Creating Like a God
Co-Creator, Apple Macintosh Computer
Author, Revolution in the Valley
Every so often, a work so significant comes along that it is deemed a creation of god. Such is the development of Apple’s revolutionary Macintosh computer, which introduced the now ubiquitous graphical user interface on computers to the world. Interviewed here is a distinguished fellow, Mr. Andy Hertzfeld, one of the principal architects of the Macintosh computer.
Andy Hertzfeld (AH) joins Frank Ling (FL) to talk about the development of this iconic computer. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
FL: Mr. Hertzfeld, thanks for joining us today.
AH: You’re welcome.
FL: So I understand you maintain a couple of websites including folklore.org and differnet.com and recently you are the author of Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Macintosh Was Made. Mr. Hertzfeld, could you tell us a little about your book?
AH: Sure, it’s really a collection of interlinked anecdotes. Each story itself is fairly brief running one to six or seven pages, about all the stories I collected back in the time when we were making the Mac, starting from the very stirrings of the Macintosh in early 1979 up through its introduction in January 1984, up until Steve Jobs got dismissed from the project in May 31, 1985. I chose to stop it there because that was a pretty big shift. I didn’t really intend to write a book. I wanted to create a website oriented toward collective story telling. One important point is that the book is not just mine. Other Mac team members – there are four anecdotes contributed by other Mac team members – and on the website, there is about 20 additional anecdotes from different people who were around. I was a little worried that other books about Apple sort of limited by the individual’s perspective and often self-serving so I thought by creating a website that was completely open and anyone who had had anything to say could post to it, we get a more fair and balanced story. And then Tim O’Reilly, the publisher of O’Reilly Books saw the website and suggested we make it into a book. I was apprehensive of it at first but I thought it was a worthwhile thing to do and we ended up making a really beautiful book.
FL: Great. A lot of your book centers around your friendship with Mr. Burrell Smith, probably one of the less known characters on the Mac team. Could you tell us a little bit about him?
AH: Sure, Burrell is a genius. He was the sole digital designer of the Macintosh digital board, the heart of the computer, and in the tradition of Steve Wozniak. The co-founder of Apple, who did just a brilliant job with the Apple II. Burrell took the techniques that Woz developed for the Apple II and took them further for the Macintosh. So I sometimes say that Burrell’s logic board that he designed for the early stages of the Mac project was the seed crystal of brilliance that drew the rest of the team to the project, so I really think that Burrell deserves a lot of credit for the Macintosh.
FL: And how many people were on the original Macintosh team?
AH: Well, it started very small and then grew to be you know to be very large. So, in the early days that matter, I would maybe say a dozen or so people. There were initially four people. By the time I started on the team in February ’81, there were more like 7 people. And you know during the first year of development, there were less than 20. But then, the second year it probably doubled to about 50 people. The third year, doubled again. By the time the Mac shipped, there were a hundred people in the Macintosh division.
FL: I’m just curious. How did you become interested in computers. I understand you were a student at Berkeley at one point is that right?
AH: I was a grad student at Berkeley but I was already way interested in computers by then. I was a grad student in computer science but in high school, they had a terminal connected to a time sharing computer ten miles away. So I took a class in eleventh grade and just fell in love with programming. It seemed very natural and easy to me and then later, I became entranced with the potential of small computers and how then could help individuals. Back 25 years ago, that was a bit of a radical idea. Today, the vision is fully realized. Computers are a part of almost everybody’s everyday life, was a critical step in making that happen. The key thing about the Mac is that it was the first computer that was easy enough to use for an ordinary person to enjoy computing.
FL: When you started on the Mac, did you know what you were getting into? Did you know that it would be something that would be so revolutionary?
AH: We knew it was attempting to be a radical step forward. We had all seen plenty to ambitious projects fail for various reasons. Not only fail in the market place but even fail to come to the market place. So, we thought it had a huge amount of potential so we were pretty confident. You know, our success was by no means assured.
FL: At the same time, Apple was also working on the Lisa computer, which also had a graphical user interface. How was that different from the Macintosh?
