The Mac at 25: Andy Hertzfeld Looks Back

By James Turner
August 27, 2008 | Comments: 12

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The following is a transcript of a podcast interview of Andy Hertzfeld by James Turner.

James Turner: This is James Turner for O'Reilly News. I'm speaking today with Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original designers of the Macintosh and author of the book, Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made, which chronicles the efforts to create the Mac. He currently works at Google as a Software Engineer. Thanks for taking the time.

Andy Hertzfeld: Oh, you're welcome.

JT: So we're coming up on the 25th anniversary in January of the Macintosh. Did you think when you were creating it that it would have this kind of longevity?

Mac_Design_Team.jpgAH: No. Well in some ways I thought some of the concepts we pioneered would have the longevity but I never would have predicted there'd be computers called Macintosh(es) selling 25 years from now. just because the precedent was the Apple II and the Mac essentially replaced that and I thought something would come along to replace the Mac.

JT: Do you think that the current Mac(s) are a real direct line from the original Mac(s), or do you think there was some kind of a break in lineage along the way?

AH: Well there's certainly a line but I wouldn't characterize it as direct with two different processor family switches; essentially a major OS switch. The Macintosh OS of today is not the OS that I helped write, although certainly a lot of its DNA is in there.

JT: Reading your book, it seems like the project management style for the Mac was very loose. How would you compare it to conventional project management approaches like Agile or Waterfall?

AH: I'm not sure; I don't even know what Waterfall is. I have a pretty good idea of what Agile programming is and in a way that's the technique we used [for] the Mac. But I think you know all conventional processes will make conventional products. The key thing--the key ingredient to me is the passion that developers put into their work--how much of themselves they invest in it, and I think that's kind of orthogonal to a conventional development process. The formal process can be whatever but the key ingredient is the passion and the Mac team had passion in spades.

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JT: There were a lot of tradeoffs that had to be made in the original Mac software due to hardware constraints like memory. In retrospect are there things you would have done differently given what you know now about how the Mac was going to be used?

AH: Sure; there's things I would have done differently even a year or two later. My book has a little section in it called Mea Culpa where I detail a lot of the technical errors we made. But sure; the memory--engineering is really the art of working within the constraints, so if the constraints were different you would have a different product...A year later or two years later--and we anticipated the memory; the single biggest constraint with the original Macintosh was the 128 K-Bytes and we know that wasn't enough. It was almost miraculous we were able to do it and just because we started out wanting to do it at 64K it made the 128K seem tenable. That's probably the only thing. But also we had the 512K in our back pocket; you know the day we announced the Mac, the demo we did it on was on a 512K and we knew that was really what the original Mac was destined for was the 512K, which today--even by today's standards--that seems tiny.

JT: Right; but--even given the 128K constraints--are there [assumptions] that you made about how the product would be used that didn't prove out or that once the usage patterns were clear, you just said well, that was just an oops on our part?

AH: Sure; there were--the single biggest mistake in that way was not having first-class support for our hard disk. That was a real blunder and you know the sort of heart of the Mac though was the user-interface. And even with the user-interface, there were various things and of course it had to evolve, but I would say the essence or soul of it really, you know we got it pretty much right.

JT: The Mac came out a time when the future of desktop computing was really up for grabs; there were a lot of players like Radio Shack and Commodore and people like that coming into the market or in the market already. What factors do you think ended up giving the numerical edge to the X86 platforms?

AH: It was probably the decision to openly license it. When the Mac came out and for two years thereafter it was at least four or five years ahead of Windows and possibly could have taken the place of Windows if it was openly licensed, but because the Macintosh was restricted to a single member, Apple, it never could become an industry rather than a single platform. Of course it was an industry because it had third-party developers, but it couldn't become mainstreamed restricted to a single vendor. That's the single biggest factor but there are probably other factors as well having to do with the sensibility of the designers and the willingness to meet the requirements of the enterprise versus the requirements of the consumer. Ours were more with the consumer I think; Apple has always been that way.

JT: What aspects of the current OS X Mac operating system do you think are most strongly influenced from the original Mac OS? Are there things that you think they did that you'd like to see returned to the way that they were done in the original OS?

