The Apple Mac is now 20 years old, and while Microsoft dominates the computer landscape, the Macintosh has had a massive impact on the way we work.

The Apple Macintosh marked its twentieth birthday in February, and – hubris and hype aside – the Mac has had an acknowledged impact on personal computing.

The Mac has contributed graphical user interfaces manipulated via mouse, new usability standards, still-evolving multimedia support, and cool design to the computing world. What do top industry players think the Mac has taught the computing industry? And what has the PC taught the Macintosh?

"The question is really, what did the Xerox Star teach the Macintosh?" says Vern Raburn, who helped direct application development at Microsoft between 1978 and 1982, then was an executive at both Lotus Development and Symantec. Today, he is CEO of Eclipse Aviation, developer of personal jet aircraft.

He – and others – point out that Apple CEO Steve Jobs lifted many innovations, from the graphical user interface to laser printers, mouse pointing devices and even, Raburn notes, "the vaunted trash can" icon from research performed at Xerox PARC.

But it was Apple that put those features into products and marketed them, notes Tim Bajarin, president of the consultancy Creative Strategies.

"Obviously, the PC got two key components from the Mac: the graphical user interface and introduction of a mouse for navigating information," Bajarin says. "Until that point, everything around the PC was driven by a very text-based architecture."

Bajarin credits the Macintosh with introducing desktop publishing and multimedia computing, "which is the Macintosh not only handling drawing and pictures, but true imaging and sound and video," he says.

"From the early publishing is a continuum to the multimedia that is Apple's emphasis today," agrees Raines Cohen, a cofounder of the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group. He, too, cites the GUI: "The Mac helped us get away from event-driven, menu-driven applications," he says.

Birth of an application

Desktop publishing reinvigorated the Macintosh, recalls John Scull, who headed that project at Apple in mid-1995. He recalled his work at a Macintosh retrospective this week at the Computer History Museum in California.

"I was charged with trying to figure out how to make the LaserWriter a viable product," Scull says. With a staff consisting of only a summer intern, he courted software developers and finally found an ally in Aldus, which created PageMaker – first for the Mac, and eventually for Windows – and helped launch the desktop publishing industry. Adobe Systems later bought Aldus and recently discontinued PageMaker.

"People were completely blown away," Scull says, remembering showing the technology at the Stanford Professional Publishing Course, at Stanford University. "It was clear we had something extraordinarily special. We thought we had the opportunity to be the Trojan horse that would get Apple into businesses." According to Scull, Eastman Kodak dismissed it as "a toy."

Helping to promote the Macintosh to developers was Guy Kawasaki, one of the original Apple evangelists, who spoke at the Computer History Museum event.

Kawasaki recalled his job in September 1983, as "trying to convince software developers to write software for a machine that at the time didn't even have a compiler."

The need for applications was something Apple had to learn, but picked up fairly quickly, agreed Mike Boich, another speaker and early evangelist.

"Jobs' original vision of the Macintosh was a very simple product with three or four applications, and I think Steve wanted them to be in ROM if they could," Boich recalled.

Making Microsoft

Several industry veterans suggest the Macintosh deserves credit for helping push Microsoft to greater power.

In 1984, three leading software CEOs pledged to support the new system. Mitch Kapor of Lotus promised a spreadsheet for the Mac, while Software Publishing's Fred Gibbons said the company would port its many popular applications to the new platform. But it was Bill Gates who delivered the most. Microsoft launched its Excel spreadsheet on the Macintosh, and released the first graphical version of Word for the Mac platform. It originally produced Multiplan, Word, and File for the Mac.

"The Macintosh marked the beginning of Microsoft's dominance of applications," Raburn says. "Windows is not the reason Microsoft dominated applications, it's because they had the head start of developing graphical apps on the Mac."

Unique contributions

Apple has long emphasized the Macintosh's uniqueness, which is perhaps both its strength and challenge (or outright weakness, depending on your stance). Several observers say the Macintosh ushered in greater interoperability – because it had to, in order to be accepted in business markets.

"Starting with the Superdrive – reading PC-formatted 3.5-inch disks – and continuing with today's networking and refined virtual PC emulation, this is an area the Mac truly has embraced," says Mark Eppley, founder of Traveling Software (now Laplink Software), which has developed for both platforms.

He suggests that this early emphasis is an advantage in today's highly networked world. "Apple should be able to continue to focus its development resources on creative differentiation without having to backfill and maintain too much legacy code, which Microsoft is burdened with," Eppley adds.

Apple was quicker to develop effective file translation programs and emulators and enable networking across disparate systems, Raburn agrees. "The network was a way of achieving compatibility," he says.

Philippe Kahn, once a Macintosh developer as CEO of Borland Software, and today CEO of wireless communications firm LightSurf Technologies, also praises the Mac's contributions.

"The PC learned from the Mac how to look good, sound great, be more reliable, and easier to use," Kahn says. "The Mac learned how to become more affordable and accessible to everyone."

