Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Untold Story of How My Dad Helped Invent the First Mac

The guiding principles laid out in those early days — from “think small” to top-down control — still run through Apple’s DNA to this day.

Jef Raskin, my father, (below) helped develop the Macintosh, and I was recently looking at some of his old documents and came across his February 16, 1981 memo detailing the genesis of the Macintosh.

It was written in reaction to Steve Jobs taking over managing hardware development. Reading through it, I was struck by a number of the core principals Apple now holds that were set in play three years before the Macintosh was released. Much of this is particularly important in understanding Apple’s culture and why we have the walled-garden experience of the iPhone, iPad, and the App Store.
Even better, I found some sometimes snarky comments Jef had made to the memo as part of the Stanford Computer History project. The annotated memo follows my commentary.

Apple Learns to Own the Entire Experience

Reading the memo, we see that Apple was struggling with an explosion of fragmentation with the Apple II:

It is impossible to write a program on the Apple II or III that will draw a high-resolution circle since the aspect ratio and linearity of the customer’s TV or monitor is unknown.

This is the exact problem that Google Android now faces. The revolutionary idea back in 1981, even to Apple, was to throw away the Apple II’s corner-stone expandability in exchange for owning the experience from top to bottom:

The secret of mass marketing of software is having a very large and extremely uniform hardware/software base.

To combat fragmentation, for the Macintosh:

There were to be no peripheral slots so that customers never had to see the inside of the machine (although external ports would be provided); there was a fixed memory size so that all applications would run on all Macintoshes; the screen, keyboard, and mass storage device (and, we hoped, a printer) were to be built in so that the customer got a truly complete system, and so that we could control the appearance of characters and graphics.

We also see Jef articulating and forming Apple’s nascent core principle of innovation being prioritized over backwards compatibility.

The Apple II/III system is already lost. We cannot go back and simplify, we can only go forward.

This became a key differentiator to Microsoft’s no-matter-what policy of maintaining backwards compatibility. Apple willingness to ditch the old for innovation, left it nimble and able to overcome the innovator’s dilemma.

Interesting Sound Bytes

Quotes from my father

Another key concept is ‘think small’. We have not begun to reach the limits of what can be done with 64K bytes of memory and a single mass storage device. It is important to hold to these limitations in order to keep the project from burgeoning into a huge, expensive and time consuming effort.

In my first conversations with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, back in the garage that was the original location of Apple, I argued that the Apple I (and later, the II) needed upper- and lowercase on both keyboard and screen. At the time they disagreed rather strongly–a position they now somewhat regret having taken.

It does not take much imagination to see that a portable computer will open up entire new application areas, and once again give Apple access to totally untapped, yet ripe, market.

Having been associated with PARC, I repeatedly called Apple’s attention to the kind of thinking going on there, and it was gratifying that the company took note of and eventually based a lot of the LISA software on the published work done at PARC.

We see that the ideas behind universal-access computing, like Ubiquity or Enso or the Services Menu, are already in place:

The original concept gave the word processing program access to calculator ability without having to leave the word processing environment. Studies have shown that having a multiple level system is more confusing than a single level system. The iPhone in particular suffers greatly from this problem.

The Original Document