Steve Jobs “never had any designs. He has not designed a single project”

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.

Also of interest: discussion of this story on Hacker News and on Reddit.

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54 responses to “Steve Jobs “never had any designs. He has not designed a single project”

  1. I don’t really think people believe that Steve Jobs designs or designed anything in particular. I think the general impression is that he organizes others in a way that they can come up with great ideas, and he is able to perceive which ones’ times have come and which ones are going to struggle to be effective. Certainly, he wasn’t always as talented as he is today and he has supported lots of design misses, so looking at his early career, it’s not surprising that his ego got in the way of things.

    I think Apple’s early success was a bit of a miracle, really. Jobs, Woz, and the others didn’t do everything right, and made boatloads of mistakes, but they had what was important, and that was the drive to create a great product that changed the world, and the ability to inspire others to contribute. I think this continues to set them apart today.

  2. Hi! I really enjoy your writing on this site, as well as the sushi photos.

    There’s an awful lot of mythologising about the insides of Apple, and I don’t know the truth of any of the stories either. I do have an impression that there were lingering bad vibes between Raskin and Jobs after the Macintosh was ‘born’.

    My understanding is that Jef Raskin left Apple very early on in the evolution of what became the Macintosh, and the project deviated very far from his original design goals. For example, I think most people would primarily associate the original Macintosh with being one of the first mainstream computers to introduce the modern GUI, whereas Jef’s system design had no mouse, and he was supposedly quite anti-mouse. Here’s Andy Hertzfeld’s take on some of this story, which offers another first-hand opinion.

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  5. Huck – the thing is that someone had to succeed out of the hundreds of microcomputers that came onto the market in the early 80s – whoever it was, hindsight will bless them as having had vision.

    I think the interesting question with Jobs is how much he learnt from Pixar.

  6. Here’s an anecdote about Alfred Hitchcock. He is famous for elaborately storyboarding his shots in advance, so much so that the mythology is that he arrived on set with the entire movie in his head, and the job of the 100+ other people on the set was just to transcribe his mind’s eye onto film. In reality, after a movie was shot, he would have the rushes sent to his house. There he drafted storyboards *from the rushes*. Then during interviews, these elaborate storyboards would be strewn around so that the MSM journalists could marvel over them. This was because the movie business people in the 1950s were inventing the idea of the director as the auteur because the studio system was being broken up by antitrust and they needed a new USP.

    Anyway, Apple sells the idea of Jobs as an auteur, as if all the designs from Apple spring forth from his mind, because it’s a nice story that sells. It appeals to everyone’s idea of the overmensch, of a force greater than themselves. The truth of the matter is that Jobs is more like a producer than a director, and that a director is less than an auteur.

  7. There is also Andy Hertzfeld’s take on this with comments from Raskin: http://folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=The_Father_of_The_Macintosh.txt&showcomments=1

  8. Yes, that’s why we don’t know about Jonathan Ives.

    Wait…

  9. This talk about “great products” is absurd. Apple succeeded when other failed, in the 1978-1984 time period, not because their products were “magical” or “better”. The Apple II was clever and well-designed, the Lisa was impressive. But in the same period, there were other personal computers that were on a comparable level. Ones that were often less expensive, as well as being comparable in technology.

    Nobody today remembers the Processor Technology SOL. Nobody remembers the Hyperion, which made the IBM PC look like a crude toy. Or the Osborne, or the Kaypro. Or the first Compaq, which caused a sensation when it appeared. (Do you know that Compaq went from nothing to $111 million in sales in their first year? They left Apple in the dust.)

    All that people can remember now is the massive, obsessive, insanely insane ego of Steve Jobs.

    If anything was responsible for making Apple a success when other small-computers manufacturers were crashing right and left, I would vote for Jobs and his dementia. He was a self-obsessed dick, but he was also one who pushed people to work and work, and to build up Apple’s financial position in that critical early period. That’s his “great idea”. Not an idea, so much as a psychopathology.

    That’s what you need to build a “successful company”: a shrieking arrogant manipulative son-of-a-bitch at the helm. One who, unlike most CEOs, isn’t in it for immediate self-gratification. The rudder has to beat the rest of the ship into submission–and not for his own personal aggrandizement.

  10. My girlfriends dad was an architect on the old 68000 chip inside of the original Macintosh. Before he passed he would always tell us a story of his first meeting with jobs over what they wanted out of the 68000 and 68040 chip. Steve came in and asked everyone in the conference room what they’re titles were. Then sent all the designers out, in his opinion he just wanted the architects who could actually tell him what was accomplish-able and not the designers ruining the meeting with “ideas”. If your interested you can read more at the history of computers museum and this interview with the team that helped create the chipset behind the macintosh.

    http://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/text/Oral_History/Motorola_68000/102658164.05.01.acc.pdf

  11. So Apple’s success is all fake?

  12. Sorry to be that comment, but I think it’s “Seibel”:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=peter+seibel

  13. What Jobs is : a businessman with good taste. And nothing else, really.

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  15. Too bad we couldn’t settle the argument about Jobs’ contributions by seeing what Apple was like without him…Oh, wait.

