GUI Discussion :: Jef Raskin Response

In the interest of eliciting more historical facts, here are a few additional recollections. A lot of people asked to see my thesis, but that's rather large and much is irrelevant to this discussion, so I've excerpted the pertinent parts of it here.

Bruce Horn pointed out that Xerox had the pull-down menus that I attributed to Atkinson (a case of independent reinvention of which I was unaware) though click-and-drag for selection and moving were (as far as he and I know) invented at Apple. Bruce and others have expressed the idea that the Canon Cat was much as I would have wanted the Mac to be. However, the Canon Cat as marketed by Canon was only a dim echo of what my colleagues and I (at Information Appliance Inc.) worked on. For example, most people only know it as a closed-architecture (which it wasn't) secretarial workstation.

This is because Canon did not want to reveal that it was actually a 68000-based bit-mapped product with a nice set of graphics tools in ROM--which tools they never used. This was partly because they decided to bundle it with a daisy-wheel printer (!) that could not do graphics and partly because it was brought out by their electric typewriter division and not their computer division. Most observers at the time thought the marketing had been botched, and I am not going to disagree. Designed to allow easy integration of third-party software, Canon never pursued this essential path, and the few third-party vendors we had begun to sign up never had time to complete their work before Canon bailed out. The Cat had a connector and software hooks for a pointing device, but Canon never provided a mouse or mouse-equivalent for it.

In many ways it was, for 1987, far ahead. It automatically resumed from where you had left off working, even if you turned off the machine in the interim; it had a screen-saver; instant on with any keystroke (and you didn't even lose the keystroke); it would have qualified for a "green" sticker had they been invented then, it had true document-centric operation with a level of integration beyond any of today's suites, OpenDoc, or OLE; an ease of use that has yet to be duplicated; the boot time was about seven seconds but seemed instantaneous due to a psychological trick; it featured full-text retrieval of anything, no matter in what application; had built-in communications including an auto-answer, auto-dial modem; the communications were available and integrated with all the application areas; and so on.

Even the normally sage Esther Dyson didn't understand the product's openness, at one point she wrote that it was unacceptable since it didn't do footnotes. But neither did the Mac, until appropriate third-party software came along. But everybody liked the Cat interface.

With regard to my thesis, its formal title was, "A Hardware-Independent Computer Drawing System Using List-Structured Modeling: The Quick-Draw Graphics System" Pennsylvania State University, 1967. All the material in quotes in the next few paragraphs is from the thesis.

Some things I probably should put into their chronological context, otherwise they may seem strange after thirty years of bit-loss. First, I did not have access to an interactive graphics terminal, which I thought would "excite images of a new era in man-machine communications as the more visionary proponents of the interactive console rightly put forth...". Surprisingly, the utility of interactivity was not apparent to all computer scientists at the time; A section of my thesis (6.23) on Interactive Graphics was snuck in nonetheless. For example, when the system had to ask the user something I proposed that small menus could appear right on the display and that the user could "detect on" (now we would say, "click on" as we don't use light pens) the appropriate element in the menu. Now we would call this a dialog box.

I was "providing a common programming system for diverse output media" based on their shared basic abilities, at that time the ability to create a vector. Bit-mapped systems were not available at Penn State. At a time when the existing graphics packages at Penn State drew only "charts, graphs, and tables," I spoke in terms of creating a system for "Architects, electronics engineers, musicians, computer scientists, artists, meteorologists, linguists, chemists, and indeed the entire academic and professional community."

The real need, I wrote, was to "have the ability to define arbitrary symbols and manipulate them into complex pictures. Such symbols could be representations of furniture and fixtures in floor plans, resistors, transistors, and the like in schematic diagrams, notes and clef signs in music, the individual shapes in flow charts, symbols for atoms and molecular structures, sentence structure diagrams, and so on without limit." I saw using images hierarchically, "The fixtures are arranged into rooms, the rooms, now treated as units are arranged into buildings, and the buildings, as units, become developments, urban centers, and cities." The Quick Draw Graphics System (QDGS) provided all affine transformations of objects, and a few others (such as perspective) as well.

For portability it was written in s higher-level language. In this case FORTRAN was chosen, since it was the one scientific language almost universally available at any computer center in the U.S. at the time. True to what I would later do in the industry, I provided a plain-English "QDGS Primer" to get people started, and included it as an appendix to my thesis. Another section of the thesis discussed three-dimensional representation, as the QDGS could do perspective drawings; we made a few short films such as one showing a cube with writing on its faces rotating in space. This is trivial now, of course, but few people were doing 3-D computer-generated animation prior to 1970.

A lot of the thesis was standard computer science / math stuff, with matrix calculations and formal grammars. E.g. "As a grammar... it is context-free, and since it is self-embedding, it is clearly not regular." But I will skip all that formal stuff.

More important from today's perspective is the observation that "with character generators one has a limited choice of lettering sizes... There is one orientation, horizontal, and no ability to introduce new characters." Over the objection that I was sacrificing efficiency I decided that "Within the QDGS no provision is made for the use of character generators, although special programs could be devised. If such provision were made what would be lost, aside from hardware independence, is the ability to have annotations in various sizes, styles, and proportions, at any angle and position. What also would be lost is the ability to treat characters with a full range of transformations available to other geometric shapes, to create arbitrary characters as the need arises, to make annotations part of a figure and thus moved about with the picture it annotates, and the ability to squeeze, justify, fit, and creatively use characters as picture elements in every way."