AH: The Lisa was in many ways the big brother of the Macintosh. The big difference was that the Lisa cost five times as much as a Macintosh. It was viewed as an office computer. The Lisa initially cost ten thousand dollars, which was way too expensive to be affordable to an individual. Apple had a heritage of making affordable computers with the Apple I and the Apple II. The Lisa was an attempt to expand into the office or enterprise market, whereas we saw the Macintosh as more bringing it all back home Apple to its roots, trying to take the advances that were made with the Lisa user interface and make them available to everyday ordinary people and there were lots of other differences too. The Mac was intended to be a more open system. Apple was writing all the applications for the Lisa computer itself, whereas the Mac following the footsteps of the Apple II, trying to take advantage of third-party developers, so in my opinion, the Mac had a lot more spirit and heart that the Lisa which was aimed at a more elitist group.
FL: So earlier this year, we had Jef Raskin on our show. He is the self-professed creator of the Mac. How much truth is there to that?
AH: Well, Jef was, what I would say, the creator of the Macintosh project as opposed to the Macintosh computer. There is no doubt that Jef named the Macintosh, he started the project, he gathered the initial team. He got at odds with Steve Jobs fairly early in the development cycle when we were just starting out and he ended up being forced off the team at just the time I started on it. Steve forced him to take a 3 month leave of absence and then when he came back from the leave of absence, he was sort of at odds with the team and not really helpful. Everyone could see that and he ended up entirely in June or July of 1981 before most of the computer was designed. So I would say that Jef is not responsible for the design of the Macintosh, but he is responsible for the core concept of trying to make a computer that was both extremely high volume, inexpensive, and very easy to use, so I give Jef full credit for the vision, but he doesn’t deserve that much credit for the realization of that vision.
FL: So we hear a lot about what kind of person Steve Jobs is like. Could you tell us in your own words what it was like working with him?
AH: Steve is simultaneously the best person I ever worked for and the worst. He is quite a character. He is extremely passionate. He is extremely bright and creative, but he is also extremely difficult and the heart of my book is telling different stories about how Steve motivated us or some of his unusual behavior. Like a good example is a story in the book Saving Lives, where Steve was a bit upset that the Macintosh was taking too long to start up and told us that if we could just shave off a few seconds off the boot time, that would be the equivalent of saving dozens of lives because so many millions of people would use the Mac. Those few seconds would add up to lifetimes each year.
FL: In the TV serial Pirates of Silicon Valley there is a portrayal of how Apple computer got started. Was it accurate from what you’ve seen or is it sort of a dramatization.
AH: I really enjoyed that movie. I though Noah Wylie did a fantastic job portraying Steve. It was accurate as far as many of those things go. Many of the details were sort of caricatured, you know reduced to simple terms for dramatic purposes. I say the heart of that is very true in my opinion. I loved how that movie ended with a confrontation between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs where Steve found out that Bill was copying the Mac for Windows and confronted him and finally Steve said accepting the fact that Bill was gonna copy it, “Well, we’re still way better than you.” And it ends with Bill Gates saying, “It doesn’t matter.”
FL: Sounds like a mythical story there.
AH: Well, I think that really makes a very deep point. Why the good guys don’t always win.
FL: What do you think about the current operating system OS X?
AH: I have a mixed opinion about it. I think its really great in certain dimensions. It looks gorgeous and is quite robust compared to the earlier systems. My complaints with it center around its priority on how it looks more than how it behaves. So I think there are some usability glitches that I wish it could be a little bit smoother. Overall, I think it’s best operating system for everyday people to use. It’s much much better than Windows XP.
FL: So when you worked on the original operating system, what kinds of limitations did you have?
AH: Well, the biggest limitation was the memory limitation. We had fairly ambitious low-cost objectives and in order to do that, we only gave the Macintosh 128 kilobytes of memory. For people today, that’s one-eight of a megabyte of memory. So, less than one percent of the memory in computers, even five years ago. That was our biggest challenge, to shoehorn all the functionality and user-interface into an extremely limited memory space. And in other constraint as a commercial project, we were always rushing the computer to market. So schedule was another insistent pressure. Steve Jobs believes in very ambitious schedules, so we were always behind. No matter how fast we worked, we couldn’t work fast enough.
