Steve Jobs, Jef Raskin, and The Humane Interface

On Steve Jobs, the man behind Apple; and Jef Raskin, the man behind the Macintosh, an unsung computer genius whose odd, innovative ideas have never quite taken hold but continue to trail Apple’s products, 30 years after he left the company.

I don’t have a lot to say about the passing of Steve Jobs, but a couple things caught my eye:


This is the one counter I can think of to the “it’s just stuff” argument (which, as someone who didn’t own an Apple device until his late 20s, and that just a refurbished nano—worth noting that Apple became one of the biggest companies in the world only after their prices dropped—I’m not unsympathetic to). Apple products have their own design logic, both in terms of how they look and function: a particular way of interacting with users, and in turn how those users interact with information. To say Apple products are just “stuff” is like saying buildings are just stuff. Only a minority of people use Apple products, but only a minority of people work or live in Mies van der Rohe buildings. The aesthetic and design philosophy

The best articulation of Apple’s—and Jobs’s—philosophy that I’ve read, and how that expressed itself in its products, actually comes from former Apple CEO John Sculley, speaking with Cult of Mac. Sculley’s tenure as CEO was brief and he was self-admittedly a terrible fit, but he’s extremely thoughtful and articulate about Jobs and the company:

Steve believed that if you opened the system up people would start to make little changes and those changes would be compromises in the experience and he would not be able to deliver the kind of experience that he wanted.

That’s so modernist. It reminds me of Mies van der Rohe’s specification that the window shades in the Seagram Building only operate in three positions. Which, if you worked there, you might find stupid, just as you might think Apple’s control over its products compares unfavorably to Microsoft’s benign neglect of XBox Kinect hacking and the wonderful, promising fun people are having with that. Which is an entirely legitimate argument. Even setting aside Apple’s brilliant marketing, once you get down to these questions you get into how people understand the world and interact with it. So I understand the emotional attachment.

2. I didn’t know until I read Steven Levy’s obituary that, though he grew up in the heart of what was to become Silicon Valley, Jobs’s dad was a machinist:

Meanwhile, his dad, Paul — a machinist who had never completed high school — had set aside a section of his workbench for Steve, and taught him how to build things, disassemble them, and put them together. From neighbors who worked in the electronics firm in the Valley, he learned about that field — and also understood that things like television sets were not magical things that just showed up in one’s house, but designed objects that human beings had painstakingly created. “It gave a tremendous sense of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one’s environment,” he told the Smithsonian interviewer.

Jobs’s obsession with clean physical design makes a lot more sense now. It’s always interesting when childhood fiddling intersects with adult innovation, as with Marvin Minsky and Tinkertoys. As a friend put it:

3. “Steve Jobs Is Dead, and So Is My Dad: Two Very Different Silicon Valley Stories.”

I’m getting off-topic. My interest tends to be less with the great leaders—who are inevitably well-covered by smarter people than me—but the people in their orbit whose ideas become manifest in the hands of people like Jobs… or whose ideas don’t, and become something of an alternate history. One of those people is Jef Raskin, often referred to—not entirely accurately—as the “father of the Macintosh.”

Raskin named the Macintosh after his favorite apple, and was its project manager but left the company a couple years before it hit the market in 1984. Jobs initially worked on the Lisa, a more powerful and much more expensive machine that was a commercial failure for the company. Though the Macintosh ended up being more powerful than Raskin envisioned with his concept—growing more like the Lisa as Jobs took over the Macintosh project—his egalitarian vision of computing for the masses is widely credited as a reason behind the computer’s success. Andy Herzfeld, one of the Macintosh’s developers, says that Raskin is “much more like an eccentric great uncle than the Macintosh’s father,” but acknowledges:

There’s no doubt that Jef was the creator of the Macintosh project at Apple, and that his articulate vision of an exceptionally easy to use, low cost, high volume appliance computer got the ball rolling, and remained near the heart of the project long after Jef left the company. He also deserves ample credit for putting together the extraordinary initial team that created the computer, recruiting former student Bill Atkinson to Apple and then hiring amazing individuals like Burrell Smith, Bud Tribble, Joanna Hoffman and Brian Howard for the Macintosh team.