AH: Well it's two different questions. The first one--there are a few elements that were taken directly from the original Macintosh that weren't present in the NeXT OS like the menu bar, but when they created OS X they brought back some original Mac elements. But yeah; I have my complaints with OSX but I'm not sure it's worth getting into them. They're far and away the best alternative [Laughs] out there for people and so I don't want to berate it but there are you know a few places where I think it could be improved, but not so much by returning to to 25 year-old ideas. I think we really want to get more to like 2020 than back to the '80s.

JT: In your book you allude to Xerox as being, to Bill Gates, the rich uncle that both Apple and Microsoft stole from. What was the relationship like with PARC when you were developing the Mac and how did the Xerox researchers feel about the Mac?

AH: Well we had no formal relationship with PARC while we were developing the Mac. We got a single demo before the Mac project got off the ground, when the LISA project, that sort of cousin or bigger brother of the Mac, was in development. And so from that one demo we were already pointed in that direction but I would say that Xerox PARC demo galvanized and reinforced our strong opinion that the graphic user-interface was the way to go. And then the influence of PARC was strong in the project, but not through a formal relationship with PARC; more through PARC people getting wind of what we were doing and coming to work at Apple. The very first one was Tom Malloy on the LISA project. He was sort of a disciple of Charles Simonyi--I write about that a little bit in my book. He was one of the original LISA people who came to Apple in 1978. But later, Larry Tesler was a really key figure coming to the LISA team in the summer of 1980 from Xerox PARC and eventually, mostly after the original Mac shipped, there were a dozen or more. Another person I have to mention is Bruce Horn who started working at Xerox PARC when he was 14 years old; he was one of those kids they picked from a Palo Alto High School to teach Smalltalk to and he was one of the four or five key Macintosh developers. And of course he was steeped in all of the PARC values and through Bruce, a lot of them made it into the Macintosh.

JT: Was there any feeling on the Apple engineers that any--guilt is probably too strong a word but feeling like you know Xerox had these great ideas. I guess Xerox really let them go to waste but--.

AH: Oh there was nothing like that; Steve Jobs has a good quote. It's actually a Picasso quote that he often cites; he cited it at one of our retreats which was sort of good artists copy; great artists steal. And what that means is that when you're passionate about what you're doing you'll take ideas from anywhere and with no guilt. You want to make the best possible thing and that was our mentality.

JT: I have to say I actually worked for Xerox AI Systems in 1986 and it was kind of frustrating because they really had the mentality there that if you couldn't sell paper and toner for [them] they weren't interested.

AH: Oh sure. Xerox in a well-documented fashion--they had at least the possibility of having the world at their feet there with the work that Alan Kay and his team did. But yeah; they completely blew it and most of the best PARC people were really frustrated by the Xerox management. There's no doubt of that; that's one of the reasons why Steve Jobs is great. You had someone leading the company who could relate to the customers and appreciate things.

JT: Revolution in the Valley is a very technical book. Certainly it's not a book for lay people like Soul of a New Machine was. Is there a reason you chose to dive so deeply into the engineering?

AH: Well I disagree with that; I mean I don't want to compare it to Soul of a New Machine, but I don't think it's too technical for the sort of general reader or that I would say the average computer user. It's written with lots of short anecdotes, some of them gear to the technical but they're sort of easy to skip. Most of it is--in my opinion anyway--more like the human interest side of it but the technical part was an important part. And that was part of the part I worked on and so my goal was to tell the true story in full dimension--every single aspect--and I'm sure I failed at certain aspects, but essentially as a technical person the technical aspects were easy for me. But my editors tried to get me to take out all the references they thought were too technical and I thought that would harm the book. So I fought to keep that in there; I did compromise by allowing them to take out three or four of the most technical stories, so rather than edit out all the technical detail we did drop some of the most technical stories. And one of the reasons I felt okay about that was because they're still on the web. And a reader of the book can go to the website, www.folklore.org and get a few of the out-takes.

JT: No discussion on the Mac can be complete without talking about Steve Jobs. It sounds like sometimes he was the maestro who was keeping the orchestra together playing the same song and then other times it sounds like he was more of a hand-grenade that got lobbed into the engineering process. How would you think the Mac would have been different if you had kind of all been left to your own devices?

AH: Oh, well, the Mac wouldn't have happened without Steve--doing something as unique and revolutionary as the Macintosh is really hard as you can tell by so few things like that ever coming out to the market. So it takes a unique individual. The Mac team was full of unique individuals and Steve was one of us. Steve has his greatness and his flaws like all of us, but certainly his values and personality and persistence and determination and powers of persuasion and all the rest of it were a really key ingredient. So without Steve it would be unimaginably different to me.

