Apple made a “dent in the universe” with its 1984 Super Bowl ad for the upcoming Macintosh.
At least that was Steve Jobs’ intention, according to the opening scene of The Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Whether all this universe denting was just Jobs’ reality distortion field or an actual change in human culture depends on your corporate loyalties, or lack thereof.
Any debate over the cultural impact of the Macintosh really boils down to how much of the graphical user interface revolution was determined or influenced by Apple, and how much of it would have happened regardless.
Because there’s no question that the shift from command-line computing to WIMP computing (windows, icons, menus and pointing-devices) radically changed the world, leading, for example, to the web, which is the dominant WIMP interface to the formerly command-line Internet.
WIMP computing also enabled powerful new tools for software programming, design (of everything), animation and a bazillion other things.
WIMP computing, and to some extent the Macintosh itself, really did make a dent in the universe, but not in the way most people imagine.
How the Macintosh Dented the Universe
The Macintosh didn’t represent the invention of the WIMP computer. Apple itself had shipped the LISA years earlier and Xerox shipped the Xerox Star before that. Other companies had shipped WIMP computers, all of which were of course built on inventions developed at Stanford Research Institute, Xerox PARC and elsewhere.
Tech fans had been hearing about, reading about and even buying WIMP computers for years before the Macintosh shipped in 1984.
When you watch Steve Jobs introducing the Macintosh on stage at Macworld in 1984, you hear the crowd going nuts at the demonstration of smooth font rendering, high-resolution graphics, sounds beyond beeps and buzzes, a robotic-sounding speech engine and other features that today look rudimentary and primitive. (Jobs even gets a rise from the crowd by flashing a 3.5-inch diskette, which Jobs calls “the disk of the 80s.”)
So how it is that this tiny computer, with its 128 kilobytes of RAM, was to dent the universe, exactly?
The reason the Macintosh had such an impact, was that it was a WIMP computer that made no compromises with the past. It abandoned any notion of backward compatibility. It was the first pure WIMP computer — a true computing appliance designed to be affordable, portable, appealing, simple to use and mouse-centric.
The Macintosh felt thrilling to use compared with competitors of the time (much like the iPad did when it shipped in 2010). Actually trying a Macintosh made you realized that you had to have one, or something like it.
At the time, graphical computing was controversial — command-line loyalists believed pretty pictures and rendered fonts were a waste of RAM and slowed performance.
Here’s the most important fact that has been forgotten: When Apple’s 1984 commercial aired, there was no significant demand for WIMP computers. But Apple created a device so pure to the genre, and communicated its benefits with such clarity and excitement, that Apple created that demand. And by creating demand, they created the market.
Apple didn’t create the WIMP idea, but they created the WIMP market. And that’s how they dented the universe.
And, for that matter, the same can be said for the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
In every single case, these products had prior competition, and embodied inventions that were already floating around out there.
But Apple dented the universe with these products by making them pure representations of the future, with no compromises with the past, and in doing so created products that made you feel the need to have them, or something like them.
Apple didn’t invent the media player, the multi-touch phone, or the touch tablets, but Apple did create the markets for all those products.
Is Apple Still a Universe-Denting Company?
Pundits debate whether the true Apple died with Steve Jobs, or whether Apple is still Apple even without its visionary founder.
In other words, can Apple still dent the universe? And by that I mean can Apple still create markets like it did with the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad?
This is the test, really. Because the world needs another dent.
The world needs a desktop multi-touch computer from Apple that affects the world like the Macintosh did in the 80s.
The mobile world has already converted to multi-touch, and now even the number of touch tablets has surpassed half the unit sales of PCs. This is a shocking fact when you remember that the touch tablet market didn’t exist three years ago when Apple created that market. Now it’s half as large as the PC market.
As was the case with the PC market in 1984, the desktop touch market has many options, and none of them are stimulating widespread demand. A smattering of all-in-one desktop PCs offer touch. Some laptops do. A variety of tables and other “furniture” devices support touch on the desktop.
All of them have one foot in the future of desktop touch screens, and the other foot firmly rooted in WIMP computing. They go both ways, and are really optimized for WIMP computing with a hesitant option to go multi-touch if you want to. They sit at the wrong angles. They’re the wrong size. There’s no ecosystem of touch-only application software.
Windows 8 is a perfect example of this industry hesitation to go all the way. The Metro UI is there if you’re using touch, or want to use a touch interface with your mouse. But if you want the old UI, that’s there too.
As a result of the limp, halting entry by the industry into the multi-touch desktop future, there is no significant demand for desktop touch computers — just as there was no significant demand for WIMP computers in 1983.
The test for Apple that will demonstrate whether the company can still dent universes is whether Apple ships a Macintosh for the new era — a no-compromises, pure multi-touch desktop tablet, with no option to WIMP out and so appealing and marketed so powerfully that they create widespread demand for the product and, in doing so, create the market.
As a columnist, I couldn’t describe to you exactly what this big-screen desktop iPad would be like any more than I could have exactly described the Macintosh in every detail well before those details were announced.
But if it’s to be universe-denting, the device would have to be a pure creature of the future without legacy baggage from the past.
The question is, will they? Can they?
Can Apple still dent the universe?