  16. with anyone trying to get ahead of another person, there will always be conflict and rumors of people not doing things, saying that he never did “any” designer jobs is just preposterous.

    http://www.stankruslicky.com

  17. “What Jobs is : a businessman with good taste. And nothing else, really.” Like saying, “What Neil Armstrong is: a bus driver heading in a somewhat different direction. And nothing else, really.”

  18. Susan Kare designed or refined a lot of the icons, fonts and UI elements of the original Mac. Here’s part of an interview where she talks about Working with Steve Jobs.

  19. seems true to me at least….

  20. [Note from Mike: this was originally marked as spam, probably largely because the writer gave his web address as that of a debt consolidation service, but the content seems on topic, so if it’s a spam then it’s a good one. I don’t know if it’s legit — it doesn’t help that the author didn’t leave a real name. With those caveats in mind, enjoy.]

    I know all the principals personally, and I have to say the article is accurate. Jef Raskin really did create the Macintosh, and once its promise was obvious, Steve Jobs took it away from him.

    I have always thought of Steve Jobs as a visionary, not a designer, and this story supports that view. Steve Jobs is really good at many things, but designing things isn’t one of them.

    Steve Wozniak designed the Apple I, II and III. I wrote a little software (Apple Writer, for example). Jef Raskin designed the Macintosh. Steve Jobs sold the public on the idea of a personal computer. In 100 years, I think Steve Jobs’ role will be seen as very important, and the fact that he didn’t design anything will be put in perspective.

    Jef died a few years ago, of pancreatic cancer, ironically enough something that Steve Jobs also has struggled with.

    One of my favorite Jef stories was about his early design for an electric car. Jef filled the trunk and back seat with ordinary batteries, and replaced the engine with an electric motor. Everything went fine until he had to go downhill — because of the batteries, the car was way too heavy for the brakes. By quick steering Jef got to the bottom of the hill all right, but it wasn’t anyone’s idea of a controlled descent.

    [Mike again: I think I figured out what happened. Paul Lutus, the author of Apple Writer, posted this comment on Reddit, and it seems that someone’s reposted it as spam to attract traffic to their debt consolidation site. I’m letting the reposted comment stand because it’s interesting, but I’ve deleted the URL that the spammer wanted you to follow.]

  21. Thanks! Most people don’t remember the details of the time period under discussion, and as time passes, there are fewer survivors. Pretty soon, full-scale revisionism will start. :)

  22. Have you thought of compiling what historical documentation you have into some form of a history?

    If humanity doesn’t mess up too badly, I have a strong prediction that in a century or two, technological history will be more important than political history or social history as it will eventually encompass both. We still talk about the political greats of the Roman Empire – perhaps my great-great-great grandchildren will revere you in the same way I learned of Cicero and Plato. After all, your work will have shaped their future.

  23. Dertive asked: “Have you thought of compiling what historical documentation you have into some form of a history?”

    Absolutely not! I agree that it’s important work, but I am completely unqualified to do it — everything I quoted in this article is from a single interview in a single book that I only even read because a commenter suggested it to me.

  24. Sorry for straying from the topic, but I can’t help to wonder… what is up with you and sushi dishes? Why do you interleave images of sushi dishes in this article?

  25. I interleave images of sushi dishes in all my articles. Why? No better reason than that long, unbroken stretches of text look boring, but sushi looks gorgeous. It’s colourful, it’s delicious — what’s not to like? Plus I suppose it gives my site a recognisable visual identity.

  26. Interesting read. Do people think Jobs started out programming and/or designing? He’s a marketer–plain and simple–and a darn good one!

    Did he design the iMac? The MacBook? The iPod? No, of course not. But, he has made all of these nearly as ubiquitous as he has made them desirable.

  27. That’s not hard to believe but I still bet Apple would not be what they are today without him!

  28. I think an interesting parallel can be made with Richard Rogers, one of the top architects in the world. I remember being shocked when I learn that he hasn’t sat at a desk and designed any of his buildings either. His role is to wander around the office overseeing the various designers and engineers, ensuring that it all comes together to match the vision he has of the building in his head. This practice appears to be widespread. It does seem to be a bit unfair on all those talented people whose contributions get blocked out by the monstrous ego of the chief.

