In the beginning there was nothing but undifferentiated ether that took form when something decided it was time for the infinite void of indifference to chose what to be. Some things spun off into matter and some to energy, and everything changed in the longest instantaneous blink of an eye. As things cooled down, patterns emerged and took form.
The patterns became more and more complex as time went on. Eventually, man too would create virtual universes cast in electrons and controlled by gates pulsing to the beat of an unsteady clock.
As engineers worked, they invented ways to work in this universe and be able to comprehend it all. Initially there were patterns that became patterns of letters glowing green or amber rasterized onto dim black screens. And so this was the interface to the world of electrons for decades. Then some very smart people started thinking about better and faster ways to express data, and new paradigms to work in, and the graphical user interface (GUI) and mouse were born farther back in time than most people realize.
As time marched on more people began to refine the GUI and human interfaces that controlled them: trackballs, touch pads, touch screens, etc. But all this might not have happened if not for one person, and it’s not who you’d think it is…
Oddly enough, I had the pleasure of meeting Jef in the late 90s at a company party held the night after a company meeting in New York. I was working for an investment research firm, that was getting traction, and this was my first company trip. We started talking, and I honestly had no idea who he was at the time. He introduced himself as Jef Raskin, told me that he was among the first Apple employees and worked on the Macintosh project. His name sounded vaguely familiar, and he was sincere.
I was pretty blown away by just the fact that this guy was on the team that was made the machine that would change the world and jokingly bowed down to him and said “We’re not worthy,” a la Wayne’s World. He chuckled and we spent about an hour or more talking.
We started talking about the early days of the Macintosh, and he mentioned the signatures of the Macintosh team molded as part of the case on the inside of the first model. I told him that I had seen the inside of the case because I had one. (I had to take it apart again to swap the CRT out with one from a Mac SE — don’t ask me why. I’m still mad about what led to that.) He was a bit impressed that I knew that and had actually seen that first hand.
Jef was very nice and down to earth. He was relaxed and soft spoken but confident and seemed like a guy that was content with his lot in life. When I told him how the Mac’s GUI got me more into computers and led to being with the company who was throwing the party, he opened up a bit more.
He loved talking about interfaces and how the Mac’s GUI hadn’t turned out quite like he envisioned. I asked him what he would have liked to have seen, and he told me a few things — many of which hadn’t occurred to me, and sounded like interesting ideas. I told him what I would change — mainly based on my wish to switch into advanced modes for myself and had more options for the UI in the Finder. Also I mentioned I would have loved another button on the mouse so I didn’t have to hold down the special keys all the time.
Eventually the conversation turned to why he was hanging out with boring traders and investment people when he could be in high tech. He told me that he had many hobbies, and that this was one. It was a fun and interesting conversation shooting the breeze with him. We talked a bit about everything — wherever the conversation led to, and I think we both lost track of time. By the time we finished, the party was winding down, so I thanked him for the fascinating stories, said it was a pleasure meeting him and said goodnight.
When I got home from the trip, I looked his name up on the web and was floored. Here I was, a lowly desktop publishing geek, that doubled as the tech guru at a small company, and there I was telling Jef Raskin how I would make the GUI better. I’m a bit glad that I didn’t know exactly who he was, because I would have been much more intimidated and I would probably not have had the GUI discussion with him nor would have had such a long and interesting conversation.
Luckily, I didn’t put my foot in my mouth too much considering I told him how I had saved the Macs and PowerCenters at my company when my CEO came to me and asked if we could replace all the Macs with Windows machines when we upgraded. Jef was amused, and quipped something not too flattering about the alternative.
Looking back, I wish I would have recorded the conversation, considering how interesting it was. I think somewhere in the world, someone has a picture of Raskin and I together in their photo shoebox. (If you happen to be that someone with the picture, I would appreciate a copy.) But alas, I didn’t realize the significance of the chance meeting until much later.
True, it is well known that the Macintosh wasn’t what Jef envisioned, but the seed he planted to make an affordable, easy to use computing appliance grew into modern computing as we know it.