'annie' Episodes

The Unlikely Rise Of The Macintosh

     2/9/2021

There was a nexus of Digital Research and Xerox PARC, along with Stanford and Berkeley in the Bay Area. The rise of the hobbyists and the success of Apple attracted some of the best minds in computing to Apple. This confluence was about to change the world. One of those brilliant minds that landed at Apple started out as a technical writer. 

Apple hired Jef Raskin as their 31st employee, to write the Apple II manual. He quickly started harping on people to build a computer that was easy to use. Mike Markkula wanted to release a gaming console or a cheap computer that could compete with the Commodore and Atari machines at the time. He called the project “Annie.”

The project began with Raskin, but he had a very different idea than Markkula’s. He summed it up in an article called “Computers by the Millions” that wouldn’t see publication until 1982. His vision was closer to his PhD dissertation, bringing computing to the masses. For this, he envisioned a menu driven operating system that was easy to use and inexpensive. Not yet a GUI in the sense of a windowing operating system and so could run on chips that were rapidly dropping in price. He planned to use the 6809 chip for the machine and give it a five inch display. 

He didn’t tell anyone that he had a PhD when he was hired, as the team at Apple was skeptical of academia. Jobs provided input, but was off working on the Lisa project, which used the 68000 chip. So they had free reign over what they were doing. 

Raskin quickly added Joanna Hoffman for marketing. She was on leave from getting a PhD in archaeology at the University of Chicago and was the marketing team for the Mac for over a year. They also added Burrell Smith, employee #282 from the hardware technician team, to do hardware. He’d run with the Homebrew Computer Club crowd since 1975 and had just strolled into Apple one day and asked for a job. 

Raskin also brought in one of his students from the University of California San Diego who was taking a break from working on his PhD in neurochemistry. Bill Atkinson became employee 51 at Apple and joined the project. They pulled in Andy Hertzfeld, who Steve Jobs hired when Apple bought one of his programs as he was wrapping up his degree at Berkeley and who’d been sitting on the Apple services team and doing Apple III demos.

They added Larry Kenyon, who’d worked at Amdahl and then on the Apple III team. Susan Kare came in to add art and design. They, along with Chris Espinosa - who’d been in the garage with Jobs and Wozniak working on the Apple I, ended up comprising the core team.

Over time, the team grew. Bud Tribble joined as the manager for software development. Jerrold Manock, who’d designed the case of the Apple II, came in to design the now-iconic Macintosh case. The team would eventually expand to include Bob Belleville, Steve Capps, George Crow, Donn Denman, Bruce Horn, and Caroline Rose as well. It was still a small team. And they needed a better code name. But chronologically let’s step back to the early project. 

Raskin chose his favorite Apple, the Macintosh, as the codename for the project. As far as codenames go it was a pretty good one. So their mission would be to ship a machine that was easy to use, would appeal to the masses, and be at a price point the masses could afford. They were looking at 64k of memory, a Motorola 6809 chip, and a 256 bitmap display. Small, light, and inexpensive.

Jobs’ relationship with the Lisa team was strained and he was taken off of that and he started moving in on the Macintosh team. It was quickly the Steve Jobs show. 

Having seen what could be done with the Motorola 68000 chip on the Lisa team, Jobs had them redesign the board to work with that. After visiting Xerox PARC at Raskin’s insistence, Jobs finally got the desktop metaphor and true graphical interface design. 

Xerox had not been quiet about the work at PARC. Going back to 1972 there were even television commercials. And Raskin had done time at PARC while on sabbatical from Stanford. Information about Smalltalk had been published and people like Bill Atkinson were reading about it in college. People had been exposed to the mouse all around the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s or read Engelbart’s scholarly works on it. Many of the people that worked on these projects had doctorates and were academics. They shared their research as freely as love was shared during that counter-culture time. Just as it had passed from MIT to Dartmouth and then in the back of Bob Albrecht’s VW had spread around the country in the 60s. That spirit of innovation and the constant evolutions over the past 25 years found their way to Steve Jobs. 

He saw the desktop metaphor and mouse and fell in love with it, knowing they could build one for less than the $400 unit Xerox had. He saw how an object-oriented programming language like Smalltalk made all that possible. The team was already on their way to the same types of things and so Jobs told the people at PARC about the Lisa project, but not yet about the Mac. In fact, he was as transparent as anyone could be. He made sure they knew how much he loved their work and disclosed more than I think the team planned on him disclosing about Apple. 

