I’ve seen, unusually, a few discussions revolving around Apple products which seem to go forward with an assumption that the original 128K Macintosh was a failure. I found it intriguing. Specifically, I’ve seen it said to have failed because it was expensive, underpowered, incompatible with the IBM PC, and didn’t have much memory, and Apple would have had more success if they had released the Macintosh OS as a Desktop Environment on top of Windows. I think this argument comes from a lack of understanding of the early computer ecosystem. Not to mention many of the points are simply incorrect.
One of the bigger draws of the Macintosh was that it was actually fairly affordable for what it provided. At $2,499, the Original Macintosh 128K was cheaper than a IBM PC equipped with 128K of memory by nearly $1,000- And that is compared to a base MDA adapter model without a monitor. Realistically, the only systems that were more affordable than the Macintosh at the time were systems like the Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore 64.
The system was quite cutting-edge for the time period. the 512×342 display was Black and White, and didn’t have the resolution or colours of the EGA Adapter that was available for the IBM PC, but did not cost anything extra. Additionally, since it was in all Macintosh computers it was, naturally, something that all Macintosh software- at least for a time- was designed for. Unlike MS-DOS Applications, there was no need for special BGI drivers or display card selections/options. Another advantage was that the graphics operated through DMA, meaning that some processing was off-loaded from the otherwise anemic CPU. This was one of the factors which resulted in the desktop environments on the IBM PC being slow until Video Accelerator cards appeared- it is no coincidence, I think, that Windows only truly started to take off only after Video Accelerator cards appeared on the market.
Compatibility is something we take for granted today even between otherwise disparate systems. You can plug in your smartphone and transfer files to your PC or Laptop and then upload them without much fuss, for example, or share Flash Drives or Burned Optical media between different systems with easer. in 1984, this simply wasn’t the case; There was very little in terms of standardization, while many systems used specific floppy diskettes, they seldom used compatible filing systems. TRS-80, Commodore 64, Apple II and IBM PC’s for example could accept the same form factor of 5-1/4" diskettes but you couldn’t share data between them directly because they formatted the disks different and used different file systems. Even as late as 1984 the IBM PC hadn’t truly established itself as a "standard" of it’s own and there were still innumerable standards "vying" for the attention of the typical user. One could just as easily argue that the IBM PC would have been more successful if it had been compatible with Apple II software.
Heck- whether an MS-DOS program even ran on a computer that ran MS-DOS was not really a given. Software often had to be ported between IBM Clone systems for them to work properly. Lotus 1-2-3 often couldn’t be run on many systems that ran MS-DOS anymore than it could run on a Mac 128K… Except that you could run it on a Mac 128K with add-ons like the MacCharlie. Making Equipped Mac 128K more IBM compatible than many clone systems!
Remember that this was a time frame where the idea of a GUI was, in and of itself, a "Killer App" altogether. On MS-DOS for example you couldn’t show charts or graphs in a spreadsheet at the same time as the spreadsheet itself; you had to shift to a graphics mode where you saw only the graph or chart, or possibly there would be a way to preview the printed output, but it was separate from actual editing, all of which would be in a system standard fixed width font, so you got no feedback while actually changing the document regarding things like spacing if you wanted proportional print output. Programs would show certain aspects within those limitations. "Bold" text or headers might be indicated by surrounding them with smiley face characters for example (PC-Write).
The fact that you could manipulate text on-screen and it would reasonably accurately show you what it would look like on the printed page was HUGE. It was the big reason that the Macintosh jump-started the idea of Desktop Publishing and then succeeded in dominating that space for years. THis might all seem redundant since a Mac OS desktop environment would have worked just as well- except it wouldn’t have. One of the things that made it truly possible was the video DMA capabilities of the system which made the fast GUI possible and which therefore made that entire thing possible. If the Mac System software had been a PC OS then it would have simply blended in with the countless other slow and clunky Graphical Environments that had been made available.