“In the MacHack tradition, we thought about how to plan this,” moderator Scott Knaster said, kicking off this year’s annual MacHack conference at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. “And then, in the MacHack tradition, we decided not to.”
The first MacHack keynote I attended was the one I myself delivered a few years ago. The subject was the importance of maintaining core philosophies even as new technologies emerge, and how I built a Mac-controlled robot to torment my housemates’ cat. Eric Raymond was last year’s keynoter. An avid and eloquent proponent of the open-source model, his session lasted until dawn as he tried, with varying dosages of success, to impress upon the group the vigor, vitality, and necessity of giving software away and sharing source code. It was exactly the right message at exactly the right time, coming as it did when Mac OS X was heaving itself over the horizon.
This year, MacHack upheld its commitment to schizophrenia through a rather incredible reunion of most of the big figures behind the development of the Mac.
When these people wake up in the morning, they have an excuse to roll over and slap the snooze bar — they’ve already sort of justified their existence. At least once in their lives, they helped to birth something truly great, something that knocked the world on its ear and left it in a better shape. That’s underscored every time someone clicks on a menu and it drops down, every time someone selects something on screen and does something with it — hell, every time someone does something with a computer instead of digging out a manual, does it wrong, and then does it. Whether it’s done on a Mac or Something Else, whether or not the Mac was the first machine to demonstrate such things, that’s their legacy. The Mac proved it. It was their job to take all of the Great Ideas coming from Xerox PARC and the wild ones that were flipping through the ether and turn them all into a working, shipping product.
If you don’t appreciate how difficult that job was, it’s because you don’t appreciate that this group of geeks were the only people on the planet who didn’t have the Macintosh to copy off of. If you were once a member of the Beatles, you’re allowed to turn off the alarm clock entirely and sleep in. But this thing these people did with the Macintosh . . . well, that’s at least enough to earn them an extra ten minutes’ sleep for the rest of their lives.
Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, the guys everyone has heard of, were there. Together, they’re the most notable figures behind the code that was burned into the first Mac.
Jef Raskin, who’s become famous as the guy who isn’t famous for having created the Mac, was there, too. Genius may have many fathers, but were a judge ever to order any one man to make back-child-support payments to the Mac’s mother, it’d be Jef.
And then there were the people who are famous for what they accomplished and what they created. I knew
Caroline Rose very well, but only because I could afford to buy Inside Macintosh , the Mac’s programming references, years before I could afford an actual Mac. To her went the bulk of the responsibility for turning thick and indigestible planks of notes about Toolbox calls into clear, organized documentation. Given the rather long odds against a software developer managing to turn out working software by trial and error, the fact that the Macintosh quickly inspired an enthusiastic community of developers, and then a large library of great software, is largely due to her work.
I didn’t know Donn Denman, but I knew about his work. Discovering that this one man had a large hand in so much of the Mac’s development made me wonder just what levels of evil Donn managed to wreak during his previous life. He worked on the Apple III, Apple’s one true Edsel. Then he created Macintosh BASIC, possibly the greatest software that never shipped. Here he managed to write the most advanced BASIC on the planet, a development environment which turned this shabby, sad-sack interpreted language into a slick and professional education and development environment. It would have allowed owners of a plain, ordinary Mac 128 to write their own software . . . and he had to watch as his masterpiece was nailed inside a crate and warehoused. Microsoft, who was putting Apple’s feet (and other body parts that come in twos) to the fire negotiating a new license for the Microsoft BASIC interpreter inside every Apple II, insisted that Macintosh BASIC be chloroformed so it wouldn’t compete against a Microsoft product. Then Donn made MacroMaker. The first release was less than stellar, but the big-time sequel kicked major butt; alas, by then, Apple had lost faith in the thing and killed it.
But for as much as anything else, Donn should be famous as the guy who designed the little lever in the Alarm Clock that rotated when clicked on and revealed the Mac’s first drop-down window, as well as the Note Pad, whose animated turning pages triggered my first sense that a Macintosh was something I Simply Had To Own.
The Reunion was rounded off by Randy Wigginton (Apple employee No. 6 and one of those Bad Pennies of Apple: he turned up in most any significant project you could name, starting with the Disc II floppy drive). And if anyone has the home address of Daniel Kottke, hardware monkey, please let me know. He revealed that he owns a prototype board of every stage in the Mac’s development, so naturally I plan to be staging a break-in just as soon as Daniel has a rider to his homeowner’s insurance in place.
There’s no need to try to be clever in describing it: this
keynote was manifestly special and wonderful. The evening was filled with plenty of anecdotes about incidents known and incidents as-yet-untold about the Mac’s development.
Bill Atkinson talked about a feature he’d actually put into MacPaint. He’d figured out a slick way to identify any text within the artwork and make it editable. The user would draw a selection around the text, MacPaint would find the edges of the letters, make an educated guess about what font it might be, and then by just determining which character makes that glyph disappear, you’d get the text.
