January 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

In the beginning, it was overpriced (a whopping $2,495) and software for it was scarcer than a Cabbage Patch doll at Christmas. One critic reportedly called it ”the world’s most expensive Etch-A-Sketch.”

But the Apple Macintosh, which debuted on Jan. 24, 1984, introduced a radical new feature to computers: personality. At the time, computers were frighteningly arcane devices, geared more to engineering students than casual users. Steve Jobs was out to change all that. The Mac was to be, in the words of Apple’s cofounder, the ”computer for the rest of us.” With a graphical inter-face featuring intuitive icons like a trash can, and a friendly pointing device called a mouse, Jobs and company positioned the Mac as less a tech-head toy than a home appliance with smarts. ”The Mac changed the course of computing with its interface,” says Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT’s Media Laboratory. ”It was so easy to use and so dreadfully obvious that the first thing you did with the manual was throw it away.”

Initially, the Mac was a hit. First-time computer buyers snapped up the new machine, intrigued by the novelty and goaded by the hype (exemplified by ”1984,” the famous Ridley Scott-directed, mega-budget commercial that showed a young woman destroying a Big Brother-like video image). But despite an early splash, the Mac failed to conquer the industry. In the years ahead, a series of management missteps would cause Apple to hemorrhage market share — to IBM and others that licensed its technology — especially after Microsoft introduced Windows, a Mac-like interface that was soon standard on new PCs, in 1985. But Jobs, whose iconoclastic personality led to his forced departure from Apple that same year, may yet have the last laugh: After returning to the company as interim CEO in 1997, he oversaw the launch of the hugely successful iMac last year.

By making computers speak the language of every-day people, instead of the other way around, the Macintosh paved the way for the digital revolution. As Mac fans point out, the information age began not with a bang, but with a click.

Time Capsule
Jan. 24, 1984
At the movies, Silkwood, the story of nuclear plant whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, reigns at the box office, bumping the previous week’s No. 1 movie, Terms of Endearment. But Terms would have the last word at the Academy Awards, winning four Oscars, including Best Actress for Shirley MacLaine, who beats out Silkwood‘s Meryl Streep. At bookstores, Who Killed the Robins Family?, a murder mystery without an ending, tops the fiction list. Readers are invited to solve the whodunit in exchange for a $10,000 prize. (A Denver group solves the crime and claims the prize in May.) And in the news, Yoko Ono takes her 8-year-old son, Sean Lennon, on a pilgrimage to Liverpool, where his slain father, John, had grown up. Says the young Lennon, ”I’ve been asking my mom since I was about 3 if I could come here.”

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