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Innovation: Open Cases and Industrial Design
What is closed?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

I always chuckle at the PC Advocates that try to trash Macs by claiming they are closed and proprietary, and as they often say, "even down to the cases". It used to be quite a common insult claiming that "you can't open your Mac and work on it" -- despite the fact that it has been easier than PCs for nearly a decade a now.

Apple (via Jobs strong influence) tried to make the original Mac (Mac128) as an information appliance. It was closed in that it was intentionally "not easy" to open up -- the idea being to discourage hardware hacking and tampering, and get people using them as an Information Appliance -- and not just a techno-toy. Good goal -- but about 10+ years ahead of technology. There just wasn't the power back then to do everything users needed -- and hardware was changing too fast. Many saw Apple's attempts to "simplify" the system, and focus on the software, as a way to lock people out.


Apple's image wasn't helped by some boneheaded moves, often attributed to Steve Jobs himself.

  1. The first when Burrel Smith (the Hardware Designer of the original Mac) added a "test connector" on the bottom of the original Mac128 motherboard. This was a little connector (and knockout cover on the bottom of the Mac128) would allow Apple to "test" the Mac. Functionally it have every significant electrical signal to the computer, and was really a PDS slot in 1984 -- hobbyists would have been able to knockout the plastic cover and snap their Mac onto card-cage (expansion chassis) and add slots/cards to the Mac (via the chassis). Very cool and powerful, and it almost made it to production -- but Steve Jobs saw it on the motherboard and figured out what it could be used for -- and that clashed with his idea of an information appliance. So one of his (then infamous) rants, he let everyone involved know that the-little-slot-that-almost-was was not going to happen. It was Steve'd -- and the original Macs were sealed, and had some problems in adoption because there was no way to expand them or use them for anything other than what they were designed for. The pads for this little connector are still on the original Mac motherboards -- but no edge-connector or knockout made it. This pattern seems to have been repeated with the iMac and Mezzanine bus. (Apple's greatest successes, and biggest failures seem to be traceable to the same source).
  2. The second was when the Mac512's came out. The only difference between the Mac128, and Mac512 (other than like $500) was the amount of chips soldered on the motherboard. At first the price differential was fair -- but over time the chips got cheaper. It became easy to buy a Mac128, and some RAM chips, and solder them on, and make yourself a Mac512 for a lot less money. Rumor is that Steve got wind of this and so had Mac128 motherboards "hole-punched". Basically they drilled holes through the motherboard to ruin it for ever upgrading it beyond 128K of RAM. If you wanted to upgrade, you could do a motherboard swap -- and pay Apple mighty heavily.

Neither move was very smart, and both hurt Apple's image. But it did hurt Apple more than it should have -- other companies were doing at least as bad of things. IBM was renowned for selling 2 versions of a mainframe or minicomputer, one being twice as fast as the other (and costing twice as much) and the only difference being that the slower version had a clock-divider (little circuit designed to make the machine run slower), stuffed in. Creative individuals would remove them -- and catch hell if caught.

Even the "ClosedMacs" like the 128 were somewhat innovative. The concept of an all-in-one was used before Apple -- but was being forced from popularity. The original TRS-80s and CommodorePETs were all-in-one machines, though they didn't quite have the Mac128s small footprint and vertical format. But they were dead designs -- cancelled years before the Mac. It was Apple that brought back the all-in-one format, and has kept it alive all these years. And Apple's particular spin on All-in-one has always been innovative and top-notch.


Jobs was soon given the big-boot from Apple (actually he was asked to stop meddling as much as he was, and at that time he couldn't handle the loss of control -- and so he left... and he sold all his stock IMMEDIATELY for a fraction of what it would be worth just a few months later). And those that had been against some of Jobs more extreme moves got more control.

