Twenty years ago last Thursday - Jan. 22, 1984 - Apple Computer Inc. used a revolutionary television commercial to launch a revolutionary product: the Macintosh.
The Orwellian-themed commercial aired just once - during the Super Bowl - and showed a rebellious woman running through an audience of dronelike humans to smash a big-screen image of Big Brother, a not-very-subtle shot at IBM's dominance of the personal-computer industry.
Two days later, the Macintosh went on sale, energizing the industry with its user-friendly mouse and a point-and-click screen that eliminated the need for users to learn arcane commands to open and manipulate the computer's files. Deleting a file, for instance, became as simple as dragging a picture of that file - called an icon - onto a picture of a garbage can.
The Mac also was - and continues to be - a wonder of modern design, a machine that invited, rather than intimidated, its users.
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs dubbed the Mac the computer "for the rest of us," and it quickly became the PC of choice for graphic designers and educators. And users quickly became passionate about it.
"If you ask a Mac user to switch, they'll fight you. You'll have to drag them kicking and screaming," said Nick Kourtides, a freelance sound designer in Philadelphia who creates sound and visual effects for theater productions on a variety of Macs.
"It's more oriented toward the user getting work done, rather than figuring out how to use the software," Kourtides said. "The beauty of it is that it lets you forget it's a machine. The computer is invisible. The technology gets out of the way of you being productive."
Yet the Mac never won over the business world, and Apple's refusal for many years to license its operating-system software to other computer manufacturers limited its reach. Rival Microsoft Corp., meanwhile, was putting its MS-DOS system, and eventually its Maclike Windows system, into PCs made by IBM and many IBM "clones."
So Apple's market share reached into double digits in the mid-1980s, but shrank into the lower single digits as Microsoft improved its Windows operating system in the 1990s.
"[Apple] had the best technology. They just thought that would turn in their favor, eventually," said Rod Bare, an equity analyst at Morningstar Inc., the Chicago-based mutual-fund research company.
"In general, it was just an underestimation by Jobs of the importance of being the most-accepted or utilized platform," Bare said, "not necessarily the best."
Most of the Mac's early history was overseen by John Sculley, the brand-marketing guru recruited by Jobs from PepsiCo Inc. Jobs resigned in 1985 after the company's managers decided Sculley was better suited to run the company.
Twelve years and another chief executive later, Jobs returned and revived Apple's flagging fortunes by launching the iMac, a colorful, all-in-one computer that restored Apple's reputation as a risk-taker and the Mac's reputation as the easiest computer to use. It was the first of several "i" products from Apple; popular recent examples include the iPod music player and iTunes music-downloading service, both leaders in their markets.
This month at the annual Macworld conference, Apple unveiled iLife '04, a suite of digital services including GarageBand, software that allows Mac users to simulate and record studio-quality music.
Apple also announced a strategic alliance with Hewlett-Packard Co. to develop a digital music player for the iTunes service.
Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., a Silicon Valley consulting company and a longtime Apple watcher, remains optimistic about the Mac's future.
"Most of the prevailing thinking right now is that Apple's market share is maxed out," Bajarin said. "But when you look at the integration of hardware and software, and how they make it easy to use, there's still room for Apple to grow.
"More and more consumers are getting into photography and music, and they want a platform that meets their needs. Apple has the more elegant solution," he said.