The one-year anniversary of the iPad (I discussed it on a MacJury panel this week) and an episode of Shawn King’s Your Mac Life brought to mind a piece I wrote in 2004 to discuss the 20th anniversary of the Macintosh. Although the article is now seven years old, I think the analysis is still relevant, with one caveat: I think Steve Jobs’ well-publicized health issues have given him a greater fondness for past achievements. I’m not saying he’s now content to rest on his laurels — far from it — but I do think he’s got a greater fondness for acknowledging (albeit it not reflecting) the past. Maybe it’s all just a matter of perspective.

By Chuck La Tournous | First published January 24, 2004

Yes, this column is about Apple and the 20th anniversary of the Macintosh, but I promise it won’t be another of those walks down memory lane, where we talk about how Apple had it all only to bungle its way into irrelevance against the mighty onslaught of Microsoft. Sheesh. There are enough Monday-morning quarterbacks opining Apple’s “should-woulda-couldas” to fill a football stadium.

In fact, I think that’s one of the reasons Apple itself has kept so low-key about its milestone. How does the company talk about its history without touching on those issues? For those only following the Mac since Steve Jobs returned to Apple’s helm, it’s easy to forget that Apple had its Dark Ages — and some pretty pitch-black ones at that. And even if the company were to dance its way around issues of licensing and shrinking market share and a zillion and one different models of Performas and spin it into a lovely little fairy tale — that’s just not Steve Jobs.

Jobs has always struck me as someone who looks forward, not back. He plots his course by seeing what’s ahead, not lingering on what he’s done. Even the nod to the past in his keynote was more of a statement of where the company is now than where it was then. Jobs played the famous “1984” commercial, which aired as a paid spot just once — during the 1984 Superbowl. But in this rendition, the freespirited revolutionary heroine rushes past the legions of listless masses ready to shatter the status quo — wearing an iPod. The spot is no longer about the original Macintosh, but about Apple and what it represents today.

So what does Apple represent today? It’s a big question, and certainly a bigger one that can be fully answered here. Jobs has given the “sound bite” answer himself; he want the Macintosh to be the hub of your “digital lifestyle.” When he first said that, it seemed a pretty vague statement, but what Apple’s done since then has made it a lot clearer. The Mac, then, is more than a just a traditional computer. It’s not just the place to bang away on your word processor, plan your family budget and let your kids play a game or two. As heretical as this may sound, the Mac isn’t the best way to do any of those things. You can write letters and spreadsheets on a cheap PC just as well as on a Mac, and with the money you save, you can buy a console system that will do a much better job of playing games than a PC or a Mac.

But think beyond those traditional computing tasks, and imagine what someone on Star Trek would do with a sort of computerized assistant. “Computer — display the pictures of Alex and James’ baseball games; put them in an email addressed to grandma.” iPhoto. “Computer, take the movies of Nicole’s birthday party. Delete the part where the neighbor kid picks his nose. Add some nice music from my selection of songs from the 1950s. Assemble the movie and put it on a disc so I can send it to Aunt Patty in Florida to watch on her TV.” iMovie & iDVD. “Computer — play a random selection of my top-rated songs — but no slow ones. And don’t play anything by The Beatles — I’ve been listening to them a lot lately.” iTunes. “Computer — My friend David has a new email address. I’ve changed it in my Address Book, but make sure my work computer, cell phone, PDA and iPod are all updated with the new information.” iSync.

I could go on and on. My daughter asked me once, (OK, more than once) why I spend so much time on the computer. I told her that I was actually doing a lot of different things — it just so happened that now, most of them can be done better and faster on the computer. I might be reading the news on the Internet; downloading photos from my camera and printing or sharing them with family and friends; scanning and restoring photos of family members who lived a hundred or more years ago; helping her do research for her homework; making a movie of the apple-picking trip we just took; chatting with a friend who lives in California; or writing a song for her mom. A lot of these are things I couldn’t have done a few years ago; some are things that would’ve taken me much longer or been so hard I might not have tried them.

The image of the woman in the 1984 ad remains a potent and fitting symbol for Apple and the Mac. Because distilled down to one word, the Macintosh is about revolution. It’s what the old slogan “the computer for the rest of us” really means. None of what the Mac allows us to do is impossible without the Mac. But it is beyond the reach of most of us, reserved for the rich or very gifted. The revolution is that these abilities are now in the hands of us — the masses. The revolution that started with the power to create professional-looking documents and spreadsheets continues to this day in GarageBand, which lets the most tone-deaf among us make “real” music. And in between, we’ve been given other tools to do what was once, if not impossible, then highly impractical.

I, for one, am glad Apple’s not devoting a whole lot of its time and energy looking at the past. I’d much rather they keep working on bringing me the future.