Monday, April 25, 2005

Thinking About History and Design

This article appears in slightly different form in the March/April 2005 issue of IEEE Micro © 2005 IEEE.


Many of us have artifacts of our lives stored away in closets, drawers, cellars, garages, and other places that we intend to clean out and organize some day. Many of us have heard inside stories over the years and wish that somebody would write them down. 

In an industry concerned with the future, few take time to consider the past. Myths grow up and, if unchallenged, become history. The two books I look at here focus on events that are worth thinking about.

Revolution in the Valley -- The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made by Andy Hertzfeld (O'Reilly, Sebastopol CA, 2004, 291pp, ISBN 0-596-00719-1,, $24.95)

Andy Hertzfeld was present at the birth of the Macintosh. He has cleaned out his garage and written down the stories of the time. Hertzfeld joined Apple in February 1981 and left in March 1984, when he went on a leave of absence and, for reasons he details in the book, did not come back. When he decided to record his recollections, he set up, so he could compare notes with others who had been there.

I find this book fascinating. Reading about the people and the public events of the early 1980s brings back many memories for me. During the time when Hertzfeld was at Apple, the principal microprocessor vendors were Intel and Motorola. I worked for two of the others: Zilog and National Semiconductor, both of which had offices near Apple's. In January, 1984, when the famous Macintosh ad appeared during the Super Bowl, my article, "1984: The Year of the 32-Bit Microprocessor" appeared in Byte Magazine. 

I obtained my first Macintosh in 1984, and I used Macintoshes almost exclusively until the early 1990s. I remember the day Andy Hertzfeld came to a meeting of Berkeley Macintosh Users Group to demonstrate his Switcher program. That all seems so long ago, but I enjoyed reading Hertzfeld's account of the bad design decision that made a program like Switcher necessary. 

One of the many old books I have lying around is The Macintosh Basic Handbook by Thomas Blackadar and Jonathan Kamin (Sybex, 1984). This book describes a product that never saw the light of day, because of certain dealings that went on between Apple and Microsoft. I enjoyed reading Hertzfeld's account of those dealings and the repercussions inside Apple. Macintosh Basic was an excellent program for its time. I wish I could have had a chance to play with it. 

While the book is fascinating, there are parts that are depressing. For example, Hertzfeld writes about his bad performance review. His technical work was fine, but he was "too big for his britches" and continually went over his boss's head. His boss told him to stop talking to Steve Jobs. All of this reminds me of similarly sordid corporate power games that I have seen first hand. 

In Micro Review, May/June 2000, I reviewed Jef Raskin's book The Humane Interface and alluded to the widely held belief, or perhaps legend is a better word, that Raskin is "Father of the Macintosh." Hertzfeld examines that belief and concludes that it is not really accurate, though he does give Raskin a lot of credit for his contributions. Hertzfeld concludes that Steve Jobs deserves the title. It's hard to argue that point.

Hertzfeld's book, like many others, presents a mixed picture of Steve Jobs. Jobs is the brilliant visionary who sees what the product might become. He is also the quirky manager who promulgates Sayings from Chairman Jobs. A maxim like "It's better to be a pirate than join the navy" captures the Jobs style.

This industry has produced more than one quirky personality, so it's interesting to read about some of their interactions. For example, after Adam Osborne taunted some Apple employees at the 1981 West Coast Computer Faire, Jobs called Osborne and left a message with his secretary saying "Tell him the Macintosh is so good that he's probably going to buy a few for his children even though it puts his company out of business." Of course, Osborne put his own company out of business by obsoleting his cash cow, the Osborne 1, then failing to deliver its successor. And Osborne never saw the value in making a portable clone of the IBM PC.

Another interesting confrontation occurred between Jobs and Bill Gates, after Microsoft had announced Windows in November 1983 -- ten years before there was a decent working version. When Jobs accused Gates of stealing Apple's ideas, Gates replied, "We both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set, only to find that you had already stolen it."

The failed relationship between Steve Jobs and John Sculley is well known. Hertzfeld gives a clear picture of the situation that led to the confrontation in which Sculley removed Jobs from his executive position.

My favorite Steve Jobs story from the book concerns his attempt, seven months before the Mac was due to ship, to clone Sony's 3.5 inch floppy drive, rather than buying drives from Sony. This plan ultimately failed. Fortunately, the team anticipated this and continued to work secretly with the Sony engineers. At one point they had to hide a Sony engineer in a closet to keep Jobs from seeing him.