JT: Do you think he had more of an influence in terms of keeping the project going and keeping funding and things like that or more of a technical and design inspiration?

AH: Steve made zero technical contributions. He's not a technical person, so his main contribution was setting the goal, setting a very high goal, and then being really passionate about exceeding the expectations, trying to make every single conceivable aspect of the product as brilliant and creative and wonderful as possible. So a lot of it was just the driving force and the passion. But Steve also helped in a zillion ways really, and in the organization at Apple at the time of the Macintosh already was more than 1,000 people at the company and there [were] lots of politics. The Mac kind of competed with both the LISA and the Apple II; it was sort of a computer price like the Apple II that behaved like a LISA. So as you can imagine there were lots of political pressures and the project simply couldn't have happened at all if it wasn't for the stature of Steve and the organization to withstand those pressures.

JT: Jobs left Apple soon after the Mac and didn't return for more than a decade. If Sculley hadn't forced him out would Apple have survived that period? Would it have been better? Would we have had iPods in 1990?

AH: No; you couldn't have had iPods in 1990 because of the technology. People say Steve has a reality distortion field but he really can't distort the technology like that you know. In 1990 the mass storage to store one minute of music would have cost five times what an iPod costs, so of course you couldn't have something like that. But if Steve stayed at Apple you can bet that things would have been completely and utterly different. Sculley essentially spiritually bankrupted Apple and even though Apple did well it was based on the legacy of the stuff that was really developed prior to his era, but he sort of hollowed out the company and the hollowed thing eventually collapsed in on itself. If Steve was still there all those original values would have played out; who knows what would have happened but it would have been completely different.

JT: Microsoft made a lot of their early engineers into millionaires or more; Apple doesn't seem to have that reputation and you don't hear a lot about former Apple employees going into space and things like that. Is there a reason for that?

AH: Well, I think you're sort of kidding, right? The current employees of Apple have made just a killing over the last three or four years as the stock price has gone up, so all those current executives are making hundreds of millions of dollars, you know enormous wealth. Now not to the level of Microsoft because the market cap of Apple now is probably a half to the maximum Microsoft ever got but the current employees are really cleaning up. You just haven't heard about it as much because it's fairly recent. The original employees all did super-well too [Laughs]; I was around for the original Apple IPO and it seemed like half the people working at the company at the time became millionaires. Again, not quite to the magnitude of the top people at Microsoft but actually Microsoft was rather stingy with their stock in the early days even compared to Apple. It's possibly because of the Silicon Valley values versus outside of Silicon Valley like Microsoft developed. But eventually with just the magnitude of Microsoft's success it became the most valuable company ever. You know, it created a lot of millionaires there at Apple. But Apple definitely both--in all the ways that early ways, sometime during the Sculley- years, the executives were highly compensated; that's for sure. But anyway, half of the employees are doing great and they deserve it.

JT: Well maybe it's just they don't flash their money as much.

AH: That could be too; certainly Steve Jobs doesn't.

JT: So you're now working at Google, which is certainly another iconic high-tech company. Can you compare the two working environments?

AH: Yeah; they're very similar in certain ways--essentially both Apple and Google want to rewrite the rulebook; they don't want to do things in conventional ways. They want to come up with a better way--for everything; not even just the technology but the work processes, the work environment, everything has to be unique and better, so they're very similar in that way. One of the ways that they're different has to do with essentially their trust of employees. Apple is very secretive within the company; people working on Macs don't know anything about the new iPods, etc. Google is extremely open within the company; once you're a Google employee you have access to just about every piece of information there is. So that's a fairly striking difference. I would say Google is a little more bottom-up oriented. Even though the leaders of Google are brilliant and fantastic, they like having a lot of impetus with the individual contributors whereas Apple is not that way. It's more like a master plan formulated by a single individual.

JT: We've certainly seen that there seems to be a lot of support for Google inside Apple products and Apple inside of Google products. Is there some synergy there just in terms--?

AH: You bet. A main dynamic going on is the platform choke that Microsoft had for so many years is slowly but inexorably eroded by the internet. Because of all of those Google applications, each one of them loosens the need to have Windows and so in that sense what Apple and Google are doing are quite complementary. But the companies certainly aren't in lock-step; they're competing pretty passionately around the area of cell phone operating systems now with Google's Android project. So I'm sure Apple isn't super-happy about that.

