Les Squires had been out of work for some time and was not in a particularly good mood about it when he joined about 1,000 other computer professionals and aficionados in a Boston theater to hear a rising young star of the industry.
At 28, Steve Jobs had already earned a reputation as a brash and bold challenger of the status quo. But what he unveiled in late January 1984 in Boston — the new Macintosh computer — and they way he did it, would not only change the computer industry and influence popular culture, but inspire hundreds like Les Squires to pursue their own dreams.
“I was overcome with a real kind of enthusiasm, and I walked out of that room totally inspired,” said Squires, now 68.
With a team of Apple engineers nearby, Jobs’s presentation was full of infectious passion and optimism, giving Squires an emotional lift that helped him launched his own successful software company, Word Jenny. Three decades later Squires and other successful business people reflected on that night, in which Jobs made the first public showing of the Mac at the John Hancock Hall in Back Bay before members of the Boston Computer Society.
It was as if a door had opened for their work as computer programmers to move from nerdy obscurity into mainstream culture.
“This was the start of a tech genre,” said Dan Bricklin, a computer society member already well known in tech circles as co-creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program.
“There were tech demonstrations that had been done previously by others, but not like this one,” Bricklin said. “This was part of getting our industry into the regular world.”
For many, the event was much more than a showy product launch; it became a call to action, of sorts, as a cocky Jobs predicted his tiny desktop tool would jolt the established computer industry right to its circuits.
“Here were these geeky guys who came all the way from California, they unveil this little toy, and this toy launched a mass movement,” recalled Squires. “To this day, I’m amazed.”
At the time, computers were still largely an industrial application, giant mysterious back-end systems, while early desktop versions were clunky, slow, and hardly intuitive — far too complicated and expensive for most people to consider buying.
Simple functions often required cryptic keyboard commands that could only be learned by studying phonebook-size manuals. Apple’s previous computer, the Lisa, rolled out in 1983 at $9,995 — more than $22,000 in today’s money. The Macintosh, with its intuitive mouse, drag-and-drop functions, and menu-driven commands, promised a new era of computer accessibility, and importantly, a much lower price tag — $2,495.
A few days before Boston, Jobs introduced the Mac to Apple shareholders in Cupertino, Calif. His presentation to the Boston Computer Society, however, marked the first public demonstration of the Mac and was an enormous test before a discerning audience. The organization’s membership was divided in its opinion of Apple products; even admirers questioned Jobs’s claim that computers would be an integral part of everyday life for average Americans.
At the time the computer industry was dominated by IBM Corp.; its nickname, “Big Blue,” and legions of company men came to define the American corporate establishment in midcentury. The audience in John Hancock Hall that night included many software developers whose response could make or break the Mac’s success.
One of those was Bob Doyle, who was so moved by Jobs’s vision of computing that within months he had created his own revolutionary tool: desktop publishing.
“I said, ‘This is the future,’ ” Doyle recalled. “My son was the layout editor for his high school newspaper, and we looked at that screen and said, ‘Oh my gosh. We could put text and pictures on the same screen.’ ”
Doyle immediately dropped his other business pursuits and concentrated on developing software for the Mac, just the 11th outsider certified by Apple to do so. Within a few months, Doyle and his son, Rob, created the MacPublisher program and changed the way almost every publication on the planet was designed.
“I was totally inspired by that night,” Doyle said. “It certainly had a big impact on my life.”
Jobs’s boldness won over the crowd. In footage of the event released for the first time by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., a confident, beaming Jobs delivers a dramatic speech that includes music from “Chariots of Fire” and frequent jabs at IBM.
The Macintosh, Jobs declared, wasn’t just good — it was “insanely great.”
A student at Harvard at the time, Scott Mize said he has been motivated to meet the high standard set by Jobs ever since.
“Steve Jobs was a ‘get-it-right guy,’ ” said Mize, now an adviser to tech companies in San Francisco. “Good enough wasn’t good enough. And I totally subscribe to that, and try to make sure whatever I produce is the absolute best quality I can produce. I was really influenced by the Mac and Steve in that respect.”
That kind of a big-picture focus also had a profound effect on the young man who was somewhat responsible for getting Jobs to Boston. As a 13-year-old, Jonathan Rotenberg started the Boston Computer Society as a school club. It would go onto become the world’s largest such group.
On the night of Jobs’ speech Rotenberg was still just 20. He has since become a successful management consultant and executive coach, and said he still thinks about Jobs’s energy and passion whenever he advises clients.
“You have to be relentlessly practical but also be able to step back and look at things in a broader way,” Rotenberg said. “That aspect of how Steve Jobs looked at business is something that had a big impact on me.”
Though video of Jobs’s address to the Boston Computer Society has not been widely distributed, Dan Bricklin has his own copy that he often shows when speaking to business school students.
He hopes a special night that is now three decades old can inspire yet another generation of innovators.
“I say, ‘Let me show you the passion of an entrepreneur,’ ” Bricklin said. “ ‘You were in diapers, or weren’t born when this happened. But look at this. This is what it takes.’ ”Callum Borchers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.