The Birth of the Mac: Rolling Stone's 1984 Feature on Steve Jobs and his Whiz Kids

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"When you show Mac to an absolute novice," says Chris Espinosa, the twenty-two-year-old head of publications for the Mac team, "he assumes that's the way all computers work. That's our highest achievement. We've made almost every computer that's ever been made look completely absurd."

The clarity follows through. On the Macintosh, moving the mouse to certain points on the screen opens lists of options known as "pull-down menus." One menu, for instance, gives a list of type fonts. In less than a second, you can change all the characters in a file from standard typewriter print to gothic Old English. Or you can change the size of the type from eight to sixteen points. For the first time in history, typography will become a mass art.

And you are not limited to type. A young wizard named Bill Atkinson has written a program called MacPaint, which allows you to draw intricate pictures using the mouse. "Let me show you a bug" was his opening line to me, and within three seconds, he had called to the screen a stunningly detailed picture of an insect. Though Macintosh displays only black-and-white video, its "bit mapped" display (a "bit" in the computer controls 512 horizontal and 342 vertical dots on the screen) allows for gorgeously intricate pictures. Aided by all sorts of "whizzy" (a favorite adjective of the Mac team) features, even a graphic klutz can create fine drawings.

This creative extension is the secret of Macintosh: it was not only designed to be easy to learn for people who recoil at the thought of working a computer, but it's whizzy enough to delight its designers. "We are bringing computers to the people for the first time," says Macintosh Software Wizard (as it says on his card) Andy Hertzfeld. "We want the man on the street to get Mac and feel the incredible potential. Like when I got my first stereo."

Mitch Kapor is not the man on the street. He is the president of Lotus Development Corporation, a software company that has made its fortune by writing a best-selling program for the IBM PC. But the first time he saw Macintosh, he was charmed. "There's some magic," he says. "It's the first piece of hardware I've been excited about in years."

He sums it up this way: "The IBM PC is a machine you can respect. The Macintosh is a machine you can love."

Mac's story gets to the soul of Apple, a volatile company attempting to maintain its initial idealism during a period of unprecedented growth. The machine's development was, in turns, traumatic, joyful, grueling, lunatic, rewarding and ultimately the major event in the lives of almost everyone involved.

In 1979, Macintosh was one of many small, low-priority projects at Apple; at the time, the firm was only beginning to emerge as a leader in the personal-computer industry – a result of the success of the Apple II computer, which Apple's founders, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, developed in a garage.

The Mac was first conceived by a plump, bearded programmer and writer named Jef Raskin. Now forty, Raskin had been an employee from the day that Apple first incorporated, in 1977. He fit in well with the informal atmosphere; in his contract, there was a clause allowing him to attend rehearsals of the San Francisco Chamber Opera Company, which he conducted. Raskin had definite ideas about the next steps in computing, but as Apple grew, he saw few of his concepts implemented. The company was becoming drunk on its own success, as the vision of Wozniak and Jobs became overwhelmed by bureaucracy and an urge for respectability in the "real world" of business. As the Seventies ended, Apple's big project was the Apple III: a computer that, as Randy Wiggington later said, "was kind of like a baby conceived during a group orgy, and [later] everybody has this bad headache and there's this bastard child, and everyone says, 'It's not mine.'" Because of a belief that everyone who worked there was a genius and could therefore do anything, the Apple III was released before it worked properly, and it flopped dismally.

While Raskin saw some encouraging signs, he felt that Apple's move toward business- oriented machines, like the Lisa, was not the way to go. "If I wanted to build business computers, I'd join IBM," he told Apple's then-president, Mike Scott.

Instead, Scott gave him the go-ahead to work on Macintosh, named after Raskin's favorite apple. In a January 1980 memo, he explained what the machine should be: "The purpose of this design is to create a low-cost portable computer so useful that its owner misses it when it's not around – even if the owner isn't a computer freak..." The computer would sell for around $1000, and it would perform only a few functions: text editing, calculation and filing.

"Macintosh is not a computer in the usual sense of the word," Raskin wrote in another memo. "It is designed to be like a pocket calculator, in that you learn as you use it, and so you are doing useful work from the very first minute. It will become a nearly indispensable companion, like a Swiss army knife becomes to certain people."

Raskin had already brought some talent to Apple, including Bill Atkinson, who would write the "draw" routines for Lisa and Macintosh. But he needed a key person to do the digital design, the logical series of connections that, in effect, are a computer's heart. One day, Atkinson went to Raskin's house with blond, twenty-three-year-old Burrell Smith, whose dream was to design a computer as neat as the Apple II. Smith repaired computers in Apple's service department. "Here's the guy who's going to design your computer for you," Atkinson said. For Smith, it was "the one chance in a lifetime to go through the cracks of the corporate culture... If I were at IBM, I might have gotten to be assistant service manager." But at Apple, miracles still were possible.

His test was to design a prototype of the machine that would supplant the Apple II as the state of the art. He did it during his 1979 Christmas vacation. A month later, he hooked up the "breadboard" – the logic board with the chips and the proper connections – to a monitor. Programmer Andy Herztfeld stayed up all night tackling this untested piece of hardware. The next day, Smith arrived to find a picture of Scrooge McDuck on the screen, playing a fiddle. Underneath was a caption: HI, BURRELL! Baby Macintosh's irreverent personality was already apparent.

The next year was not so easy. In the wake of the Apple III failure, there was a purge at Apple, after which president Mike Scott himself was ousted. At one point, the Macintosh project was terminated. Convinced of the project's importance, however, the team operated surreptitiously. "We'd lie low and sneak chips out of other labs," says Smith. "We knew there was something special about Mac – here was a machine that was going to change the world."

Apple revived the project, and early in 1981, Steve Jobs took a special interest in Macintosh. To Jef Raskin, Jobs' presence was an intrusion; he says that Jobs had originally opposed the project, but "after it was clear that it was the most interesting thing at Apple, Steve Jobs took it over." It did not happen without a struggle. At one point, Raskin wrote a scathing memo to Mike Scott and then-chairman of the board Mike Markkula:

Re: Working with Steve Jobs. The following examples show that Steve Jobs has not performed properly as my manager and that he has demonstrated or damaged other employees and some projects vital to the company. The recommended actions are to have me work for some other supervisor, to find another leader of the Macintosh project, and to assign Mr. Jobs to duties in keeping with his demonstrated abilities, where his problems will not adversely affect productivity and morale...

While Mr. Jobs' stated positions on management techniques are all quite noble and worthy, in practice, he is a dreadful manager. It is an unfortunate case of mouthing the right ideas, but not believing in them or executing them when it comes time to do some things... [Apple should] see he gets management training before being allowed to manage other company projects that involve creative work.

Raskin asked that the memo be kept confidential, but Jobs got a copy. Eventually, says Raskin, "he called me in and told me I was fired." For better or for worse, Macintosh was now the total obsession of Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs wears a navy-blue sweater and jeans when we go out for pizza one night to talk about Macintosh. He tells me that until recently, he has avoided close contact with the press, especially after a piece in Time magazine's "Machine of the Year" package last year. He felt Time both attacked him personally and criticized his management style. "I know what it's like to have your private life painted in the worst possible light in front of a lot of people," he says. "I've learned what it's like for everyone you meet after that to sort of have preconceptions about you... It's been a character-building experience."

The trials of celebrity are something you must learn to live with when you are the twenty-eight-year-old chairman of one of the world's biggest computer companies. When Apple's stock fell from a high of sixty dollars a share to around twenty, Jobs' 7 million shares were suddenly worth a quarter of a billion dollars less. Jobs still qualified as one of Forbes magazine's 400 richest people in America. Such wealth and success can make you a controversial figure in the gossip-ridden Silicon Valley.

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