Back when I reviewed Peter Siebel’s fascinating book of programmer interviews, Coders at Work, Erik Anderson suggested in a comment that I might also enjoy its precursor Programmers at Work [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]. I bought and read it, and it’s excellent. I’ll review it properly some time soon — but today I just wanted to draw attention to one segment that caught me completely off guard.
The book consists of a short introduction followed by 19 interviews with various programmers, averaging 15-20 pages each. It was published in 1986, in what I can’t help but think of as the golden age of microcomputers, so whereas Siebel’s modern book contains interview with people like Jamie Zawinski (Netscape) and Joshua Bloch (Java Collections), Programmers at Work interviews people like Dan Bricklin (VisiCalc), Gary Kildall (CP/M) and indeed Bill Gates (back when he was a hacker, and the main author of the Microsoft BASIC interpreter).
The Gates interview was particularly fascinating, but the one that caught my eye was with Jef Raskin, the creator of Apple’s Macintosh project. Raskin does not have a lot of good things to say about Steve Jobs!
In recent years, quite a mythology seems to have grown up around Jobs: the standard wisdom is that Apple’s resurgence has come about because of his unique design aesthetic — if you like, almost that Apple is Jobs’s plaything and that whatever nice products come out of it for the rest of us are just a bonus. It’s generally thought that Jobs’s vision of “a computer for the rest of us” was the driving idea behind the Mac.
That may all be true; but not the way Raskin tells it. Here’s what he says, excerpted from pages 229 to 231:
What I proposed was a computer [the Macintosh] that would be easy to use, mix text and graphics, and sell for about $1,000. Steve Jobs said that it was a crazy idea, that it would never sell, and we didn’t want anything like it. He tried to shoot the project down.
So I kept out of Jobs’ way and went the then-chairman Mike Markkula and talked over every detail of my idea. Fortunately, both Markkula and then-president Mike Scott told Jobs to leave me alone.
We went off to a different building and built prototypes of the Macintosh and its software, and got it up and running [...] We were trying to keep the project away from Jobs’ meddling. For the first two years, Jobs wanted to kill the project because he didn’t understand what it was really about.
If Jobs would only take credit for what he really did for the industry, that would be more than enough But he also insists on taking credit away from everyone else for what they did, which I think is very unfortunate.
I was very much amused by the recent Newsweek article where he said, “I have a few good designs in me still”. He never had any designs. He has not designed a single product. Woz (Steve Wozniak) designed the Apple II. Ken Rothmuller and others designed Lisa. My team and I designed the Macintosh. Wendell Sanders designed the Apple III. What did Jobs design? Nothing.
In short, Jobs’ only contribution to the Macintosh project was to try unsuccessfully to cancel it.
Now, I have no idea how true all this is. I don’t know enough about Apple history to have a valid opinion. I also note that this is from an interview done 24 years ago, and it’s more than possible that Raskin’s opinions changed before he died in 2005.
Still, at the very least it’s an eye-opener to read a view so diametrically opposed to the standard mythology, and from such a key player in Apple’s history.
Update (a few hours later)
Thanks to all for the interesting comments, especially to cms and Florian Munz who both pointed to Andy Hertzfeld’s brief account of the birth of the Macintosh, with a couple of enlightening comments from Jef Raskin.