But he yanked out the feature later. As limited as that feature was, it’d still be a Text-Editing Feature, and then that would imply that MacPaint would have use — albeit limited — as a word processor, which would in turn imply that . . . .
At that point, Bill decided to jump off the merry-go-round. MacPaint, as-is, was a perfect experience. Bill wrote MacPaint with clear and confident intentions on what he was creating, and any feature that would blur that experience for the programmer would almost certainly obliterate it for the user.
That was probably the most revealing tale of the night. As the years scroll by, various myths about the Mac’s development get clarified or discounted altogether, but one thing that seems built on bedrock was the sincerity of the project. These people really did believe that they were building something revolutionary, something that would be truly great . . . that they were creating a legend and a legacy, and that what they were doing there and then would be in the lead paragraph of their obituaries.
They Got It. From top to bottom, They Got It, and they knew that what they were doing was right, just as the stories claim they did. And just like the engineers working on the Apollo moon programs, they were determined that if this project went wrong — or leaned toward suckage — it would not be due to anything they had done.
Why was there no second button on the mouse? Because as hard as they tried, they couldn’t come up with That One Concept that the second button should represent. Button 1 means “select” in every app and in every situation. But a Button 2 that means different things to different programmers is mere surplus and could only serve to gum up the works.
The MacHack panel was like an assemblage of people who participated in the production of Citizen Kane. Partly because these were people who were aware that they had been a key contributor to something that will live on forever, partly because they’d done it long enough ago to have perspective, to be able to judge the actions of young people through the prism of another couple of decades’ worth of experience.
But the thing that really invokes this comparison is the fact that Orson Welles is exactly as likely to show up at any modern panel about Citizen Kane as Steve Jobs was to show up at last night’s keynote about the Macintosh. The iSteve that we all know and love would never want to come that far to be one of six people on a stage.
Like the empty chair set aside for Elijah at a Passover dinner, though, Steve’s presence at the keynote was very, very real through the many anecdotes delivered by the panel. I fully intend to live 20 years longer than Steve because a truly brilliant biography will be written about him once the threat of lawsuits have dropped and eyewitnesses are themselves close enough to death not to care anymore.
“A common phrase we’d use on campus was ‘Hey, Steve! Wait until you hear about this great idea you just had!'” Wigginton joked. Tale after tale firmed up my existing resolution to never assume that any story was “Too ‘Steve’ even for Steve.” Bill shared the story about how Steve insisted that rounded rectangles be one of the Mac OS’s graphics primitives. He balked, but Steve insisted that the two of them go out for a walk . . . and damned if he didn’t demonstrate that RoundRects are everywhere in nature.
Bill told this story because he wanted to communicate how gifted Steve was at seeing subtle but important points. And the tale worked wonders until Jef informed him that he’d sold Steve on RoundRects in exactly the same manner not too long before.
Not showering. Firing an engineer after hearing secondhand that he didn’t believe a mouse was really possible. Parking in handicapped zones and installing himself as Apple Employee Zero in a fit of pique after losing out as Apple Employee One. You’d think that the panelists were painting a picture of a Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons, and that iSteve was only a few years away from clomping around the Apple campus wearing empty Kleenex boxes for shoes.
But the real point of all these tales was that, as odd as Steve is, he’s just Steve. He is all of those things, but even if he does receive his inspirational breakthroughs only after they’ve passed through the neurological alimentary canals of others, his ability to zone in on The Right Thing and to fix it into a coherent form with other Right Things is uncanny. If Steve isn’t by any stretch a brilliant scientist and engineer, he’s a brilliant leader and manager. Walt Disney wasn’t a brilliant animator and Harold Ross wasn’t a brilliant writer, but neither Walt Disney Pictures nor The New Yorker would have produced such reliably great work without them.
The keynote lasted five hours and then some. At 5 a.m., some of the panelists were getting punchy and desired egress, but the room was still nearly as full as it was when it started. And when Andy Hertzfeld and others agreed to stick around to chat, dozens of MacHack denizens ringed the stage.
I wanted to be one of them, but due to my lifestyle, I had boarded my 8:40 flight that morning with only 118 minutes of sleep under my belt. One of my subsystems turned on a little orange indicator light mounted in the corner of my eye, which meant that there were only 20 minutes of power left and I would begin shutting down any ongoing processes.
I had hoped that I could shake all of these people’s hands and in some quick and non-12-year-old-girl-standing-outside-MTV-Studios-And-Screaming-Because-The-Backstreet-Boys-Are-In-There-Somewhere way communicate how grateful I was that they had so adamantly applied their passion and their creativity and their dedication to the Macintosh project.
This, I could not do. But Bill Atkinson came down with a splitting headache, and I was able to give him some Tylenol from my satchel. So I feel as though I’ve made my gratitude known.
From left to right: Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson — the most notable figures behind the code that was burned into the first Mac.
The gang’s all here. From left to right, Randy Wigginton, Donn Denman, Caroline Rose, Hertzfeld, Atkinson, Jef Raskin, and Daniel Kottke.