From Macs to iPods and apps: how Apple revolutionised technology

Over 42 years, the company has created an ‘app economy’ and placed itself at the centre of it

Few companies change the world, and fewer still do it more than once. Apple is one of them, with a string of products over its 42-year history that have revolutionised computing, upended industries and ultimately reshaped society.

The company’s first computer, the Apple I, sold a few hundred units, barely enough to make an impression on a small high school. But its 1977 follow-up, the Apple II, was a different story.

The innovations of the Apple II were so influential that it is hard to even see them as such today. The computer was housed in a sleek plastic case, modelled more on kitchen appliances than its predecessors in the microcomputing world.

A built-in keyboard made input a dream, while an RF jack allowed owners to plug it into a standard television for output, making the Apple II a “ready-to-run” machine. And the whole thing cost “just” $1,298 – a shade under £4,000 today.

An advertisement for the Apple II computer
An advertisement for the Apple II computer, the replacements for which struggled to take off. Photograph: Apple/AP

It was enough to make the machine the workhorse of Apple’s lineup for more than five years. Almost problematically so: Apple’s attempts to replace the Apple II, such as the Apple III, or the Lisa, an early (expensive) example of a computer with a graphic user interface, struggled to take off. In the end, it took until 1984, when the company launched the Macintosh, for it to stumble upon a worthy successor.

Like the Apple II, the innovations the Macintosh pushed on to the world feel obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Borrowing the GUI from the Lisa, but slashing the price by 75%, allowed for a repeat of the popularisation of computing that the Apple II had ushered in.

New industries turned to the technology, with Apple gaining a reputation in desktop publishing and digital art that it has held through to the present day. In 1987, Quark Inc released its QuarkXpress page layout software exclusively for the Macintosh.

In 1990, Adobe Systems released Photoshop, exclusively for the Macintosh. In 1985, a year after the Macintosh was released, the software company Aldus released PageMaker, a desktop publishing program, again exclusively for the Macintosh. PageMaker was bought by Adobe and ultimately replaced by Adobe’s InDesign in 1999. InDesign is the software used to lay out the Guardian today – and it is still on a Mac.

Even by the time of the Macintosh, Apple’s strengths were becoming clear. The company was not the trailblazer: the Apple II was not the first microcomputer, and the Macintosh was not the first with a GUI.

Instead, it was the company that brought concepts to the mainstream. And that is what it did almost 20 years after the Macintosh, with the product that remade Apple and put it on the path to becoming the world’s first trillion-dollar company: the iPod.

An old iPod
The iPod did not attract rave reviews when it was released, but its design soon won customers over. Photograph: Frank Baron/Guardian

When the iPod was first announced in 2001 the reaction from much of the technology press was apathetic. “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame,” was the verdict of Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda, the founder of the influential tech site Slashdot.

MP3 players already existed, such as Malda’s Nomad Jukebox, and they were technically better, with larger hard drives, replaceable batteries, and compatibility with both Windows and Mac (the iPod would take another year to come to Windows). What did Apple have to offer?

With hindsight, the answer is obvious. The iPod looked cool: it had a sleek aluminium shell half the size of its competitors, and a physical scroll wheel that could zoom through the trademark “1,000 songs in your pocket”.

By 2003 Apple’s advertising agency, Chiat/Day, had come up with silhouette adverts to promote the iPod. The ads were almost too successful, turning the iPod’s white earphones into such a marker of desirability that the Metropolitan police blamed them for a 26% rise in street robberies in 2005.

The iPod revolutionised Apple’s fortunes, kicking off a five-fold increase in its share price over the following five years, and providing a gateway drug for winning round Windows users to its Mac ecosystem. But it also changed the company on a fundamental level, turning it from a computer manufacturer into a consumer electronics designer.

In January 2007, the company completed this transformation, announcing that it was changing its name from Apple Computer to Apple Inc. That same day, it also announced something else: the iPhone.

Steve Jobs holds an iPhone
Steve Jobs holds up the iPhone during a speech in San Francisco in 2007. Photograph: Paul Sakuma/AP

Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and chief executive at the time, revealed the iPhone to the world as three products in one: “A widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device.”

And for a while, that was all it was. But it was enough: the device sold out across the US when it launched in June that year – even at its initial launch price of $499 with a two-year contract.

But the real revolution came a year later – almost exactly 10 years ago today –when Apple launched the App Store. If the iPhone was three products in one before the App Store, then on 10 July 2008 it did not become four products in one, or five; it became 500, one for each new app available on the store on release day. Suddenly, the iPhone was a games console and an image editor, and a musical instrument and a torch.

Those apps, and the handheld access to the web, revolutionised everything from shopping and banking to buying train tickets, booking flights, paying for parking meters and reading the news. And Apple is behind it all, taking a 30% cut of all app revenue.

The company has not forgotten its roots. Unlike its tech rivals, Apple still makes the bulk of its income through the old-fashioned approach of building nice stuff, then selling it to customers for a lot of money. But now Apple takes almost $10bn profit each quarter from its “services”, largely that cut on app sales and Apple Music licences – and this is growing by almost 20% year on year.

Apple is not just changing an industry: it is changing the world, reshaping it into an “app economy” and planting itself in the middle of it.


Alex Hern

The GuardianTramp

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