Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Not Like 1984: GUI and the Apple Mac

Posted on | May 27, 2017 | No Comments

In January of 1984, during the Super Bowl, America’s most popular sporting event, Apple announced the release of the Macintosh computer. It was with a commercial that was shown only once, causing a stir, and gaining millions of dollars in free publicity afterward. The TV ad was produced by Ridley Scott whose credits at the time included directing movies like Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).

Scott drew on iconography from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and George Orwell’s classic 1984 novel to produce a stunning dystopic metaphor of what life would be like under what was suggested as a monolithic IBM with a tinge of Microsoft. As human drones file into a techno-decrepit auditorium, they became transfixed by a giant “telescreen” filled with a close-up of a man, eerily reminiscent of an older Bill Gates. Intense eyes peer through wired rimmed glasses and glare down on the transfixed audience as lettered captions transcribe mind-numbing propaganda:

    We are one people with one will, one resolve, one cause.
    Our Enemies will talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their confusion.
    For we shall prevail.

However, from down a corridor, a brightly-lit female emerges. She runs into the theater and down the aisle. Finally, she winds up and throws an anvil, a large hammer, into the projected face. The televisual screen explodes, and the humans are startled out of their slumbered daze. The ad fades to white, and the screen lights up: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you will see how 1984 won’t be like “1984.” The reason, of course, was what Steve Jobs called the “insanely great” new technology of the Macintosh unveiled by Apple. Against a black background, it ends with the famed logo, a rainbow striped Apple with a bite out of the right side.

By 1983, Apple had needed a new computer to compete with the IBM PC. Steve Jobs went to work, utilizing mouse and GUI (Graphical User Interface) technology developed at Xerox PARC in the late 1970s. In exchange for being allowed to buy 100,000 shares of Apple stock before the company went public, Xerox opened its R&D at PARC to Jobs.[17] Xerox was a multi-billion dollar company with a near monopoly on the copier needs of the Great Society’s great bureaucratic structures. In an attempt to leverage its position to dominate the “paperless office,” Xerox sponsored the research and development of a number of computer innovations, but the Xerox leaders never understood the potential of the technology developed under their roofs.

One of these innovations was a powerful but expensive microcomputer called the Alto that integrated many of the new interface technologies that would become standard on personal computers. The new GUI system had the mouse, networking capability, and even a laser printer. It combined a number of PARC innovations including bitmapped displays, hierarchical and pop-up menus, overlapped windows, tiled windows, scroll bars, push buttons, check boxes, cut/move/copy/delete and multiple fonts as well as text styles. Xerox didn’t know quite how to market the Alto, so it gave its microcomputer technology to Apple for an opportunity to buy the young company’s stock.

Apple took this technology and created the Lisa computer, an expensive but impressive prototype of the Macintosh. In 1983, the same year that Lotus officially released it’s Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program — Apple released Lisa Calc, along with six other applications – LisaWrite, LisaList, LisaProject, LisaDraw, LisaPaint, and LisaTerminal. It was the first spreadsheet program to use a mouse, but at a price approaching $10,000, the Lisa proved less than economically feasible. But it did inspire Apple to develop the Macintosh and software companies such as Microsoft to begin to prepare software for the new style of computer.

The Apple Macintosh was based on the GUI, often called WIMP for its Windows, Icons, “Mouse,” and Pull-down menus. The Apple II and IBM PC were still based on something called a command line interface, a “black hole” next to a > prompt that required code to entered and executed on. This system required extensive prior knowledge and/or access to readily available technical documentation. The GUI on the other hand, allowed you to point to information already on the screen or categories that contained subsets of commands. Eventually, menu categories such as File, Edit, View, Tools, Help were standardized on the top of GUI screens.

A crucial issue for the Mac was good third-party software that could work in its GUI environment, especially a spreadsheet. Representatives from Jobs’ Macintosh team visited the fledgling companies that had previously supplied microcomputer software. Good software came from companies like Telos Software that produced the picture-oriented FileVision database and Living Videotext who sold an application called ThinkTank that created “dynamic outlines.” Smaller groupings, such as a collaboration by Jay Bolter, Michael Joyce, and John B. Smith created a program called Storyspace that was a hit with writers and English professors.

PARC was a research center supported by Xerox’s near monopoly on paper-based copying that grew tremendously with the growth of corporate, military and government bureaucracies during the 1960s. Interestingly, in 1958, IBM passed up an opportunity to buy a young company that had developed a new copying technology called “xerography.” The monopoly gave them the freedom to set up a relatively unencumbered research center to lead the company into the era of the “paperless office.” One of the outcomes of this research was the GUI technology.

Unfortunately for Xerox, they failed to capitalize on these new technologies and subsequently sold their technology in exchange for the right to buy millions of dollars in Apple stock. Jobs and Apple used the technology to design and market the Lisa computer with GUI technology and then during the 1984 Super Bowl, dramatically announced the Macintosh. The “Mac” was a breath of fresh air for consumers who were intimated by the “command-line” techno-philosophy of the IBM computer and its clones.


[17] Rose, Frank (1989) East of Eden: The End of Innocence at Apple Computer. NY: Viking Penguin Group. p.47.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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