 bit processors, up to 32 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive.

If I compare the capabilities of the Apple II, which I first programmed on, and the latest Mac Pro (which is well overdue for replacement, by the way) I get the following level of improvement.

If I factor in the speed of the processor, the number of cores, and the width of the system bus the latest machine is 100,000 times faster than the Apple II. Depending on exactly what you are measuring this might be seen as an over- or under-estimate of the true performance difference. And the graphics processors included in current Macs are truly awesome making the performance difference even greater.

Looking at the disk capacity the difference between a 143K floppy disk and a 1 TB hard disk is no less than 7 million times! Yes, it would take 7 million Apple II floppy disks to equal a single 1TB hard disk. RAM capacity has improved a lot as well. The increase from 48K to 32 G is a factor of 660,000.

So things have come a long way in the 25 years since 1984. Not only is there a huge improvement in the performance of the various components, but we now have laptops, high quality LCD screens, high quality audio, easy to connect and configure peripherals, and awesome media capabilities.

I can store thousands of MP3 files on my iPhone and a hundred thousand on my laptop. It would take 13 Mac 400K floppy disks (or 35 Apple II floppies) just to store one! That's an interesting real consequence of the improvement over those 25 years.


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