Raskin's Moment

When I first heard the news that Jef Raskin had died, my mind flashed back to last July’s Macworld Expo in Boston, when Raskin joined fellow Mac innovators Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, and Jerry Manock in a keynote panel discussion led by David Pogue of the New York Times.

When the session started, I’d wager that most of the audience had never heard of Raskin, or at the very least knew about him only peripherally. Maybe they had read the Raskin interview in Macworld, but that was probably about it.

But 78 minutes later, as the audience filed out of the hall, everyone was thinking and talking about Jef Raskin. That’s because Raskin, who was never exactly a shrinking violet, had lit up the crowd — and the panel. There were some hisses and boos when Raskin declared that the Mac had “gone from insanely great to insanely gross.” Me, I chuckled, because I knew Raskin was delighted that he had gotten a rise out of the Mac faithful.

The point of much of Raskin’s post-Apple work was not that the Mac was terrible — in fact, later on in the session in Boston he pointed out that the Mac is probably the best interface we’ve got today. Rather, it was that the current crop of operating-system interfaces are not good enough at their jobs, and to make computers easier to use will require the repudiation of some principles we all take for granted. He loved shocking those Mac users out of their complacency.

Of course, Raskin also got on the nerves of his fellow panelists in that session. Raskin clearly had a high opinion of himself and his work, and was not afraid to share that opinion in public. But several panelists seemed frustrated by Raskin and suggested that it was not entirely right for him to take so much credit for the creation of the Mac. From the looks on their faces (I was there, second row center) it seemed that Atkinson and Hertzfeld had heard his claims of invention before, and were tired of it.

The way I figured it at the time was this: if you truly believed that you were the creator of an innovative piece of technology like the Mac, and you saw the credit for the invention of that machine going to someone you had deep disagreements with (Steve Jobs), you really had two choices: Be modest and accept that only the real in-the-know people would ever give you the credit you deserved, or shout from the rooftops that conventional wisdom had it wrong and that you, not Steve Jobs, were the inventor of the Mac. Raskin’s approach was the latter, and I suppose I can’t fault him for it.

But on the occasion of his death, it is encouraging to see that at least in some quarters, Raskin is being given some of the credit he had been saying he deserved all along. Did Jef Raskin really come to Apple with the Mac full-blown in his head, a statement that would imply that all of the talented people on the original Mac team were just there to implement his unique vision? I doubt it. But there is little doubt that he was one of the key, if not the key figure in the creation of the technology that became the Mac.

If you’re interested in hearing that notable Macworld Expo panel discussion, we’re making an MP3 of the session available for a limited time. It’s 78 minutes long and weighs in at 18 MB, so be warned.

Download the Macworld Expo Boston 2004 Keynote MP3. (If you want other people to listen to this file, please point them to this entry rather than directly at the MP3 file. Thanks.)

Want more stories about Jef Raskin’s work with the original Mac team? Visit the Jef Raskin pages at folklore.org, Hertzfeld’s excellent site about the history of the Mac.

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