This is the point where Larry Tesler and others realized that the group of rag-tag garage-building Homebrew hackers had actually built a company that had real computer scientists and was on track to changing the world. Tesler and some others would end up at Apple later - to see some of their innovations go to a mass market. Steve Jobs at this point totally bought into Raskin’s vision. Yet he still felt they needed to make compromises with the price and better hardware to make it all happen. 

Raskin couldn’t make the kinds of compromises Jobs wanted. He also had an immunity to the now-infamous Steve Jobs reality distortion field and they clashed constantly. So eventually Raskin the project just when it was starting to take off. Raskin would go on to work with Canon to build his vision, which became the Canon CAT. 

With Raskin gone, and armed with a dream team of mad scientists, they got to work, tirelessly pushing towards shipping a computer they all believed would change the world. Jobs brought in Fernandez to help with projects like the macOS and later HyperCard. Wozniak had a pretty big influence over Raskin in the early days of the Mac project and helped here and there withe the project, like with the bit-serial peripheral bus on the Mac. 

Steve Jobs wanted an inexpensive mouse that could be manufactured en masse. Jim Yurchenco from Hovey-Kelley, later called Ideo, got the task - given that trusted engineers at Apple had full dance cards. He looked at the Xerox mouse and other devices around - including trackballs in Atari arcade machines. Those used optics instead of mechanical switches. As the ball under the mouse rolled beams of light would be interrupted and the cost of those components had come down faster than the technology in the Xerox mouse.  He used a ball from a roll-on deodorant stick and got to work. The rest of the team designed the injection molded case for the mouse. That work began with the Lisa and by the time they were done, the price was low enough that every Mac could get one. 

Armed with a mouse, they figured out how to move windows over the top of one another, Susan Kare designed iconography that is a bit less 8-bit but often every bit as true to form today. Learning how they wanted to access various components of the desktop, or find things, they developed the Finder. Atkinson gave us marching ants, the concept of double-clicking, the lasso for selecting content, the menu bar, MacPaint, and later, HyperCard. 

It was a small team, working long hours. Driven by a Jobs for perfection. Jobs made the Lisa team the enemy. Everything not the Mac just sucked. He took the team to art exhibits. He had the team sign the inside of the case to infuse them with the pride of an artist. He killed the idea of long product specifications before writing code and they just jumped in, building and refining and rebuilding and rapid prototyping. The team responded well to the enthusiasm and need for perfectionism. 

The Mac team was like a rebel squadron. They were like a start-up, operating inside Apple. They were pirates. They got fast and sometimes harsh feedback. And nearly all of them still look back on that time as the best thing they’ve done in their careers. 

As IBM and many learned the hard way before them, they learned a small, inspired team, can get a lot done. With such a small team and the ability to parlay work done for the Lisa, the R&D costs were minuscule until they were ready to release the computer. And yet, one can’t change the world over night. 1981 turned into 1982 turned into 1983. 

More and more people came in to fill gaps. Collette Askeland came in to design the printed circuit board. Mike Boich went to companies to get them to write software for the Macintosh. Berry Cash helped prepare sellers to move the product. Matt Carter got the factory ready to mass produce the machine. Donn Denman wrote MacBASIC (because every machine needed a BASIC back then). Martin Haeberli helped write MacTerminal and Memory Manager. Bill Bull got rid of the fan. Patti King helped manage the software library. Dan Kottke helped troubleshoot issues with mother boards. Brian Robertson helped with purchasing. Ed Riddle designed the keyboard. Linda Wilkin took on documentation for the engineering team. It was a growing team. Pamela Wyman and Angeline Lo came in as programmers. Hap Horn and Steve Balog as engineers. 

Jobs had agreed to bring in adults to run the company. So they recruited 44 years old hotshot CEO John Sculley to change the world as their CEO rather than selling sugar water at Pepsi. Scully and Jobs had a tumultuous relationship over time. While Jobs had made tradeoffs on cost versus performance for the Mac, Sculley ended up raising the price for business reasons.

Regis McKenna came in to help with the market campaign. He would win over so much trust that he would later get called out of retirement to do damage control when Apple had an antenna problem on the iPhone. We’ll cover Antenna-gate at some point. They spearheaded the production of the now-iconic 1984 Super Bowl XVIII ad, which shows woman running from conformity and depicted IBM as the Big Brother from George Orwell’s book, 1984. 

