Computer technology - in terms of materials, hardware, and software - advanced in great leaps and bounds during the 1980s and 1990s. A major landmark was reached in 1984 when the US company Apple released their first Macintosh personal computer, a compact machine designed with ease of use in mind and aimed at the general consumer market (Figure 2.6). Housed within a portable (though hardly 'lightweight') beige cube, the Macintosh had a 9-in., 512 x 342 pixel monochrome display, beneath which lay a 3.5-in. floppy disk drive; it boasted 128 kb of RAM with which to perform its operations, but lacked a hard drive. Unlike other personal computers on the market at that time, the Macintosh featured a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI) - a set of icons displayed on the screen in a virtual desktop which, when clicked upon, displayed programs within rectangular, overlapping, resizable windows. Menus within programs could be pulled down to execute a variety of commands.
To those previously restricted to a keyboard, the original Macintosh was a revelation. My own first encounter with this legendary piece of hardware took place in 1988 at the University of Aston in Birmingham, under the guidance of Professor John Penny, editor of the Birmingham Astronomical Society Newsletter. I soon found my feet and began to write astronomy articles on MacWrite and produced illustrations in a graphics program called MacPaint, using the mouse to manipulate numerous pen, paint, shade, and fill and shape effects (Figures 2.7 and 2.8). Although the graphics were pretty basic (by today's standards, at least) it seemed obvious even then that computers had great potential to be used as an aid to observing and recording astronomical subjects. My own first electronic observational drawings consisted of a series of Mars observations made during the planet's 1988 apparition; although the shading was created using a spray brush effect, creating black dots on a white background, they were reasonable efforts (providing the viewer look at them through narrowed eyes from across the room) (Figures 2.9 and 2.10).
Apple's share in the personal computing market grew during the 1980s as improved versions of the Macintosh were introduced, complete with hard drives, increased RAM, and expansion slots. Also, a range of peripherals such as printers and scanners appeared. Among new software, all of which was produced by Apple itself, were spreadsheet and presentation software, and improved 'Pro' graphics and DTP applications. In 1989 Apple even launched a laptop, the Macintosh Portable, and the company later pioneered laptop ergonomics with the Powerbook 100, placing the keyboard behind a wrist rest and using a trackball pointing device to replace the mouse, which was placed centrally at the base of the keyboard.
Competition with Apple's range of Macintosh computers rapidly gained ground in the form of PCs using MS-DOS/Windows operating systems. Microsoft Windows 3.0, released in 1990, was the first operating system to go head to head with the Macintosh operating system, offering a seemingly comparable level of performance and set of features, and presented a virtual desktop GUI. Importantly, PCs running Windows 3.0 were less expensive than their Apple rivals. Painfully aware of the new competition, Apple sued their rivals Microsoft, with the accusation that Apple's copyrighted GUI was being infringed. In addition to losing their case after a 4-year period of litigation, Apple lost not only the support of many
within the industry but many consumers too; by mounting a legal challenge to Windows, the company was accused of stifling development and choice by creating a monopoly on a particular style of GUI.
Apple eventually replaced the name 'Macintosh' with the snappier, friendlier 'Mac' and prided itself on the sleek design of its products. A major target area for its goods was the graphics and professional user, both personal and corporate. Programs such as the desktop publishing classic Quark XPress and the graphics programs Photoshop and Illustrator (both by Adobe) were among the cornerstones bolstering the Mac's reputation as being the most desirable graphics and DTP computer. In 1998 Apple produced the eye-catching iMac, an all-in-one device with monitor and computer encapsulated within a streamlined, translucent case (originally a cool blue, but later available in other colors). Apple dispensed with the usual large and unsightly connections (SCSI and ADB) and instead featured two USB ports for peripheral connections. Phenomenal sales of the iMac helped revive the flagging company.
Many Mac users today are professional writers and graphics people. Space artist David A Hardy obtained his first PowerMac 7100 (with 512 MB of RAM) in 1991; since then he has gradually moved up. He now has a 24-in. iMac (with an Intel Core Duo chip and 4 GB of RAM) running OS X 10.4.11 'Tiger.' Hardy's most used program - and one that he admits not being able to do without, for digital graphics
at least - is Adobe Photoshop CS2. He doesn't use any 3D programs except Terragen to generate landscapes (but he does produce his own bump maps in Photoshop) and Poser 7 for figures.
The latest Apple iMac is contained within a stylish aluminum carapace; Apple also produces a Mac mini desktop model, the MacBook, the incredibly slender MacBook Air (the world's thinnest laptop), and MacBook Pro laptops. Although Mac OS X 10.5 'Leopard' is the latest Mac operating system, Macs are now able to run other operating systems such as Linux and Microsoft Windows.
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