Today in Apple history: Macintosh Office gets down to business

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Macintosh Office delivered on the dream of Macs that could talk to one another.
Macintosh Office delivered on the dream of Macs that could talk to one another.
Photo: Apple

January 23: Today in Apple history: Macintosh Office gets down to business January 23, 1985: Apple introduces Macintosh Office, a combination of hardware and software that represents the company’s first real attempt at cracking the business world dominated by IBM.

Macintosh Office allows Macs to talk to one another and introduces amazing new devices like the LaserWriter printer that work with the business-oriented platform.

Sadly, it won’t work out quite as Apple had hoped.

The need for a Macintosh Office speaks volumes about the way the personal computer world evolved over its first decade. When hobbyist machines like the Altair and, later, the Apple II began shipping in the mid-1970s, few people seriously thought personal computers deserved a place in the business world.

Machines aimed at hobbyists, they held little appeal for people working in big companies who had access to IBM mainframes.

By the early 1980s, however, things had changed. IBM entered the PC market, and applications like the Apple II’s “killer app” VisiCalc showed that personal computers served a very different — but still important — purpose.

laserwriter
The LaserWriter ushered in a massive breakthrough in desktop publishing.
Photo: AppleTimeline

The Macintosh took personal computers one step further. But despite the buzz the Mac created, sales proved disappointing. One year in, Apple had only sold 250,000 Macs. Worse yet, developers often overlooked it because of its relatively small reach.

Macintosh Office was an attempt to change that. On January 23, 1985, Apple announced the AppleTalk Personal Network and LaserWriter printer, the first of numerous products which (it promised) would fall under the Macintosh Office brand.

Costing $50 per connection, AppleTalk allowed Macs to share peripheral devices. It let up to 32 computers and peripherals talk to one another within work areas of 1,000 feet.

This, in theory, would make it feasible for Apple to produce products like the $6,995 LaserWriter (the equivalent of $15,576 today) with the rationale that dividing that cost among multiple users would make it a far more attractive option.

Aside from being a (relatively) super-fast laser printer in an age of dot-matrix printers, the LaserWriter allowed users to print exactly what they saw on their screens. This was a massive breakthrough in 1985. And the LaserWriter worked well alongside Aldus’ PageMaker, early desktop publishing software rolled out at the same time.

Apple promised that the LaserWriter would be the first of many great products that would be similarly shareable among large groups of users.

Finally, Apple announced that Macintosh Office would also include a file server, with 20MB-to-40MB capacities. It would allow files and emails to be transferred among Macs.

So did Macintosh Office work?

All of this sounds astonishingly futuristic, particularly if you remember what it was like to work on personal computers in the 1980s.

To put it in perspective, the Mac was now not only offering a crazily ahead-of-its-time graphical user interface. With the Macintosh Office, these computers could talk to one another and even share similarly advanced hardware peripherals. The end result: a version of Steve Jobs’ later “digital hub” strategy.

However, things didn’t pan out quite as planned. AppleTalk promised the capability to connect machines without the need for a centralized router or server. Mac users could easily set up a network and then maintain it without much difficulty.

Unfortunately, AppleTalk’s transfer speeds proved very, very slow — about 1/10th the Ethernet speeds developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s.

Apple also didn’t experience enough success with the LaserWriter to launch a slew of other high-cost, high-end shareable hardware accessories. (Although it did release a LaserWriter II in 1988.)

Additionally, the file network was delayed (it didn’t ship for several years after being announced).

Last but not least, Apple launched Macintosh Office with the disastrous “Lemmings” ad. That unfortunate followup to the fantastic “1984” Macintosh ad lent the stench of failure to a project that doesn’t deserve to be remembered like that. Particularly since it helped launch the desktop publishing revolution.

Do you remember the Macintosh Office? Were you running a company with Macs, or working on them in a business capacity, in the mid-1980s? Leave us a comment below.