FL: So what are you doing these days?
AH: Most recently, I’ve been volunteering at an organization called the open-source applications foundation. About five years ago, a light dawned and I realized that open-source software, sometimes called free software, could fix many of the problems in the computer industry. So ever since then, I’ve been trying to help make open source software become more accepted and started working with another computer industry legend Mitch Kappur, the guy who designed Lotus 1-2-3. When he started a few years ago the OCAF, the Open Source Applications Foundation. But in 2003, I kind of took a hiatus from that to work on my book. So, I started writing stories in June 2003, started to develop some unique web software to publish the book on the web for the folklore site in August 2003. And then by October 2003, I had signed the book contract with O’Reilly and was pressured to get all the writing done by June 2004. So up until last October, the book was my full time job. Now that it is done, I’m doing a little bit of promotion for the book, like talking to you and just beginning to think about what my next programming project will be.
FL: And what are some of the trends you see in information technology? What do you like?
AH: I still think the network is having a profound impact on how we use our computers each day and even though that was the keynote of the last ten years, I think it will continue. We’re still not exploiting the network nearly as much as we could be and then I think there’s still a long way to go in terms of usability, what I call the system management problem. I think this is vexing to most computer users. You know, you use your machine for enough times, and things start going wrong. I think we can use the network and more powerful computers to really make a difference to create a much better user experience for people. And I’m really intrigued myself for the next step in usability. User interfaces has always been what’s most important to me and I see 3-D user interfaces where the world behind the screen mirrors the physical world as one of the next big steps toward that. I’m interested in possibly working in that area. Sort of like the way video games are today with better and better simulations of the world.
FL: Great, I guess we are running a little bit out of time. Are there any last words you’d like to add about yourself, your experience at Apple, or your book?
AH: Not really, I feel really lucky is the best thing to say. I was at the right place at the right time to work on such a fantastic thing that ended up making such a big difference for people in the world. So I just really grateful I got to be in position that I was in. I wrote the book to sort of celebrate that experience, both to give a little bit of recognition to people like Burrell who hadn’t gotten that much but also the people that I loved working with so much. In a very real sense, the book is a commemoration of the greatness of the original Mac team. One of my pleasures now is last week I got 60 books delivered to my house and I’m giving a copy of the book to all of the people who worked on the Mac. That’s been really fun.
FL: Mr. Hertzeld, thanks for joining us, thanks for your time.
AH: Okay, your welcome, it was fun!
Grokotron 5000: Mac or PC?
FL: Mr. Hertzfeld has agreed to join us for the Grokotron 5000, formerly known as the computer Deep Blue. Today’s question is Mac or PC? For these following five subjects, Mr. Hertzfeld will tell us his opinion.
Subject number one, the President of the United States, George W. Bush.
FL: You think he crashes sometimes huh?
AH: Oh yeah, I think we have a terrible government right now. Almost as bad as Windows.
FL: Subject number two, the new Star Wars movies.
AH: Hmmm, unfortunately I’m a George Lucas fan but I’m gonna have to tilt to PC on that one too.
FL: You don’t think it’s as innovative as it used to be?
AH: Well, I still have hopes for number three.
FL: Subject number three, Pfizer’s blockbuster drug Sildenafil Citrate also known as Viagra.
AH: Gee, I say the Mac because the Mac is a lot sexier than the PC.
FL: Subject number four, a drug of a different type commonly found in the Bay Area, Peet’s coffee.
AH: Peet’s coffee? Definitely Mac. High quality.
FL: and finally subject number five, pop superstar Michael Jackson.
AH: Hmmm, let’s see, I kind of call that one in the middle. He has some Mac-like aspects, especially earlier in his career. I think Michael Jackson really is a genius but then I think he sort of undermines himself and maybe Mac transitioning to PC.
FL: Okay, great. I guess that rounds it off for this week’s edition of Grokotron 5000. Mr. Hertzfeld, thanks for joining us on the Grokotron 5000.
AH: Oh, you’re welcome.