  29. Apple was the trendy place for Stanford engineers/designers to land circa 1982, slightly before every 20-year-old in the Terman building turned into a startup zombie — not that there was anything wrong with that. My girlfriend dumped me for a guy whose big break was making the team to design a personal printer stand and STEVE JOBS liked it! I’m not bitter…

    And, for the record, I lusted after an Osborne (another reason I got dumped?), bought a Kaypro (it’s quite amusing to my kids today, possbily for sale along with the 300 baud acoustic coupler from my TRS-80 that I used to dial in to play Star Trek on the DEC-20) and then was outraged to come home one Christmas and find my mother with a Mac and that stupid mouse/GUI…

    More contemporarily (1960s), see last Sunday’s Mad Men: the glory goes to the guy with his name on the front door. Always has, always will. POLL: Peggy, hot or not?

  30. Hi,
    I strongly suggest that you also read the book version.
    Kamel

  31. This is early days for Apple. It struck me that what Jobs did with Next after leaving Apple was what laid the foundations for the modern Apple products we have come to know.

  32. Judging from what survived of Raskin’s Macintosh in the Canon Cat the Mac became an all together different project under Jobs’ lead.
    Following available historical accounts it seems like Jobs became interested in the Macinosh project only when he was turned out of LISA development, setting up the project as an internal rival to LISA. (One of the more sad side effects of this was the drop of LISA [litterary into a big dump], when Apple was to reduce the product line after the Apple III disaster. Usually the story goes that LISA didn’t perform well on the market, but in fact it sold 4 times the estimates. So it seems LISA was rather a victim of internal politics, but of its “poor” sales. It might be worth to note that LISA demoed the concept of a tightly integrated office product with a single contact for support, that later was to become the base of Microsoft’s success with the Windows 95/MS Office-package. Had LISA survived, things may have developed a bit different …)

  33. Pingback: Apple Sells Perception of Self Worth and Snubs Everything Which is Free | Techrights

  34. Pingback: » Jef Raskin ed il suo rapporto con Steve Jobs

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  36. I have no personal insight into Apple and Jobs; however, I do have a strong impression that its/his success is not rooted in technical or product excellence, but in clever business and marketing methods. Obviously, and regrettably, this applies to a number of other highly successful companies. (Microsoft being the paramount example—seldom have so poor products earned so much money.)

  37. A lot of the same thing is written extensively in the fantastic biography iCon. The writer doesnt sugarcoat any aspect of Job’s personalities, and yes, in fact he was an utter asshole in the company.

    The author surmises that Job softened up and actually became a human (even if a very scary human) after his fight with Cancer,Next and Pixar.

  38. I’ve never thought of Steve Jobs as a designer but more a visionary. He seems to have the knack for seeing something and taking it to the next level (Apple II, Macintosh, NeXT, Pixar, iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad).

    Regardless of his well-known management style, he still seems to have the innate ability to attract, assemble, and inspire those who can help him fulfill his vision.

    Apple, with Jobs, have had their share of flops (Apple III, Lisa, iPhone 4 antennas) but they’ve been more successful than not.

    Is everything he does perfect? Heck no. I hate iTunes; I hate the closed ecology that surrounds iStuff; and I most certainly hate the inept photo management for the iPad. Argh.

    But I still admire the guy for what he’s been able to inspire.

    Here’s a question for someone much more knowledgable than me about Apple’s history. Somewhere in the fogbanks of my mind, I recall Jobs leading a secret project inside Apple that wasn’t revealed to corporate Apple until he was sure it was ready and would be a hit. But I can’t remember what project, where I read it, or if I’m just imagining it. Help?

    BTW, Interestingly, I just discovered Susan Lammers has a blog up at http://programmersatwork.wordpress.com/ specifically related to her interviews for this book.

  39. Pingback: Steve Jobs non ha mai creato nessun prodotto | Il Blog di Shift

  40. Wow…Thanks for the info! I feel as if I just might check out that book. Thanks.

    Also, I just want to say that as much as I love Mac and Apple products, I do believe that Jobs is a little over rated and given too much credit for everything (This is just what I think…). Also, that the whole Apple thing today (iPod, iPad, iPhone) is just one big fad and costs WAY too much money, and I wonder how people who have no money at all can afford these things. I love Macs, but no longer own one after mine died a few years back. I love iPods, and have only owned two: The iPod Mini, that I had until its death, and the iPod Nano (2nd gen) that I still own. Why replace what still works?

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  43. Steve Jobs actually demonstrated a Mac prototype to me and Bob Frankston back in 1982. We were properly blown away. (Interestingly, one of the demos was a chess game played against Alice that I haven’t seen since.)