After Raskin left Apple, he pursued his creative vision—his most significant lifelong passion was computer interfaces—with the Canon Cat. Raskin’s vision was a seamless operating system, without “files” or “documents": like a giant virtual desk with a calculator, word processor, file cabinet, and whatever else you need, operated with the keyboard from a single interface, instead of single-task programs like a document editor, spreadsheet program, and whatnot. It makes a bit more sense to watch it work (I think):

The Cat was a flop, for debated reasons. Raskin became a consultant, writer, and teacher, pursing his goal of creating “The Humane Interface,” THE, later renamed Archy and bearing a strong resemblance, in its nascent phase, to the principle behind Cat; near the end of his life he was hired at the University of Chicago as an adjunct professor of computer science to teach computer interface design. His son, Aza, attended the U. of C. and co-founded the Chicago tech company Humanized, which built the well-regarde program Enso. It allows users to switch between windows and documents from a simple command-line interface using basic English: a clear extension of his father’s principles going back to the Cat. Enso became the Firefox extension Ubiquity, and Aza Raskin moved to the Bay Area and Mozilla. His most recent venture is Massive Health, which basically looks at his father’s legacy from the other side: ”Your body is the ultimate interface problem. Sometimes, it just doesn’t give you the feedback you need.”

Jef Raskin’s visions for computing, whether through the Cat, Enso, or Ubiqity, have never quite taken on his full vision. But his ideas keep showing up. For instance, in his 2000 book The Humane Interface, Raskin describes an improvement on the Mac mouse:

Some mice at present have a wheel on top that is used primarily for scrolling. Better still would be a small trackball in that location. the mouse would control the position of the cursor; the trackball could be used, for example, to manipulate objects from menus that float with the cursor.

In 2005, Apple produced the Mighty Mouse, with a small trackball where the scroll wheel is on most mice.

And Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz condends that Raskin foresaw iOS, the platform that underlies both the iPhone and the iPad:

I’m afraid that the tablet will just run a sightly modified version of the iPhone OS user interface. And you should be quite happy about it, as it’s the culmination of a brilliant idea proposed by a slightly nutty visionary genius, who died in 2005 without ever seeing the rise of the JesusPhone.

This guy’s name was Jef Raskin.


He saw touch interfaces, however, and realized that maybe, if the buttons and information display were all in the software, he could create a morphing information appliance. Something that could do every single task imaginable perfectly, changing mode according to your objectives. Want to make a call? The whole screen would change to a phone, and buttons will appear to dial or select a contact. Want a music player or a GPS or a guitar tuner or a drawing pad or a camera or a calendar or a sound recorder or whatever task you can come up with? No problem: Just redraw the perfect interface on the screen, specially tailored for any of those tasks. So easy that people would instantly get it.

Now that sounds familiar. It’s exactly what the iPhone and other similar devices do. And like Raskin predicted, everyone gets it, which is why Apple’s gadget has experienced such a raging success. That’s why thousands of applications—which perform very specialized tasks—get downloaded daily.

I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. Raskin hated applications, and though he died shortly before the release of the iPhone, but from what I’ve read of his theories, I can’t imagine he would have liked it, since iOS is nothing but apps, few of which communicate with each other unless specifically designed to do so. The iPhone (like the iPad) is a closed box filled with closed boxes; Raskin envisioned something not unlike the iOS interface but infinite and open. Nonetheless, if you look at two of Raskin’s ideas—an information appliance that does one thing, and an expandable, touch-guided, virtual desk—you’re within the realm of the iPhone and iPad.

Late in life, Raskin described his role in tech history as a ”footnote“:

I am only a footnote, but I am proud of the footnote I have become. My subsequent work on eliciting principles and developing the theory of interface design, so that many people will be able to do what I did, is probably also footnote-worthy.

Or as Brian Zaik puts it in an outstanding essay on Raskin:

Jef Raskin saw the future, even if he couldn’t quite build it. One can almost see Raskin’s information appliance staring back at us through the Web browser – a device that is primarily task-oriented and able to provide us with a growing number of commands to use the appliance in specific ways.

Like the not-files in Raskin’s ever-expanding, never-deleting Cat, the footnote remains, a few keystrokes away.


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