Revolution In The Valley

I had intended to read The Wisdom of Crowds, but I woke up with a severely frozen neck and upper shoulders, which was pretty bad for concentration. I cannot look up, and my left to right mobility is about 10 degrees, max. It’s hard to tell how this happened, since I have exerted approximately zero physical effort all week, but perhaps I slept in an odd position all night or something. I could certainly use more exercise, and I’m doing my best to interpret this as just another helpful signal along those lines.
Anyway, today instead of reading anything that required brainpower, I read Andy Hertzfeld’s book, “Revolution In The Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How The Mac Was Made.”
It’s something of a coffee-table book, with a square format, lots of photos, and a strong visual design. Based on a series of essays written at his website, the book tries to present a balanced internal view of the wild, intense, and stressful birth of a groundbreaking new product. It would appear to describe, with as much accuracy as any one person could, the events of 20 years ago that led to the revolutionary Macintosh personal computer. The essays were vetted at, so any obvious errors or misperceptions were caught early on.
Following on Hackers & Painters, it describes some similar development ideas, made considerably harder since Apple had to tool hardware, print manuals, and hold elaborate press events that were scheduled months before the code was shippable. As Graham points out in H&P, web-based apps are the biggest opportunity since the birth of the personal computer, and you can launch one for less than $1,000 – far less than 20 engineers working for four years on a huge new computer bet.
At the time, the bet was that people would respond to 1) a mass-market personal creatvity computer, and 2) a graphics-driven display. At the time, DOS and CP/M were the “mass-market” operating systems, and they were character-based. Some readers may have never used such a thing, but you can think of it as a brain-dead Unix command line interface. Unix happens to be elegant, powerful, and joyful to use, none of which can be said about DOS or CP/M.
One of the big product development lessons was the iterative nature of the project. This is not news to modern developers, but big companies remain committed to extensive planning and Gantt charting and schedules and deadlines and all that goes with it – primarily high-ceremony over high-productivity. Hearing about the simultaneous bootstrapping of hardware (disk controllers, graphics cards, boot ROMs, serial buses, the mouse) and system software (QuickDraw, desk accessories, clicking, dragging, folders, windows, icons, the desktop) and applications (MacPaint, MacWrite) is simply amazing.
It reminded me of the recent U2 release, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (iTunes download). There is a bonus package that has an included DVD with a 25 minute interview segment and some studio footage. At one point Adam Clayton, the bass player, recounts the development of a particular song. Paraphrase: “Larry [drums] doesn’t want to commit his part until the vocals are done; I can’t really fit in and support the rhythm until the drums are somehow happening; Bono doesn’t want to finish the lyrics until the last minute and he hears what The Edge [guitar] is going to do; and Edge will continue to evolve the song until everyone else hs their part down. It’s kind of an all or nothing affair.” (I’m sure that’s a very rough quote from memory, but the gist is there.)
For the Mac project, every element was new in a commercial product. There had never been a 3.5″ floppy drive, there had never been a mouse pointing device, there had never been a bit-mapped display. The level of invention and innovation required to produce the first Macintosh was beyond most anything I can think of today. I especially liked the series of Polaroid photos that showed Bill Atkinson’s evolution of the user interface. Proportional fonts – a big deal! Fast bit-blits to move images around on screen – amazing! Primitive halftone images – first time ever seen on a personal computer! Overlapping windows. Title bar on the botton of the screen and not the top. Title bar for every app (as Windows still remains) instead of for the whole screen. How to cue the user to move the window on the screen – Tabs? Borders? Title bar? It just goes on and on. Sure, Xerox PARC figured out a lot of this stuff, but they never shipped anything! It was all research, and no design. The Mac project was all design, and research meant building something to see how it worked, and then building it again when someone had a good-enough idea about how it might work better.
What today we take for granted was 20 years ago a struggle just to figure out what the use-cases were, much less determine the correct approach to handling them! When Steve Capps developed MacPaint, he happened to put a row of tool icons on the left side of the screen. The lasso, the box, the circle, the paint bucket, etc. Today, you can buy a copy of Adobe Photoshop that costs about 50% of the original price of the Mac 128K, and the tools are still right there on the left.
Ultimately the idea of the Mac has won, hands down. Although they command only 4% of the total market, but perhaps 65% of the creative services market, every single personal computer using the fundamental concepts that lie behind the Mac.
Interestingly, I didn’t realize that when Apple sued Microsoft for “stealing” the Mac interface they did not lose the suit based on the theft. They lost because in 1985 John Scully, in order to get Microsoft to renew their Applesoft BASIC application, gave Microsoft a perpetual license to the Mac interface. The suit was about the interpretation of that agreement, not that all the ideas all came from Apple. Ladies and gentlemen, hire good lawyers if you’re going to play this game! This was easily the second-most serious business blunder in the information age, second only to IBM buying a non-exclusive license from Microsoft for DOS, creating the competitive market that IBM ultimately lost to the likes of Dell and Compaq. Had Scully hung tough, foregoing Applesoft BASIC (obsolete in just over a year anyway) the Mac interface might have been the dominant computer in the world.
Over the weekend my brother showed me The Cult of the Mac, which I found to be weird and boring. People with Apple tatoos? People who have no life outside of Macintosh obsession? If you’re going to be that obsessed about something, make it something you’re creating, not consuming. Between Hackers & Painters, and Revolution In The Valley, you should have a good idea of what you’re aiming for if you decide to build something that other people will use. And who knows, it might even change the world.