The 1984 Macintosh was a breakthrough in many ways, but still had plenty of room for improvement, Raburn points out. "The 128K Macintosh without a hard drive was really torturous to use," he says. "The good news was at least the floppies were sturdy, because you put them in and out a lot."

But Raburn acknowledges, "the Macintosh clearly laid the foundation for a whole new approach to computing, and I wouldn't want to take away from that."

Still in school

So what has the Mac, in turn, learned from the PC? Jobs would say nothing, Bajarin says, "but in reality, it helped Apple understand the much greater importance of retail, and helped Apple hone in its marketing strategies."

Speakers at the Computer History Museum event recalled frustrating early attempts to break into the business market. The experience prompted Apple to try new approaches. For example, the "Macintosh Test Drive" invited prospective customers to take a Mac home to try it out. The Apple University Consortium seeded Macs in key college campuses around the country.

Getting businesses to buy Macintoshes "was one of the hardest marketing problems we ever had," said Mike Murray, Apple's vice president of marketing during the Mac's early days. He recalled a focus group of business people who declared the Mac easier to use, more efficient, and desirable, but still said they'd recommend their business purchase an IBM system.

The Mac II, introduced in 1987, had a PC-like rectangular box shape with a separate monitor, in an attempt to appear more businesslike. But Jobs resisted standard design as another way to distinguish the Mac, says consultant Bajarin notes. He says Apple learned that "none of the PC guys had any imagination" about design.

"About the only thing the Macintosh has ever really learned from the PC is that power is good," Raburn says. "That's become the theme in the Mac world, with the G3, and using chips that can kick ass."

Former evangelist Kawasaki puts it succinctly: "The Macintosh taught the PC about aesthetics," he says. "The PC taught the Mac the importance of an open architecture."

Consultant Rob Enderle says Apple may finally be learning the lesson of the PC's example of standards and licensing. The company recently licensed iPod technology to Hewlett-Packard (HP), which will release its own version of the music player.

"I think the real story is what both sides didn't learn from the other," says Enderle, managing partner of The Enderle Group. "Apple showcased over and over again what marketing-driven products could do, most recently with the iPod, and the PC industry still doesn't get it. On the other hand, if there was ever a stronger example that the power is in standards and the ability to take those standards across manufacturers than Microsoft and the PC industry, I don't know of it – and Apple didn't get that."

Fond memories

The PC eventually saw the value of the Mac's original slogan of "the computer for the rest of us," suggests Barbara Krause, today a partner in Krause-Taylor Associates, and in 1984 a public relations manager for Apple.

"The Mac taught that computers should be designed for regular people, and for all sorts of creative and personal tasks, not just for computing," Krause says. "And that sometimes, something sophisticated and highly advanced can be decidedly simple."

The original Mac team members told each other they were involved in something that would change the world, and although Apple operated in a bit of "a reality distortion field" at the time, as Mike Murray dryly noted, its influence cannot be denied. In recalling the Mac's early days, most mentioned the energy and passion that was a near-religious experience for participants.

Among the tales of the early days at the Computer History Museum program:

* Andy Cunningham, part of the Regis McKenna public relations team that planned the launch, remembered calming the volatile Steve Jobs on an interview tour by repeatedly playing a favourite Michael Jackson tune.

* Mike Murray remembered being encouraged by a US customs agent as staffers crossed the Canadian border with top-secret cargo the agent correctly identified as the Macintosh and then urged them, "Beat IBM!"

* Chris Espinoza, an early Apple employee who oversaw Macintosh documentation, related a strange afternoon delivering a Macintosh to Mick Jagger, supposedly at the rock star's request, but drawing more interest from his then pre-teen daughter, Jade.

* And Kawasaki invoked this memory: "Step One of the Macintosh development cycle: Print up T-shirts."

Remembering 1984

But the Macintosh marketing memories begin for most of the pioneers with the "1984" ad that played during the Super Bowl the week of the Macintosh's launch. Crafted by Hollywood director Ridley Scott, it was dramatic and artsy and, as several of the principals recall, it almost didn't run.

A preview of the ad was greeted with foot-stomping, whistling applause by the sales force at a fall meeting. But the Apple board of directors was much less impressed, and in fact ordered ad agency Chiat/Day to try to sell the Super Bowl advertising time spots. When the agency reported it couldn't unload the 60-second spot by the deadline, Apple's board suggested swapping in an Apple II advertisement – but none was suitable. So the board acquiesced, the spot ran – and the Mac made its mark on the advertising field as well as technology. Today, the Super Bowl is often the showcase for innovative advertisements.

"At the next board meeting two weeks later, they summoned the senior members of the Macintosh team," Murray recalled, completing the recollection. "We went into the board room, and they all stood up and applauded."

Even though the advert was broadcast just once, it is still a marketing message for Apple. It was eventually preloaded on some Apple systems and is available for download. A slightly modified version opened the keynote of the MacWorld Expo in January: the javelin-thrower's T-shirt was digitally changed from the Macintosh logo to that of the iPod.