The Macintosh TV was introduced to the market in October of 1993, and pulled in February 1994. The computer combined the Apple Performa 520 and a 14-inch, cable-ready Sony Trinitron television. Like the Performa 520, the computer contained an all-in-one design, complete with a 1.4MB floppy disk drive as well as an AppleCD 300i CD ROM drive. It was the first Apple computer to come entirely in black, with a black mouse and a black Apple Standard keyboard. The computer came with a remote control, which allowed the user to flip channels, play audio CDs, adjust the volume, and shut down the computer. (Heid, 1994) The computer also had a video input port for a VCR, camcorder or video-game player and a coaxial port for a standard cable-TV hookup. The computer was equipped with 32-megahertz 68030 computer chip, 5MB of RAM and a 160 MB hard drive. The Macintosh TV was the first personal computer to integrate a television set directly into its design.
“Sleek but slow”
The black design was described as “sleek but slow” by reviewer Jim Heid in Macworld, and as “Batman’s Macintosh” in another review by Cameron Crotty in Macworld. The imagery of space exploration was even called up in the January 1994 issue of Macworld, where the cover image showed the Macintosh TV tilted upward as if ready for take off, with an image of a rocket in orbit on its screen. While the color black provided the computer with extra points in the design department from reviewers, most likely the color choice was put into place in order to resemble a black television set, a skeuomorph of its black shell. The emphasis on the Macintosh TV’s exterior color in the reviews, and its association with gloss and glamour, reveals how the computer’s color choice was also aligned with an elite consumer during its marketing campaign.
The sales strategy for the device was indeed exclusive – only 250 retailers in the United States carried the Macintosh TV and it was available on a few college campuses. (Crotty, 1994 and The Windsor Star, 1993) By the time it was taken off the market, only 10,000 units were produced. The computer was never marketed or sold outside of the United States. The price point was $2079, which was several hundred dollars more expensive than the Performa 475, the leading Macintosh computer at the time. (Heid, 1994) The logic proposed by Apple was that the Macintosh TV combined the computer, television and stereo, making it cheaper than purchasing all of these items individually. (The Globe and the Mail, 1993.) However, it was still expensive in comparison, and did not run as fast other Macintosh computers available at the time. (Heid, 1994)
Apple’s Most Notorious Flop
In 2008, Wired named the Macintosh TV as one of Apple’s Most Notorious Flops and the computer only lasted on the market for 5 months.1 Not only was the price point and performance an obstacle, the Macintosh TV notably forced the user to choose between the desktop or the television, and did not allow the user to access both simultaneously. Wired cites this aspect as the primary reason the Macintosh TV never succeeded, and many of the reviews published around its introduction complain about this component. While digitized video files took up an enormous amount of memory, QuickTime was only two years old and by 1993, standard in new Macintosh computers. The Macintosh TV did not provide users the ability to capture QuickTime movies from video sources, a feature remedied a year later by the Quadra 630, which allowed users to not only capture video sources using QuickTime, but also watch television through a resizable window in the desktop. (Heid, 1994)
The Multimedia Mac
The Macintosh TV emerged during an intense interest in multimedia, visual computing and interactive programming within Silicon Valley, and it can be understood as a product of this larger paradigm. The fixation on multimedia by companies in Silicon Valley was the subject of a feature article in The Economist in September 1994, titled “Screen Test.” Its author, Peter Haynes, describes how a number of companies, such as Silicon Graphics, Intel, AT&T and Apple were researching and investing in new technologies, such as interactive TV (in the form of video-on-demand), PC and the TV combinations (like the Macintosh TV), and CD-ROM/online products (like Microsoft’s “Complete Baseball” which provided daily scores downloads of the latest stats along with static information on the disk), along with further expanding the infrastructure needed to deliver increased content, such as fiber-optic cable systems. Throughout the article, there is an acknowledgment that both the television and the personal computer would share more of each other’s qualities as they developed, a position Bill Gates himself declares in a conversation with Haynes. The Macintosh TV is but one moment in this history and, while it was unable to deliver the desktop and the television simultaneously, it did provide them within the same package.
The Haynes article also quotes Apple representative Satjiv Chahil as stating that in 1994, after successfully developing a “desktop-publishing market” that the company aimed to create a “desktop-studio market.” (Haynes, 1994) The term “studio” recalls recording studio, television studio, and art studio – all spaces for the production of audio and visual material. In this quote, it seems that Chahil is signaling a shift from the word processing and accounting focus of personal computers in the 1980s to an environment that would encourage increased use of tools for graphic design, recording, and the moving image. This is not to say that these programs did not exist before, but rather that clearly, in the early 1990s, Apple wanted to expand these capabilities in their products.
The graphical user interface (GUI) was a key component in allowing a desktop environment to flourish, and the interactive approach it established underlies both desktop-publishing and a desktop-studio. Anne Friedberg in The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft argues that the graphical user interface (GUI) introduced a new visual system that obscured above, below, ahead and behind in way that challenges the depth of traditional Renaissance perspective and allows multiple perspectives in a single frame. (Friedberg, 2-3) Given the GUI design, one could understand why users of the Macintosh TV were frustrated by the fact that they could not view television in another window on their desktop, as they were accustomed to viewing applications within multiple, layered windows. Perhaps television had to be remediated as a window amongst many windows for the GUI environment, and it seems, in allowing television to be viewed in a window on the desktop, the Quadra 630 directly addressed this.
Front Row and the Macintosh TV
The Macintosh TV’s capacity to “switch” between a television and a desktop has not entirely disappeared. This “switching” mechanism is remediated in programs such as Front Row. The software was first introduced in the iMac G5 in 2005, and it allows the user to switch between programs such as iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie using a remote control or keyboard. When activated, it leaves the desktop and opens to a dark screen, where large icons represent programs that can be selected by a remote or keyboard.
The original press release for Front Row emphasizes the fact that the program allows the user to access and navigate programs on the desktop from 30 feet away, using a remote control.2 The Macintosh TV also came with a remote control, and perhaps this "switching" mechanism can be related back to the remote control as the primary motor for navigating amongst various programs. The remote control only allows movement back and forth, hence the paired down interface of Front Row, as well as the more crude switching between television and desktop in the Macintosh TV.
Associated Press, "Apple tests market with computer-TV," The Windsor Star, Oct 26, 1993. pg. C.6, Final Edition
Associated Press, "Apple unveils multimedia device Computer, TV, stereo combined," The Globe and Mail, Oct 26, 1993. pg. B.29
Crotty, Cameron, "It's a Mac! It's a TV! Film at eleven!" Macworld, Jan 1994. Vol. 11, Iss. 1; pg. 34
Friedberg, Anne, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Boston: MIT Press, 2006.
Haynes, Peter, "Screen Test," The Economist, September 17 1994, v. 332 p. survey 17-20
Heid, Jim, "Macintosh TV," Macworld, April 1994. Vol. 11, Iss. 4; pg. 57
Heid, Jim, "The Multimedia Mac," Macworld, September 1994, Vol. 11, p. 98-103
Mossberg, Walter S., "Personal Technology," Wall Street Journal, Nov 4, 1993. pg. PAGEB.1, Eastern edition
Video of the Macintosh TV in operation: