Jef Raskin Interview

Digital photo taken 1999 by Aza Raskin (Agfa 1280 Camera).
Jef is holding a model of a computer he designed in the mid-1980s.  Notice the handle in the palm rest.
The object to the right of the display was a removable, hot-swappable, storage module.
The model was built by Ralph Voorhees.
Jef’s haircut by Adobe Photoshop.

Jef found it much easier to trim his hair and beard on the computer than in a mirror.(comments by Aza Raskin)

Over the years, there have been many people who have come and gone in the computing world, but while the others have passed by the wayside, there is one name that continues to resonate. Jef Raskin. Also known as Apple Computer Inc. employee number 31. Most people outside the Apple world would really have no idea who he was but they would know his legacy.

As the man who conceived and so named the Macintosh computer, Jef Raskin has continued to pursue an interface revolution even today. Bearing this in mind, we decided to ask Jef to spend an hour of his time and enlighten us as to what drove such innovation and unlikely world domination in the face of the absolutely unbelievable dealings he had with the man known to all as the worlds greatest sales man, Steve Jobs.

With many patents and several books to his credit relating to the computer industry, the model airplane industry and the music industry, he also found time to write about one of his true passions in life, the “human Interface”, and we asked him to elaborate a bit about this and where he would like to take those things that he instituted in 1978

A.P.P.L.E. caught up with Jef Raskin as he was going about the many things that he continues to do, and the result of our hour with Jef was the following candid interview.

A.P.P.L.E.: Thank you for taking this time with us Jef. Would you mind telling us a bit about how you got started in the computing world?

Jef Raskin: This question requires a book-length autobiography. Here are some of the factors:
My high-school science fair project was a homemade digital computer.. This was in 1960, before there were personal computers (the first was to come in 1974-75). I used switches and relays to build it — and it did get me first place. My family was too poor to send me to the national science fair.

I was always a tinkerer, and still have a shop with oscilloscopes, soldering irons, a lathe and milling machines, and lots of parts lying around ready to be built into inventions. I guess I’m one of the few people in interface design who have a strong electronics and mechanical background.

I learned a lot about larger systems from being a phone hacker, but I never publicized my exploits; I didn’t share my methods or sell the equipment I designed. I only used it to make personal long distance calls my family could not afford and did not play pranks with it. And I never got caught.

My first experience with commercial computers was on a trip to Brookhaven National Laboratory, when I was in 6th grade. I saw a very early computer (it used William’s tubes for memory and vacuum tubes as the active components). I got my first taste of programming then, and I liked it. I built the early 8008 and 8080-based computers when they came on the market, and 6800-based ones as well. I still have my Apple I, and otherwise was active in personal computers from the very beginning (abandoning a budding career as a conductor to get into semiconductors.

One of the reasons I joined Apple was that I was able to recognize the incredibly superior electronic design that Woz was doing (his pre-decoded bus, to name one). And Jobs could sell rocks to the hungry.

A.P.P.L.E.: Who influenced you the most when you were young?

Jef: My parents, who were both brave and wise, and who fought for civil rights in the difficult era before the big civil rights movement of the 1960s. We were not popular; at school I was called “nigger lover” and such.
But I was proud of our family’s stance. My parents were not educated beyond 6th grade themselves, but they believed in education — they put me through the educational system from kindergarten to professor nonstop

My brother got a Ph.D. in statistics from Yale. That takes a lot of emotional support from a family.

The other major influence was Roland Genise (who now lives in San Jose CA) a phys. ed. instructor who became my math teacher. He further helped me believe in myself (“If you’ve done a proof correctly and the greatest mathematician in the world came through that door, and said it was wrong, you’d still be right) and also imbued me with such an interest in math that I still teach math (foundations and mathematical logic) at the college level.

Math has some of the most beautiful and elegant creations of the human mind, lovely, amazing stuff. I am sad that so few come to appreciate it.

A.P.P.L.E.: How did you acquire your engineering skills?

Jef: Experimenting, reading, studying physics, building things, working with people who knew more than I did. I’m still a ham (amateur radio operator).

A.P.P.L.E.: How did you come to work at Apple?

Jef: My previous company, Bannister & Crun, became Apple’s publications department. We had already written the Apple BASIC manual and other material for Apple. I had published lots of articles in the computer press, and Jobs liked my writing.

A.P.P.L.E.: What did you think when you started working for Apple?

Jef: This looks like fun.

A.P.P.L.E.: What exactly were you responsibilities at Apple?

Jef: Over the years I had many. Manager of publications, I started the QA department and ran it for a while, I started the applications software group, I created the Macintosh project. My last position was “manager of advanced systems”.

A.P.P.L.E.: How was it working for the two Steves?

Jef: Some times were better than others.

A.P.P.L.E.: Many rumors exist about the harshness of Steve Jobs. Can you elaborate on these rumors?

Jef: Randall Stross’s book “Steve Jobs and the Next Big Thing” describes it well, read that book. Jobs is a flatterer, a consummate negotiator, and, in the well-known phrase, a “reality distortion field” (which is much nicer than calling him a liar) and probably more accurate. He says what he thinks you want to hear, and will deny that he said it the next day if it is to his advantage to not have said it.

A.P.P.L.E.: Woz is well known for his practical jokes. Can you tell us about any in which you personally were the target or one, which he pulled in your presence?

Jef: I do not think Woz every pulled any practical jokes on me. I have heard him tell stories of his pranks, but I have never seen one first hand.

A.P.P.L.E.: You have always been a proponent of formal education. Can you talk about your reasons for this?

Jef: I am a proponent of every kind of education. The world is interesting. We all have great curiosity (though many put it aside). One way to satisfy that curiosity is to ask questions of people who have figured things out. Many of them become professors, and they can be found at educational institutions. When I went to college, I felt that I had been let into a great candy shop of the mind. Fine libraries, and a whole phalanx of people who were all being paid just to answer — or help me learn how to answer — the myriad questions I had. There were fine labs with the latest equipment to play in. People to help me learn the basic tools such as mathematics and physics, and introductions to central ideas and an exposure to philosophy, music, art, and history.

Some people view a formal education as a series of hoops to go through or a place to get the requirements for a job out of the way. That is a narrow and wasteful approach. Isaac Newton pointed out that you could see farther if you stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before. Anybody who does not take advantage of this is going to waste a lot of time. Some people feel that learning the existing “party line” on this or that topic hampers creativity but I certainly have not found that to be true.

A.P.P.L.E. Woz has called you “one of the most important people that Apple ever had”. How does this make you feel?

Jef: It is very gratifying. It is kind of him to say so.

A.P.P.L.E.: What led you to pursuing the Xerox Labs style GUI?

Jef: I was working with graphic input devices and graphics-based-systems for computers even before there was a Xerox PARC (my thesis, “The Quick Draw Graphics System” which I designed and programmed was part of the inspiration for Apples QuickDraw graphics software, originally written by an ex-student of mine, Bill Atkinson). When PARC was founded and I met the people there, I was suddenly among people on the same, human-oriented wavelength in the computer world. I learned a lot, and I hope that some people there learned something from me as well.

A.P.P.L.E.: Did you think that the Mac would be a success?

Jef: Yes.

A.P.P.L.E.: What were your initial thoughts when Bill Gates came out with Window to rival the Macintosh GUI?

Jef: I was too busy at Information Appliance Inc. at the time to pay much attention to it.

A.P.P.L.E.: Why was Jobs so into the Lisa when he could have had the same result with your less expensive Macintosh?

Jef: Another book-length question.

A.P.P.L.E.: What do you think of the current direction of Apple with OS X and Unix / Linux based systems?

Jef: The customer base could care less if it was trained pigeons running the machine internally. OS X has not increased usability in any material way.

From my perspective, and from the perspective that made the Mac a winner, Apple missed a great opportunity to do something sanely great: make computers much easier to use. I’ve told Jobs how it could be done, and he’s not interested.
To be sure, OSX is a cleaner system internally. But that doesn’t get you very far when you are trying to sell computers. Also, in my recent experience using OSX from a programmer’s point of view, it turns out to throw a lot of unexpected impediments in your way. The system is largely undocumented, or poorly documented, and even the experts at Apple often don’t know how it works. Jobs does not know how to demand quality from his team in this respect, and it hurts Apple’s ability to get third-party software onto the Mac.

A.P.P.L.E.: Your work on the “Humane Interface” has increased over the last few years. Can you talk about it and what your ultimate goals are for how this will affect the computing world?

Jef: You have a talent for asking short questions that demand long answers. I am not sure that my work has increased recently. I have been more public about it, however. My book “The Humane Interface” has been successful. It has been through three printings in its first year, been translated into a half-dozen languages, has been in the top 100 best-sellers on Amazon three or four times, and is in use at over 30 universities.
The book, among other things, lays out directions for a new operating system interface that would unify using computers and the Web and make them far easier. It will happen. If people really want to know what I’m planning, 90% of it is in my book.

A.P.P.L.E.: You have some very different hobbies outside of computers. How do you use what you know about computing in these hobbies.

Jef: It’s more the other way around. My knowledge of music and art helped me decide what kind of graphic and sound attributes a computer might need. I do use my Macs to design airplanes. For example, an article in the current (March-April 2002) Forbes ASAP describes a plane I designed for the U.S. Forest Service. Most of my model planes have a number of microprocessors on board. I use the computer to edit the music I compose, and to draw targets for my archery practice. I do have two PCs along with a half-dozen Macs, but that’s only because the numerically controlled machines that I use in my shop don’t work with Macs.

A.P.P.L.E.: If you were in charge of the Macintosh now with OS X, how would you re-design it to get the style of computer, which you would want?

Another book-length question. (And you can guess what book I’m referring to).. I would start as I started the Mac, ask how you want it to interact with people, and then design hardware and software to support the user. Apple has forgotten that lesson — make people happy and productive first. The existing Mac is a millstone around the company’s neck. The trick is to get a new, really innovative computer out there in parallel with the Mac, one so good that users will migrate to the new product while the Mac has enough sales to support the company in the meanwhile. That’s how we got the Mac into the marketplace; the Apple II was the cash cow.

Fancy new repackaging and gradual increases in processor speed will not keep Apple moving ahead for long. You gotta think outside the pretty box.

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About the Author

Bill Martens

A.P.P.L.E. Chairman of the Board and Club president -- Bill worked for the founder, Val J. Golding and A.P.P.L.E. from 1981 to 1982. In 1999, he began archiving the materials which were distributed and sold by A.P.P.L.E.. That project led to the group that remained of A.P.P.L.E. Bill was involved in the financial industry in Tokyo and has over 20 major office infrastructure projects to his name. In March 2001, he retired to write books and to spend more time pursuing personal interests. As the president of the users group, Bill is in charge of distribution of Call-A.P.P.L.E. magazine as well as the organization of this web site. Bill currently resides in Tokyo, Japan and Shelton, Wa splitting time between the places.