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Not a Toy but the Real Thing

Apple Computer's new Macintosh is a professional computer you can own, an affordable (but not inexpensive) version of the kind of machine computer scientists and engineers have been using for several years. What do the pros have that the rest of us don't know about? Essentially, equipment that is easier to use and more powerful: Instead of alphanumeric displays, these machines display bitmapped graphics on high-resolution screens. A mouse or other pointing device for entering commands. Easy transfer of data between fUes through windowed software. A 32-bit microprocessor for exponentially increased memory access. Except for the microprocessor, all these features facilitate ways of using the computer, rather than ways the computer computes.

Engineering workstations and graphics computers commonly contain all these features. In fact, dozens of them are based on the same microprocessor as the Macintosh, the Motorola 68000. These machines cost upwards of $15,000 - and that's before you buy the software. At less than a third of the cost, Macintosh resembles one of these machines that has been simplified, stripped down and given a facelift. A lot was lost in the process - just as a lot is lost in modifying, say, a professional movie camera for sale to the public - but a surprising amount came through. You can make acceptable cinematic images with Super-8, and you can give a fair imitation of a computer scientist with Macintosh. The Mac's limitations are a relatively small (128K) internal memory and an inability to support multitasking or multiuser operations; its main compromise is the smallish monochrome screen.

What Apple brings to the party is mass production and marketing. Although its retail price is still high, Macintosh is widely available to students at a large discount. Like the IBM PC, Macintosh is for everyone, not just those with $20,000 to plunk down for a drafting tool. You too can click down a menu and deposit your electronic debris in an iconic trashcan for no more than the cost of a PC.

Engineering workstations are for computer sophisticates. Macintosh is for beginners, and Apple went to some lengths to make it easv to use. You can run the entire system with the mouse, via a remarkable 64K of tightly written assembly code that performs system-management chores. Stored in two read-only memory chips, this code adds 480 special instructions to the basic 56 in the 68000.

A processor's instruction set consists of the commands the computer is wired to carry out. All commands to the CPU must be cast in a form that will evoke the basic instruction set. The instructions in the ROM chips implement the MAC operating system, the MacPaint graphics package, and the special interface instructions that make it possible for third-party software vendors to write for the Mac without worrying about screen management and the mouse.

As useful as these ROM chips are, they also isolate the Macintosh from other computers. You will not be able to run Mac software on your IBM PC, or PC software on the Mac. Apple's Lisa is the only other equipment that will run Mac software. Most leading software vendors are impressed with the Macintosh and are working intensively on programs for it; orJy Microsoft, however, was ready to deliver when Apple was.

In its own price range, the difference between the Macintosh and competitors like the IBM PC lies not so much in what they can do but in how they do it. The Mac is faster and easier. The PC, for instance, accepts typed input. With special software (like Microsoft's Windows or VisiCorp's VisiON), it can be made to run with a mouse, but slowly and not nearly so usefully. With special hardware it can be turned into a low-end engineering workstation, but then it isn't a PC any more. The Macintosh has a keyboard, but you don't have to use it. And the mouse is wired for speed.

Kids on whom I have tested the Mac have instantly recognized the mouse as another kind of joystick. more responsive and more accurate than the crude video game accessories. The Mac is an eerie manifestation, in fact, of Ted Nelson's 1979 remark that "the only truly interactive computers are found in game arcades." Nelson, author of Computer Lib and an implacable crusader for easy access to computers, saw that the joystick bypassed all the complex syntax that normally slows down the interactive process. Computer makers have taken the hint (perhaps because making computers "interactive" - meaning usable by humans - meant you could sell them to a great many people). They now offer not just the mouse but other devices that move a cursor and thereby access stored data. Xerox has opted for the trackball on the Star, and Hewlett-Packard has gone for a touch-screen on its HP-150 personal computer. The video arcade is moving into the office.

Any of these devices could work with a Macintosh and all of them perform the essential function of giving users direct, hands-on access to the computer. I have been a typist since I was twelve and I'm not afraid of keyboards. But the keyboard's inefficiency is apparent at a glance. The one I'm using now has ninety-odd keys, each of which can be shifted at least three ways, resulting in more combinations than a Horowitz has to contend with. Yet the display on my IBM PC, like those on most microcomputers, can show me only the 24 x 80 matrix. By contrast, a single Mac I/O device, the mouse (basically a button mounted on a ball), can address a 512 x 342 bitmap. That's an I/O bandwidth improvement of better than 1.2 million to one.

But the mouse was an embarrassment when I was working with MacWrite, the Apple-supplied word processor for the Macintosh. Typing with two hands, I needed a third for the mouse. But working with a spreadsheet is another matter. Here the mouse was quick and efficient, selecting boxes from the matrix and changing the display at the click of a button. I had never been able to operate a spreadsheet efficiently until I tried Microsoft's Multiplan on the Macintosh; with the mouse, I learned to run it easily in a few minutes, and I was able to set up calculations with very little trouble.

Visual strain is a normal hazard of working with a computer. After experiencing the flicker-free, visually quiet Macintosh screen, 1 didn't want to go back to a commercial video display terminal. The Mac displays 175,104 picture elements (pixels) on a 5 X 7-inch screen, or about 5,000 per square inch. The PC has 128,000 pixels on a 7 x 9-inch screen, or a little more than 2,000 per square inch. The difference is appreciable.

Pricing on the Macintosh has been capricious. Apple originally announced it at $1,995, then went to $2,495 at the insistence of new president John Sculley, who knows Apple can sell all it can make at either price. At the same time, large discounts were offered to students through large university purchases. Remember that $2,495 buys you only the box, the keyboard and the mouse. You'll need a printer ($595) and software. I strongly suspect you'll also need a second disk drive ($495), because the built-in 3y2-inch Sony drive holds only 400K of memory, much of which is taken up by operating software. And you really ought to have a modem (yet another $495). That puts the price up to $4,000 without software. At that, though, the Macintosh is competitive with the IBM PC, and it's a lot more powerful. If you can accept the price, you'll see what performance mean to the computer pros.