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The Man In The Balloon

I've always admired the Macintosh; in fact my first serious business venture was a Macintosh consulting firm. This week, a tribute to Macintosh pioneer Jef Raskin.

Two weeks ago the father of the Macintosh died of pancreatic cancer. No, it wasn't the iconic Steve Jobs, although in an odd coincidence he also recently suffered from pancreatic cancer. Most people think of Jobs as the father of the Macintosh, but I see him as more of a stepfather, entering the picture after the DNA had already been assembled by someone else.

Jef Raskin

Jef Raskin championed the Macintosh in the early days when Steve Jobs wanted to kill the project in its infancy. Jef promoted the notion of a computer in every home, which some at Apple Computer, Inc. disputed given Apple's hobbyist roots. (With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to fathom how this could be logically debated otherwise.) Jef appealed to the Apple board, whom agreed to continue the project he named "Macintosh, a moniker that pays tribute to his favorite type of Apple. (The spelling alteration from Mcintosh to Macintosh was an attempt to avoid trademark difficulties, but they were sued anyway.)

The Macintosh was not just a whim of an idea from Jef, but rather a culmination of years of study and work before he was ever employed at Apple. Today when I think of Apple Computer, the word "design" comes to my mind. I believe Jef's lifelong dedication and passion for interface design influenced the company's leaders and pushed Apple in a direction that has ensured its longevity.

Jef's genius showed early. In a 6th-grade science class, he listened to the instructor's explanation of an airplane wing's lift. The stock scientific explanation

Read more about the "Coanda Effect"
is that because a wing is curved on the top, the air moves faster, creating lower pressure and thus lift. Jef's 13-year-old mind found a problem with this logic because he had seen planes fly upside-down, which shouldn't have been possible given the science he'd learned. The next day, Jef brought a balsa wood plane to class to illustrate to his instructor that the plane could fly with either side up, suggesting the previous day's lecture was not correct. He was promptly sent to the principal's office for "flying a paper airplane in class." Years later he would write a paper on the "Coanda Effect," offering a reasoned explanation about how airplane wings work.

Jef's educational path reflected his diverse interests he earned degrees in mathematics, philosophy, and a master's in computer science. In his 1967 master's thesis, he argued that computers should be graphical and what you see on the screen should be what you get. (Remember, there was no notion of a graphical user interface at this time, so suggesting that human interface was more important than algorithmic efficiencies was outrageous in computer circles during this time when processing power was so expensive.) Jef then enrolled in a graduate music program at my alma mater, UC San Diego, but was quickly recruited by the university as a professor, teaching a diverse curriculum of computer programming, computer graphics, data structures, graph theory, computer animation, computer music, music, and art. While at UCSD, he encountered Professor Don Norman, a founding father of the field of interface design and someone I worked with as an undergraduate. Norman credited Jef with coining the term "information appliance." After five years, the talented musician, composer, and conductor resigned from UCSD by floating in a balloon over the Chancellor's residence playing a sopranino recorder and yelling down at the Chancellor. He said "I was an art professor at the time and it seemed arty to leave that way."

Jef eventually ended up at Apple Computer where he championed attention to design and managed the Macintosh product. At the time, Apple was enjoying success of the crude Apple I and "had no interest in human factors." Jef's goal was to design a computer from this "human factors" perspective that Apple seemed to be missing. He built the product team and recruited former UCSD student Bill Atkinson, who designed much of the Mac's interface. Unfortunately before the Mac could launch, personality conflicts erupted between Steve Jobs and Jef that drove Jef out of Apple.

After Jef left, Jobs tried to change the name of the project to "Bicycle, but the team rebelled and the Mac name stuck. Apple founder Steve Wozniak said of Jef "Making technology work simpler - he was at the heart of that from the first days at Apple. Jef Raskin is one of the most important people in personal computers to this day." Jef Raskin turned the concept of usability from an afterthought to an engineering discipline and eventually a backbone of Apple's acumen.

Read a summary of the book

I first met Jef Raskin when I contacted him a year and a half ago to ask him to speak at the 2004 Desktop Linux Summit about his work on The Humane Interface (THE). He agreed to speak and you can read the text of his speech here, which he gave me permission to distribute. In his book and in other writings he points out the faults with today's GUI (Graphical User Interface). He thought the migration to desktop Linux was an opportunity to improve on the current situation of hard-to-learn keyboard shortcuts and difficult-to-automatize menu choices. Jef began working on a new interface called Archy, which encompassed his design methodology. In January he received $2 million in startup money. He worked on Archy up until the end, telling a friend 10 days before his death, "When people get a chance to work in Archy and see how much easier it is to do their work, we'll get enormous support." Archy replaces mouse movements with much faster "leap" keystrokes. Work on Archy will continue by the eight employees of the Raskin Center, including Jef's son Aza.

Jef's life's work encompassed a blend of art, music, and technology, which all came together in his humane interface design work. He was asked in a recent interview to predict the future. He declined and said he'd focus his energies on improving the present. Now he's left on the last balloon ride and his sopranino recorder is fading into the distance.

-- Michael
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