I went through this same argument again a decade later with Woz when he was designing the Apple II. I argued that he should eliminate the character generator and do all character generation graphically, but Woz didn't think that would work. Jobs didn't understand what was so important about making computes graphics-based. I finally got the hardware architecture I wanted by making it a fundamental principle behind the Mac.

Back to my thesis: to insure hardware independence I considered the effect of different raster sizes and how to compensate in a graphics system for different resolutions "such that if the entire picture is scaled its appearance is the same no matter which device it is plotted or drawn on..." This all seems pretty modern but other things were primitive, "A small innovation... but a nicety, is that labels can be automatically centered." Hard to believe that such an idea could ever have been an "innovation." Many people were surprised to find the graphic arts and typographical term "fonts" in a computer science thesis. Computer scientists were not supposed to be interested in such things, except as an eccentric hobby. Most of my collegues had never heard of a font. Now, everybody who uses computers is aware of fonts; there's the very word on the menu above this note I am writing.

The most heretical statement I made (my advisor thought it questionable) was that my work was based on a "design and implementation philosophy which demanded generality and human usability over execution speed and efficiency." This at a time when the main aim of computer science courses was to teach you to make programs run fast and use as little memory as possible. Come to think of it, maybe we should bring back some of those courses: nowadays major companies can't seem to write a word processor in fewer than 8 megabytes.

When I put human usability as a major goal, I was off on my own, and did not find like-minded computer scientists until I ran into them at PARC about six years later. In fact, the very term "human usability" didn't enter the computer science lexicon with any regularity until later. The IBM Usability Lab opened in the early 1970's and at first was mainly concerned with ergonomics. Only a handful of people, such as Sutherland, Weinberg, Gilb, and Englebart, seemed interested in the topic and I didn't learn of the work of the last three until after I had done my thesis. (Weinberg's ground-breaking "The Psychology of Computer Programming" was published in 1971." The quantitative work of Card, Moran, and Newell became widely known with the publication of important book, "The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction". It appeared in 1983.)

My thesis led up to a final illustration: the opening measures from Beethoven's "Variations on God Save the King" for piano. I had created the music font (including an elegant slur generator) and the software for using it as a side project. I also designed and built a digitizer for putting existing scores into the computer, when you pressed a button to indicate that you were pointing where you wanted it noisily punched out Hollerith cards on keypunch machines I had modified. I am not sure that anybody had ever before used general purpose graphics devices to notate music. The notation was not crude, it looked enough like published music so that most people could not detect that it was computer-generated. The story of this work and a photo of the digitizer I built has been published.

As I said in my history of the Mac Project (the one currently being serialized in CHAC), the Mac was by no means the work of one person, but the combined efforts of thousands in hundreds of companies large and small. It was not, as many accounts anachronistically relate, stolen from PARC by Steve Jobs after he saw the Alto running SmallTalk on a visit. For one thing the usual account (as in Levy's book, "Insanely Great" and others) denigrates the original and creative work done by all the Apple employees that put their hearts into the Mac. Most of the histories of the Mac were written without their authors interviewing the original team (Brian Howard, who contributed so much, is always missed), and the history of the Mac that Apple's own P/R department dispensed was based on Jobs's version. Many didn't speak with me: without knowing that I had worked out many of the key usability ideas when Jobs was still in grade school and before there was a Xerox PARC to learn from, it is perhaps understandable that people would find it necessary to invent a history that derives the Mac's genesis from the nearest similar work. The honest intellectual debt the Mac owes to the work at PARC was not a case of highway robbery.

I very much appreciate the many kind emails I've received, and since they run into the many dozens, I cannot answer them all individually. David Craig, a computer history buff, asks if I have the memo on the design of the one-button mouse. I don't know, someday I may have time to go through my papers and find out. Arild Eugen Johansen asks for a list of names of the early Mac team. This, too, will have to wait for the same reason; I don't want to do it from memory and leave out someone by accident. Owen Linzmeyer, author of "The Mac Bathroom Reader", which contains one of the best accounts of the history of the Mac yet published, wrote to ask if I was still using the "Millionth Mac" I was given in 1987. Yes, it's main job is to run our Lego toys through a neat computer interface Lego sells. I wrote it up in WIRED.

Glen Cole asks if my attempt to avoid trademark conflict with McIntosh audio equipment by spelling the computer "Macintosh" were successful. He correctly remembers that it was not. Apple even had to pay the raincoat manufacturer for use of the name, I have no idea why. Glen also asks how I feel about the nickname "Mac" for the product. Fine, we used it from the very beginning. Andrew Warren, referring to something I wrote for Upside magazine asked, "Still believe that there'll be exactly 2,156 mainframes left by the end of the millenium?" Giving so specific a number was my way of saying "that's a silly question." First, we'd have to define "mainframe". And then how would I know anyway? Kent Borg asks where the innovation is happening. It looks like Apple will take the route of being compatible with all the nonsense in the universe. They'll survive, and I'm glad I'll still be able to use Macs, but I am not excited. What I want to create is software that is as easy to use as the CAT was but with the power of today's broad range of applications. I know how to do it, I just haven't found a company where I can build it.

A number of people asked for permission to redistribute my notes on the history of the Mac. Yes, so long as you are a not-for-profit organization or club and say "Copyright 1996 by Jef Raskin. Used by permission." If you make money from my writing, I should, too.

Copyright 1996 by Jef Raskin. Used by permission.