    Steve Jobs is an impressario. Lorenzo de Medici couldn’t paint a stroke and couldn’t sculpt to save his life, but he knew good work when he saw it, and he was willing and able to encourage it. Robert Moses wasn’t a civil engineer and he couldn’t even drive, but he was responsible for half the bridges, tunnels and highways in New York City and vicinity.

    Steve Jobs is a lot like that. His strong point is his sense of taste, and while it may not line up exactly with your own, name a PC you might buy for aesthetic reasons. There’s what, Alienware? They might have weird ass stuff, but it is distinctive. What else? Does anyone speak well of the smooth, variable tracking of a Windows trackpad? Does anyone even notice the lines of a Dell PC enclosure? What is the Microsoft Word aesthetic? Are ribbons really beautiful?

    I don’t worship form over function. I always liked the World Trade Center because it was big and ugly. It didn’t have any symbolism whatever; it was all about square feet of office space. On the other hand, an awful lot of stuff is a lot uglier than it should be. Look at the typical pre-iPhone cell phone interface. It’s positively hostile. Surely Steve Jobs was not the first person to notice that it was easy and pleasant to use a Palm portable. They were hot sellers in their day, but not one other cell phone company even addressed the problem. That left a wide open space for a man of wealth and taste.

  44. Kaleberg writes: “Steve Jobs is a lot like that. His strong point is his sense of taste, and while it may not line up exactly with your own, name a PC you might buy for aesthetic reasons.”

    That’s the thing of it. His taste does line up with mine; or, I should say, mine lines up with his. I’m writing this on a Mac laptop that I’ve had for fifteen months — the first Mac I’ve ever owned — and the truth is that I love it in a way that I’ve not loved any computer I’ve owned in the last 27 years. (The only one I’ve loved more was my VIC-20.)

    So someone is doing a good job at Apple. I think everyone would be happy with the idea that Jobs’s role is as a high-level filter. It’s just quotes like “I have a few good designs left in me yet” that strike untrue.

  45. I’m pretty sure at the very least Jobs has an uncanny ability of getting amazing designs pumped out from a project management scale. That ability in itself is something worth mentioning.

    Project management-Project Planning-Business Sense

    All these qualities are soft skills that can make or break a business. Turns out his leadership has been making a great business.

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  48. i think jobs was a megalomaniac and a slave driver. moreover he took credit for everything and became the face of the company.

  49. infestorvx, I don’t think that model explains how Jobs was so startlingly successful, over and over again, in two separate stints at the helm of Apple (the first as one of the two founders). Occam’s razor suggests that he must have had something to do with it, rather than just having been in the right place at the right time over and over again.

  50. On December 9, 1968, Douglas C. Engelbart and the group of 17 researchers working with him in the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA, presented a 90-minute live public demonstration of the online system, NLS, they had been working on since 1962. The public presentation was a session of the Fall Joint Computer Conference held at the Convention Center in San Francisco, and it was attended by about 1,000 computer professionals. This was the public debut of the computer mouse. But the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day, including hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.

    http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html

    —-

    In 1975, Jobs was tapped by Atari to work on the Pong-like game Breakout.

    He was reportedly offered $750 for his development work, with the possibility of an extra $100 for each chip eliminated from the game’s final design. Jobs recruited Steve Wozniak (later one of Apple’s other founders) to help him with the challenge. Wozniak managed to whittle the prototype’s design down so much that Atari paid out a $5,000 bonus — but Jobs kept the bonus for himself, and paid his unsuspecting friend only $375, according to Wozniak’s own autobiography.

    —-

    “How Steve Jobs Invented The Computer Mouse By Stealing It From Xerox”

    Steve Jobs visited PARC in 1979 (after buying Xerox stock) and was impressed and influenced by the Xerox Alto.

    —-

    Ken Segall talks about working with Steve Jobs, how Jobs initially hated the word “iMac,” and the importance of the Think Different campaign to Apple.

    Ken Segall:

    “I’ve put in 14 years working with Steve Jobs on both Apple and NeXT,” says Segall. “I’m the author of the Think Different campaign and the guy who came up with the whole “i” thing, starting with iMac.”

    —-

    The connection has enough weight that Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who first synthesized (and took) LSD, appealed to Jobs for funding for research about the drug’s therapeutic use. In a book interview, Jobs called his experience with the drug “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” As Jobs himself has suggested, LSD may have contributed to the “think different” approach that still puts Apple’s designs a head above the competition.

    —-

    Jef Raskin:

    “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.”

    —-

    Steve Wozniak:

    It was a weird situation. Steve jobs never programmed in his life. He couldn’t design a computer — he was never a designer or a programmer — but he could understand it well enough to understand what was good and what was bad.

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