RealTime IT News

Mac Founding Fathers Look Back, Ahead

BOSTON -- Apple co-founder Steve Jobs boycotted Macworld here this week over a dispute with the show's producers IDG World Expo. But that didn't stop four former engineers from swapping stories about him -- flattering or otherwise.

David Pogue, a New York Times technology columnist who moderated a morning panel session, did his part to set a light tone early by pulling a black shirt and jeans (Jobs' unofficial uniform) from a Gap bag and draping them over an empty chair on the dais -- Jobs in absentia.

"Was Jobs the terror that Noah Wiley portrayed in 'Pirates of Silicon Valley?'" Pogue asked.

"I think [Wiley] did a tremendous job," said Andy Hertzfeld, a key author of the Macintosh core OS and user interface toolbox. "I enjoyed working with Steve myself, although not everybody did. He was an incredible motivator of people and he had high standards; he wanted to be ranked with Sony and Mercedes [in terms of] design."

Others weren't so complementary. Jef Raskin, who worked as a computer science professor before joining Apple, said for years he let Jobs accept credit for creating Macintosh. Now, Raskin's Web site lists "creator of Macintosh" among his many accomplishments.

Raskin said the Mac's origins date back to his work as a professor at the University of California, San Diego, in the 1960s. Jobs never understood user interfaces, but was expert in packaging the computer in what he calls "pretty boxes," Raskin contends.

Raskin, who resigned from Apple two years before the Mac came out, said Jobs killed the project three times and that he and other engineers kept it alive, working on it after hours.

Raskin conceded that Jobs was a great motivator and a "tremendous negotiator," getting parts contracts cheaper than others and convincing talented engineers to work for him.

Macintosh's Meaning

Though reminiscing about Jobs' management style and personality was crowd pleasing, the panel got to their main topic, the 20th anniversary of the Mac -- the sum of their and others' creative energy.

Before Macs, computers didn't have a mouse, and graphics were labor-intensive work, said Bill Atkinson, a principal designer of the Macintosh interface and later MacPaint and HyperCard. Users had to remember exact commands and file names, and screen backgrounds were black with green or white text.

"It was pretty geeky, and you had to be a geek to use these things," Atkinson said. "One thing Mac did was [offer a computer] that people with some sense of taste would want to use."

It also made it easy, intuitive and accessible. Users no longer had to understand the system to use the machine, which was the whole idea behind the Mac, panel members said.

But as creative and energetic as Apple was during the 1980s, it made costly strategic mistakes, such as failing to plan for the coming boom of the Internet.

Another was keeping its operating system proprietary, despite overtures from Bill Gates. The question was put to the panel whether Apple would be the operating system had it accepted the offer.

"It would have had a chance," Hertzfeld said after a pause. "It wouldn't have been Mac any more because [Mac] is hardware and software, design, integration. But who knows what would have happened."

The Future

None of the panel's Mac founding fathers are still active with the company (Atkinson is a researcher emeritus), but they clearly have an affection for it and hope it survives against PCs. Hertzfeld consistently called prime competitor Microsoft a monopoly that's uninterested in innovation.

The panelists expressed the need for Macintosh to stay true to its original purpose of keeping it simple for users, an increasingly difficult task as complexity and power to run new applications are added. That said, all the panelists said the Mac is still easier to use than anything else on the market.

They also expressed optimism about the wild success of the iPod digital music player and iTunes music download service.

Asked about where they see technology going in the next 10 years, Atkinson said portability is an essential issue, noting the rapid rise of cell phone cameras, especially in Asia.

"There isn't going to be a digital camera 10 years from now. It'll be the cell phone, because a digital camera that's not with you is useless," he said.

Atkinson also envisions advances in natural language technology that will enable near-real-time translation. For example, one user could speak English into their mobile phone and have their words translated to Japanese characters that scroll across the other user's phone screen.

Others would not hazard a guess or offered generalities, such as improvements to point and clicking to select content.

Predictions of the death of the Macintosh and its parent company have been circulating for years, the New York Times' Pogue said. He took it upon himself to allay an audience member's concerns about the future of Apple.

"Apple is selling millions of computers a year," he said. "As long as there is software, as long as the company is profitable, we haven't hit the tipping point where you need to be concerned."