Two days after the ad, the Macintosh 128k shipped for $2,495. The price had jumped because Scully wanted enough money to fund a marketing campaign. It shipped late, and the 128k of memory was a bit underpowered, but it was a success. Many of the concepts such as a System and Finder, persist to this day. It came with MacWrite and MacPaint and some of the other Lisa products were soon to follow, now as MacProject and MacTerminal. But the first killer app for the Mac was Microsoft Word, which was the first version of Word ever shipped. 

Every machine came with a mouse. The machines came with a cassette that featured a guided tour of the new computer. You could write programs in MacBASIC and my second language, MacPascal. 

They hit the initial sales numbers despite the higher price. But over time that bit them on sluggish sales. Despite the early success, the sales were declining. Yet the team forged on. They introduced the Apple LaserWriter at a whopping $7,000. This was a laser printer that was based on the Canon 300 dpi engine. Burrell Smith designed a board and newcomer Adobe knew laser printers, given that the founders were Xerox alumni. They added postscript, which had initially been thought up while working with Ivan Sutherland and then implemented at PARC, to make for perfect printing at the time.

The sluggish sales caused internal issues. There’s a hangover  when we do something great. First there were the famous episodes between Jobs, Scully, and the board of directors at Apple. Scully seems to have been portrayed by many to be either a villain or a court jester of sorts in the story of Steve Jobs. Across my research, which began with books and notes and expanded to include a number of interviews, I’ve found Scully to have been admirable in the face of what many might consider a petulant child. But they all knew a brilliant one. 

But amidst Apple’s first quarterly loss, Scully and Jobs had a falling out. Jobs tried to lead an insurrection and ultimately resigned. Wozniak had left Apple already, pointing out that the Apple II was still 70% of the revenues of the company. But the Mac was clearly the future. 

They had reached a turning point in the history of computers. The first mass marketed computer featuring a GUI and a mouse came and went. And so many others were in development that a red ocean was forming. Microsoft released Windows 1.0 in 1985. Acorn, Amiga, IBM, and others were in rapid development as well. 

I can still remember the first time I sat down at a Mac. I’d used the Apple IIs in school and we got a lab of Macs. It was amazing. I could open a file, change the font size and print a big poster. I could type up my dad’s lyrics and print them. I could play SimCity. It was a work of art. And so it was signed by the artists that brought it to us:

Peggy Alexio, Colette Askeland, Bill Atkinson, Steve Balog, Bob Belleville, Mike Boich, Bill Bull, Matt Carter, Berry Cash, Debi Coleman, George Crow, Donn Denman, Christopher Espinosa, Bill Fernandez, Martin Haeberli, Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, Rod Holt, Bruce Horn, Hap Horn, Brian Howard, Steve Jobs, Larry Kenyon, Patti King, Daniel Kottke, Angeline Lo, Ivan Mach, Jerrold Manock, Mary Ellen McCammon, Vicki Milledge, Mike Murray, Ron Nicholson Jr., Terry Oyama, Benjamin Pang, Jef Raskin, Ed Riddle, Brian Robertson, Dave Roots, Patricia Sharp, Burrell Smith, Bryan Stearns, Lynn Takahashi, Guy "Bud" Tribble, Randy Wigginton, Linda Wilkin, Steve Wozniak, Pamela Wyman and Laszlo Zidek.

Steve Jobs left to found NeXT. Some, like George Crow, Joanna Hoffman, and Susan Care, went with him. Bud Tribble would become a co-founder of NeXT and then the Vice President of Software Technology after Apple purchased NeXT.

Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld would go on to co-found General Magic and usher in the era of mobility. One of the best teams ever assembled slowly dwindled away. And the oncoming dominance of Windows in the market took its toll.

It seems like every company has a “lost decade.” Some like Digital Equipment don’t recover from it. Others, like Microsoft and IBM (who has arguably had a few), emerge as different companies altogether. Apple seemed to go dormant after Steve Jobs left. They had changed the world with the Mac. They put swagger and an eye for design into computing. But in the next episode we’ll look at that long hangover, where they were left by the end of it, and how they emerged to become to change the world yet again. 

In the meantime, Walter Isaacson weaves together this story about as well as anyone in his book Jobs. Steven Levy brilliantly tells it in his book Insanely Great. Andy Hertzfeld gives some of his stories at folklore.org. And countless other books, documentaries, podcasts, blog posts, and articles cover various aspects as well. The reason it’s gotten so much attention is that where the Apple II was the watershed moment to introduce the personal computer to the mass market, the Macintosh was that moment for the graphical user interface.


(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020