JT: Right; but at the same time you're releasing iPhone apps.

AH: Oh absolutely. Google wants to be where the users are and Google also wants to learn the iPhone--being a sort of harbinger of the future--it's a tremendous platform for Google to develop on.

JT: One final question; the classic criticism of Apple has been that they've kept the hardware business to themselves even though it's pretty clear now that Mac OS could run on just about X86 hardware that met certain requirements.

AH: Right; that's keeping the software business to itself is what I think you mean right? You want the OS to run on other hardware?

JT: Right now Apple wants to sell you the hardware and the software.

AH: Right.

JT: Is that still a smart strategy or do you think it's a limiting one outside of markets like laptops where people look for specific hardware functionality?

AH: I think it's tricky; that is certainly not a clear call. Apple gets lots of benefits by being in control of the entire experience, which, by the way, extends beyond hardware and software these days. There's the network and multiple devices and all of that and what Apple has excelled in...If you really want the absolute top quality like Steve Jobs does it's really the only way to do it. Now could he license it to others and still be doing it himself? Certainly. But of course that would take a significant investment--it would have a certain risk and it's hard to argue with Apple's strategy. They're firing on all cylinders and it's hard to imagine them being able to do better than they're doing now. So I certainly wouldn't want to second-guess it. I could say it's best for users if you're using a platform; it's best for the platform you're using to be as widely available and used as possible, so there will be more support for it in the world.

JT: Right. The thing is though that you go to a conference and everyone is using a MacBook but you go into any corporate space or pretty much any personal space and very few people are using desktop Macs.

AH: Yeah, so it's interesting to speculate why that is. I think when people can make individual choices they'll pick the best possible thing. I think in companies, the calculus is a little different.

JT: All right, we've been talking with Andy Hertzfeld who is currently a Software Engineer at Google and is also one of the original parents of the Macintosh. His book Revolution in the Valley is available from O'Reilly and it's been a pleasure to talk to you, sir.

AH: Okay. Thank you very much.


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12 Comments

My favorite Andy Hertzfeld joke:

"What's the difference between Apple and the Boy Scouts"

The answer (rot13-encoded):

Gur oblfpbhgf unir nqhyg fhcreivfvba!

http://cackl.com/joke/view/565/Whats+the+difference+between+apple+and+the+Boy+Scouts


Great interview!

The name is "Sculley", and you mean "complementary" in "Apple and Google are doing are quite complimentary[sic]."

Thanks for the catch, Corrections. Sometimes stuff sneaks through the transcription process, I made the fixes.

It took me a while to figure out that the next OS mentioned was actually the NeXT OS.

What "next OS"? Surely he meant "NeXT OS."

Charles Simonyi's name is misspelled "Simone."

Alan Kay's name is misspelled "Allen."

Apple gets lots of benefits by being in control of the entire experience, which by the way extends beyond hardware and software these days. There's the network and multiple devices and all of that and what Apple has excelled in really during you know--essentially with the iPod is building the entire ecology and by being in control of it, it gives you--. (If you want more knowledge about Apple,Mac and JAVA you can look at kswchina,there are some knowledge about it but chinaese.It's a good learning Chinese place too! )

Well you know if you really want the absolute top quality like Steve Jobs does it's really the only way to do it. Now could he license it to others and still be doing it himself? Certainly; and but of course that takes--would take a significant investment; it would have a certain risk and it's hard to argue with Apple's strategy.

They're doing--they're firing on all cylinders and it's hard to imagine them being able to do better than they're doing now. So I certainly wouldn't want to second-guess it. I could say it's best for users if you're using a platform; it's best for the platform you're using to be as widely available and used as possible, so there will be more support for it in the world.

I like MAc Apple . An interesting article , thanks for you !

Hot mic...jesus

Thanks for including the link to folklore.org. Facinating articles there, that remind me of the glory days of the Apple C.O.R.E and Andy's presentatons. In fact, I think I still have a few of his wonderful little programs on a 5.25 inch disk somewhere (DOS 3.30 needed).

An amazing company. I guess the lesson learned is to be more open with the licensing.

Miscellaneous, don't leave us hanging! Point us to those disk images! (Apple // emulators are easy to find now)

So what IS next after the Mac?

Mobile internet devices where your cell phone provider or hardware provider controls your software?

Or dynabook (and the open source example set by the XO?) It's nice to have solid state disks, and fewer moving parts to fail.

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