I have my own small Steve Jobs story. I remember the day I attended a big press event for NeXT computers. Steve Jobs promised to send me a NeXT machine to review for Micro, but he never did. He did give me a nifty Wingz World Tour jacket, though. In case you don't remember, Wingz was a spreadsheet designed for the NeXT machine. Somewhere I have a book about Wingz, though I don't believe it ever became commercially available.

Hertzfeld and Jobs are not the only players in this story. There are others I haven't mentioned, but Hertzfeld includes many anecdotes about them. This book is a collection of anecdotes, but together they give depth and color to the story of the Macintosh.

They Made America -- From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovation by Harold Evans (Little Brown, New York NY, 2004, 496pp, ISBN 0-316-27766-5,, $40.00)

According to the publisher, Harold Evans was the editor of the Sunday Times of London for fourteen years and then the Times of London before settling in 1984 in America, where he has held a number of important publishing positions. In 2002, Britain's journalists voted Evans the greatest all-time British newspaper editor. He was knighted in Queen Elizabeth's 2004 New Year honors list. He lives in New York with his wife, Tina Brown (famous in her own right), and their two children.

In this book Evans brings his impressive journalistic talent to bear on an area that many consider America's greatest strength, namely, its ability to nurture and reward innovation. He tells the stories of innovators from the country's earliest days to the present.

This massive coffee table book is extremely interesting, but I am focusing on one small part of it: the story of the late Gary Kildall and his role in the personal computer revolution. Gary Kildall's company, Digital Research, made the CP/M operating system, which almost became the operating system for the IBM PC. Many people have heard the (untrue) story of how Gary Kildall chose to go flying instead of meeting with the IBM lawyers, so they chose Microsoft as their supplier instead.

I only visited the Digital Research headquarters at 801 Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove once, in the very early 1980s. Starting from Cupertino, I drove the beautiful mountain roads to Pacific Grove. I came to pick up the Olivetti M20 personal computer that Digital Research had used to develop a Z8000-based version of CP/M. I had written a book about the Z8000, and Olivetti gave me the machine in hopes that I would write a book about the M20. I never wrote the book, but I ran a floating point benchmark on the M20 for Jerry Pournelle's survey. I still have the M20.

On that visit to the Digital Research headquarters, I experienced the wonderful relaxed west coast atmosphere and idyllic setting that must have seemed so foreign to the east coast IBM lawyers when they came to call. Contrary to legend, Gary Kildall did not stand them up, but the informal setting may have given the lawyers the impression, which later proved to be true, that they could take advantage of Kildall and get away with it. The full story is long and sordid, and Evans goes through it in detail. He draws on many sources, including Gary Kildall's unpublished memoir.

Telling Kildall's side of the IBM PC story is important, but I think that a more valuable and lasting benefit of Evans' research about Gary Kildall is to highlight the large and important influence that this brilliant, thoughtful, gentle man had on our industry. From the 1960s to his untimely death in the 1990s, Kildall never stopped working to make computers available to people. 

Interaction Design

Thoughtful Interaction Design -- A Design Perspective on Information Technology by Jonas Löwgren & Erik Stolterman (MIT, Cambridge MA, 2005, 212pp, ISBN 0-262-12271-5,, $39.95)

Jonas Löwgren is Professor of Interaction Design at Malmö University, and Erik Stolterman is Professor of Informatics at Umeå University, both in Sweden. As you might expect, their book has a strong flavor of academia. It would certainly have benefited from the guidance of a good technical editor. They say at the start of their final chapter, "It is perfectly possible that this book seems diverse and incoherent so far," and I am forced to agree that it does. Nonetheless, it contains many nuggets of insight, and even some useful advice.

One of the oddest aspects of this book is its references to Robert Musil's great unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities. Musil's ideas about thinking and creation resonate with the authors' ideas about interaction design. They even borrow his title and say that information technology deals with a material without qualities.

The key point I take from this book is that designing digital artifacts is difficult. You cannot prescribe simple rules and a definite methodology for doing this kind of design. Instead, you must inform yourself of many general considerations, then think about the situation before you. Your deep knowledge of the design process and your design ability will help you to see the larger context and contrive digital artifacts that fit that context.

This is a thin book, but not one that you can read casually. If you are in the business of interaction design, you should at least glance at this book. I don't know of another that takes the same point of view.