Insanely Great, Steven Levy

I bought my first computer, a Macintosh, in 1984. I had wanted a computer for years, watching friends with envy at their Commodore 64s, Radio Shack Color Computers, and wonderful Apple IIs. When the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, I had to have it. It was the computer built “for the rest of us.” Never mind that I could have had everything I needed in a computer–word processing program, a few games–for $1,400 less, as soon as I sat down in front of the Macintosh, my life changed. The Macintosh, and the entire graphical user interface concept, was truly “insanely great,” as Steven Levy quotes Steve Jobs, former chairman of Apple Computers. In his new book, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything, Levy reveals how and why the Macintosh had such an impact on the world.

Although the Macintosh debuted in 1984, the seeds of its design had been planted as early as 1945. In a post-war statement, Vannevar Bush, then the director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote an essay in which he contended that the next step of technology should be the way we collect and process information. Having seen the early use of computers in the war, Bush realized the awesome potential of high-speed information management, but also knew that progress would have to be made in the interface if ever information management could be useful. Levy follows the chain that links Bush to Alan Kay, who proposed the Dynabook, a forerunner of today’s PDA technology, to the developers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center who developed the first graphical user interface (GUI). Nearby, a small team of dedicated programmers were working on the low-cost hardware that became teamed with the new GUI concept that became the Macintosh.

Much has been written about the originality of the GUI concept, and more than one lawsuit has been fought over it. Levy attempts to go beyond the simple desktop metaphor and explain why it was the particular Macintosh implementation of the concept that changed the way people viewed computers. Xerox’s researchers were quite happy just to discover “how” to do things; it was Jef Raskin, Steve Jobs, Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfield, and the rest of the Macintosh team that were driven to give GUI to the people. The concept alone didn’t change the world of computing–it was the concept, in a reasonably priced computer, with a “killer application” that showed just how intuitive the concept could be that made things happen. Early Macintosh adoptees like myself thought it was the “What You See is What You Get” word processing and graphic programs that would make everyone see the light. It took Aldus’ PageMaker to break the publishing barrier for the “rest of us” to wake up to the possibilities.

The Macintosh implementation had (and has) its problems, which Levy does not gloss over. The initial Macintosh, that computer that I bought in 1984, was released underpowered (128k RAM), without enough storage space (it only had a single floppy drive capable of holding 400k), and crippled in expandability (it was a “closed” system without expansion slots). Apple knew this upon its release, but “real programmers ship,” as Jobs is quoted saying, and the Macintosh had to be out the door in 1984. Apple quickly followed the 128k Macintosh with an upgrade to 512k and a 800k disk drive, then with new models including a Macintosh with slots.

The author, Steven Levy, is perhaps best known in the field for his first book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Levy’s position as an industry journalist kept him in the midst of the impact of the Macintosh, with access to Jobs, John Sculley, Jean Louis Gasse, Bill Gates, Aldus’ president Paul Brainerd, and almost every member of the Macintosh development team. This chronicle of the development of the Macintosh is part history, part evaluation of the hits and misses, the politics and relationships, of all these people. Every implementation of the GUI interface as seen in the Macintosh was deeply argued, as was its cost, hardware, and “look.” Levy shows you that a product such as Macintosh, which is usually attributed to a few people, is actually the culmination of the development team, and also their forerunners, including the Xerox team, and their competitors, most notably Microsoft and IBM.

Today, the GUI concept is ever present. My original Macintosh (which I fondly call the MacAntique), after being upgraded once, has been passed to my niece and nephew (who, to be entirely truthful, play more with their father’s Mac II than with the antique), and I replaced it four years ago with an IBM-PC clone that runs today’s most popular GUI, Microsoft Windows (the defection was a result of economics–I couldn’t afford a new Macintosh). The last command-line holdout, UNIX, is battering down the hatches in defense against the migration of the GUI in the form of the WWW, Java, and its ilk. The Macintosh revolution is twelve, and shows no signs of dying anytime soon. For those who want to understand the early shots–computerdom’s equivalent’s of the Boston Tea Party and the shot that was heard round the world–Levy’s book is a good primer.

[Finished 4 July 1996]

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