Old Mac of the Month: the Macintosh SE

Editor’s Note: This month’s installment of “Old Mac of the Month” is written by Randy Murray. Randy writes at First Today, Then Tomorrow and has written a book titled Writing Assignments, which is a great tool if you’re looking to improve your writing.

I don’t think of myself as being overly romantic about the past, but I do have a fondness for my first Mac. It not only changed how I worked, but it set me on a path that shaped my career and helped set my future financial position. More than that, I believe that this particular version was the one that established the Mac as a solid business and design machine.

The machine: the Macintosh SE.

When I went to college in 1978, I took a Smith Corona “Cronamatic” typewriter. My roommate had a record player. That was the complete extent of our high tech equipment. One guy across the hall had an Apple II and I’m pretty sure that was the only personal computer on campus at the time. We all thought it was pretty cool, but weren’t quiet sure what it was for. Some sort of games, apparently.

After college, then grad school, I found myself at Bell Labs on a documentation and training team. Up to that point I’d taken one programming class and used a few terminals, but that was it. In fact, I bought a new typewriter at the end of grad school. At Bell Labs we used AT&T PCs, but we booted into Unix. This is also where I was first introduced to the Internet.

When I could be torn away from the Usenet Star Trek threads I wrote and laid out the documentation using VI. For those unfamiliar with VI, it’s a way to code layout. We’d write up a chapter, hit print, walk down the hall to the printer, and see what came out, then return and debug our page layout. Fun. If we wanted a screen shot, we’d create a box to be printed on the documentation page, then separately capture the screen, print it out, cut it out, then affix it to the empty box using a hot wax. We were only one step away from creating our manuals using hot type.

Before I left Bell Labs we moved to Sun 360 workstations. They were very cool and had large monitors to display a very impressive graphical interface. In this interface you’d open a window and still write in VI.

And I remember passing a darkened room and seeing a very strange-looking computer. It had a small screen set off to one side and a graphical display. When I asked they called it “Lisa”. And just before I left Bell Labs we began taking a look at a program called “FrameMaker” which would allow us to create documentation in WYSIWYG. It seemed very strange, but exciting.

I moved on to create a documentation department for a large software company. I was given a vanilla PC, but also given a fairly open charge on how I’d set up publishing. I began talking with vendors and asked them to show me a wide variety of publishing tools. And one showed me the brand new Mac SE. I had no particular inclination toward Macs over PCs. But I was quickly and completely enamored with the little, powerful machine.

This Mac SE had 1 megabyte of memory and a 10 megabyte hard drive. As such, it was the most powerful (and expensive) computer at the company I worked for at that time. I added Microsoft Word 1.0, Adobe Illustrator 1.0, and QuarkXpress 1.0. And with this machine I was able to produce beautiful documentation for a fraction of the cost of using professional layout and publishing services.

How fast was it? At the time it was very fast. 8 Mhz. If I recall correctly, and including the software, I spent something like $5,000 for it. My manager didn’t really think of it as a computer. We called it a “desktop publishing system.”

But I couldn’t convince the company to purchase a laser printer (they couldn’t understand why a dot matrix printer wouldn’t be just fine), so I’d copy my documents onto an 800K “floppy” and drive across town to someone I knew who owned a printer. I paid them to print out my master copies.

The result: my boss and all his superiors were completely blown away at the beautiful manuals that I and my small team produced. They couldn’t understand how we could do it. All they had to pay for was the price of printing and binding. It was completely and utterly revolutionary.

We’re now expect Mac models to be updated every year, if not “speed bumped” more frequently. This model was available for two and a half years, virtually unchanged. And you can still find them in use. They were remarkably sturdy, dependable machines. I treated mine as a portable. I even found someone who made huge, padded cases for them. I thought it perfect, but in retrospect it was like carting around a dorm-sized refrigerator. It was just luggable, nearly 20 pounds with the keyboard and power supply, but I could take it home to work on the weekend and on projects at night. And yes, I did buy one game to play on it — Dark Castle.

This was the machine where Apple finally perfected the “compact” design. The original Mac was severely underpowered. It was really more of a proof of concept. Even the followup “Fat Mac” only attracted an enthusiast audience. The Mac SE was the machine that made people like me sit up and say, “this is a computer I can do amazing things with.”

Over the years I’ve used many Mac models, including the Quadra, early Power Macs, and many others with external monitors. But it was this machine and its successful implementation of the compact design that carries forward today in the iMac. It’s the design I most relate to the Macintosh core concept. When you say Mac, I see the Mac SE in my mind.

I think that a case can be made that this was the machine that demonstrated that the Mac was a cutting edge tool for layout and design. At this time most PCs were running MS-DOS and used primarily as typewriters and calculators. When I brought in the Mac SE the company had no email — inter-office communications was through distributed paper memos (and people could still smoke in their offices). PCs were used to create spreadsheets and reports, which one would print out to share. Programers would use PCs as terminals to connect to the mainframes and mini-computers. Because of the Mac SE I was able to produce professional documentation for basically the cost of my salary. Previously, manuals were costing the company tens of thousands of dollars each for professional layout. The company quickly saw the value and allowed me to grow our Mac installations, which over the years dominated both marketing and product management. When I moved on I left around one hundred Mac users in my wake.

Some claim the Mac SE/30 was a superior machine. It was faster, but the standard Mac SE was first and a rock solid performer. It helped to establish the foothold of Macs inside business and demonstrated the value of not just design, but of the graphical interface itself.

Over the years I’ve purchased literally hundreds of Macs (and probably a dozen or so for myself). For a long while I felt like a prophet in the wilderness, bitterly fighting to convert the unwashed and convince them about not just the superiority of the Mac, but also of the wonderful things one could do only on a Mac. I stopped the evangelism years ago, and now, it’s no longer even necessary.

I even rode the Mac into new jobs, including one at a Mac software company. I’ve been to many, many Macworlds and developed a great many close friends because of my involvement in the industry. And by developing a clear understanding of what Apple was doing, I invested in the company years ago and have done very well as Apple stock grew (and grows!) to astonishing heights.

I’m writing this on my three year old iMac. My first generation iPad and iPhone 4 are on the desk next to me. I just sent my youngest daughter to college with a brand new Macbook Pro and my older daughter just bought a new 27" iMac. My wife uses my five year old Macbook Pro. I’m convinced that none of this would have existed without the trusty little Mac SE.