This isn't meant as a "bash on Jobs" article -- I'm sure the Steve at Apple today is different than the Steve of 1983 - 1985. Experience and maturity happen. But if people are going to give him credit for the many good things he does (and has done), then we also need to remember the bad (or less than great) in balance. I still think in balance there is more good than bad -- and Apple is far better with him than without him. I think it would be better still if he could learn a tad more balance and less extreme moves (but that's just my opinion -- and I never forget that it is his show).

Jean Louise Gassee got a customized License Plate that read "Open Mac". And the "Open Macs" were the MacII (and SE's) released in 1987. The Mac II's had the easiest to open cases (a plastic snap-open case -- when PC's were using many screws), 6 slots, and used snap in memory. This was the antithesis of Macs before it (as far as expandability), and sales did pick up. Even the MacSE could handle snap in RAM (SIMMs) and a slot. It was the era of the "Open" Mac.

The Mac bashers still claimed that Macs were closed -- and do to this day -- but about every Mac since 1987 has been easier to open and upgrade than almost any PC (with a few exceptions). The MacIIcx (MacIIci, Quadra700) had only ONE key screw -- you snapped open the case, removed that one screw, and you snap out the Power Supply, the Drives, the logic board and everything -- the whole thing was a innovative snap-together design.

Apple kept the "open" trend, with the 500 and 5000 series (all-in-one's) which had slide out drawers to get to the motherboard (for most upgrades) -- and most Performa's followed this design. These machines weren't always the most upgradable (in the form of slots) -- but the idea was still making for easy upgradability for the things that people would most likely need to upgrade (like RAM, HardDrive, peripherals, etc.). The drawer was seen on some very high end servers (in the PC realm), but has not been popularized in the mainstream.

The 7500 Desktop had a Power Supply that were hinged to just rotate out of the way to get to RAM (something PC's still don't have). The 7600, 8600, and first generation G3's just had a little button to pop the side case off, and they too had Power Supplies that hinged.

Finally, the new G3 Series takes it even further -- with a door -- and the whole thing can be opened with the power on (which is nice for some types of maintenance / testing). Even the Portable Macs went more open with keyboards that pop-out and have easy access expansion -- though portables are often painfully small to work on.


There have certainly been a few Mac cases that were not a joy to get into -- but even the worst Macs haven't been significantly harder than the average PCs (or at least worst PCs). I would rather open a Mac128 case then the average PC case (with their cheap razor sharp stamped sheet metal design and often 6 or 8 screws). Early Mac Portables were hard to get into -- but then so were many PC Portables. Performas were not as open and expandable as some machines -- but then the Presario's, some Packard Bells and appliance PCs were far worse (I remember some with motherboards that were rivetted in place, and used proprietary components that couldn't be swapped out easily). So the anarchonistic claims of "Macs are more closed" wasn't completely true in 1985, and was a dinosaur after 1987. Uh, welcome to the 90's folks -- Macs have been more open (openable) than PCs for the past decade.

With Jobs back, some cases are going to be more "closed" -- but I don't think that is a bad thing. The goal is that home users shouldn't have to open their machine. If they need to, then the 2 screws in an iMac are not that complex, and its slide out tray is still easier than most PC's (or at least about the same). The point is to make the information Appliance, where you don't have to keep opening your machine -- that is a good trend. This time the hardware and software is advanced enough to make that 1984 goal more of a reality in 1999 -- 15 years, and computers roughly 512 - 1024 times more powerful, brought us a lot further towards that goal.

For the professional line of Macs, where people need expandability and openness, the Macs are still the best. Macs are easier to get into, more expandable, and more open. Apple still makes some mistakes -- like the new G3's can only use low-profile drives, and it doesn't have a nockout for those that want access to add an extra internal removable media device -- but it has more expandability and is easier to expand than 99% of the PCs out there. The trends are great, and Apple's cases and machines are very open and have been getting even better. Apple uses standards whenever possible, and likely 95% of the parts are in common with PCs -- it is just the industrial design, ergonomics, architecture and Open Cases that are better.

Created: 02/08/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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