August 11, 1987: MultiFinder brings the biggest software update to the Mac since its launch: multitasking with two apps on screen at once.
While MultiFinder brings an undeniable boost to the Macintosh’s technical capabilities, it is built on a shaky foundation that soon will begin to show its age.
Multifinder launch brings multitasking to the Mac
Apple released the first Mac without multitasking of any kind. It didn’t need to — Apple positioned the Mac as a low-cost alternative to the Lisa, the company’s pricier workstation, which remained in the lineup through late 1985. Prior to MultiFinder, if you wanted multitasking, you simply bought a Lisa.
This arrangement wasn’t destined to last long, though, as Apple rapidly developed Mac models with increased memory. For instance, Apple shipped the Macintosh 512K, aka the “Fat Mac,” with four times the RAM, in September 1984.
A rudimentary solution
While on a leave of absence from Apple, Andy Hertzfeld, a programmer on the original Macintosh team, started to wonder if you could run several programs simultaneously. Mac apps were still being written to fit within 128k of memory, yet there were Macs out there with four times as much.
Hertzfeld created Switcher over a period of a few months. From an icon in the Mac’s menu bar, you could switch instantly between two apps in memory, like Microsoft Excel and MacWrite.
This capability proved totally transformative given the immense amount of time it previously took to quit one app and launch another. (Even worse, if the two programs lived on separate floppy disks, you had to swap out those several times while switching between the apps.)
Even though Hertzfeld had Switcher working smoothly, it was still a patch — the Macintosh system software wasn’t designed to juggle multiple applications at once. Whichever app was currently on screen had near-complete control of the entire computer; everything else was frozen. If any single piece of software crashed, everything was gone.
Switcher becomes MultiFinder
Later, Apple adapted Switcher into MultiFinder, which Apple co-founder Steve Jobs purchased from Hertzfeld for $100,000 and 10% royalties. Whereas Switcher could only display your apps on separate desktops, MultiFinder let you see two apps side by side. The feature shipped as an extension in Macintosh System Software 5 in 1987.
Even after a few years of work, Apple couldn’t overcome MultiFinder’s technical limitations. The lack of true multitasking, where background apps could keep doing their thing, plagued Mac OS all the way through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
With the more powerful computers we’ve had for the last 25 years, the Mac operating system and kernel manage multitasking on a lower level so apps remain separate and siloed from one another. We sacrifice a little bit of management overhead in exchange for stability.
Open Activity Monitor now, and you’ll see your Mac handling hundreds or even thousands of processes without breaking a sweat.
Also on this day in Apple history
Aug. 11, 1950: Steve Wozniak is born
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is born. While Steve Jobs may be the most admired Apple figure, Woz might be the most well-loved by fans.
In addition to his most famous creation, the Apple II computer, Wozniak is also responsible for imbuing Apple’s products with his fun-loving personality.
Happy birthday, Woz!
Aug. 11, 1987: Apple introduces HyperCard
On the actual same day in the very same year, Apple introduced HyperCard as well. Created by Bill Atkinson, HyperCard was “among the first successful hypermedia systems,” according to Wikipedia.
With HyperCard, you could point and click to make complex interactive widgets, games and applets. It’s often viewed as a precursor to the rich multimedia interactivity we see today on the web.