Taking a byte of Apple's creative juices

February 15, 1994|By Charles Stein | Charles Stein,Boston Globe

For Steven Levy, it was love at first sight.

"It was exhilarating," he writes about his initial meeting with a Macintosh computer, "like the first glimpse of green grass when entering a baseball stadium."

For those whose reaction to computers is more mechanical than sexual, Mr. Levy's history of Apple's Macintosh computer may seem a bit too passionate.

Was the Macintosh really "the computer that changed everything," as he describes it in his subtitle? Is it truly important to know in detail why Apple engineers decided to put one, not two, buttons on the mouse, the little doodad that controls the machine? Is the Macintosh "insanely great," as Apple founder Steven Jobs predicted, or would "quite good" be a more accurate description?

But if you get beyond the hyperbole, "Insanely Great" has much to commend it. At its best, it captures the creative process in action, all the twists and turns, the brilliance and dumb luck that ultimately result in a successful invention.

It also provides an interesting look at the people behind the machine. They were young and intense. They were willing to work long hours for months at a time in an atmosphere that combined elements of a sweatshop and a college frat house. At midnight, the creators of the Macintosh would retire to a local restaurant, where they shared pineapple pizza and a vision of what a computer should be.

The vision was democratic and slightly subversive. The Apple crew wanted to empower ordinary people, to bring computers out of the laboratories and put them into the hands of you and me.

Jef Raskin, one of the machine's designers, spelled out the mission this way: "The purpose is to create a low-cost portable computer so useful that its owner misses it when it's not around. It will become a nearly indispensable companion, like a Swiss army knife."

It was not an original vision. Right after World War II, Vannevar Bush, a former MIT vice president, sketched out a plan for a desktop computer in an article he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. In the 1960s, a West Coast scientist named Doug Engelbart built a crude forerunner of the Macintosh, complete with a mouse and windows, a format that lets the user work on multiple sections of the same computer screen.

But like H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, these visionaries had to wait for technology to catch up with their ideas. By the early 1980s, it had. Computer chips were smaller and cheaper. Software techniques had advanced considerably. Early generations of personal computers had whetted the public's appetite for machines that could do more for less.

Still, getting the Macintosh to market was not easy. The designers quickly broke into two feuding camps -- one advocating low cost, the other pushing more power. The fights were bitter and time-consuming. Worse, they resulted in compromises that made the first Macintosh far less attractive than it should have been. Instead of "insanely great," it was pretty crummy. It was badly underpowered and slow. Buyers stayed away in droves.

The machine and the company were rescued by one of the quirky developments that have a way of popping up in the technology world. A tiny Seattle company created PageMaker, a software program for the Macintosh that transformed the machine into a desktop publishing unit. Suddenly, anyone with an idea and a Macintosh could publish his own magazine or newsletter.

Mr. Levy tells the story of Eliot Cohen, a New York bureaucrat and Mets fan who always dreamed of becoming a sportswriter. With his Macintosh, he started publishing a slick Mets newsletter. Soon he was in the Mets' locker room interviewing his idols; then other sportswriters started to quote him; in no time at all he was a mini-celebrity. His Macintosh had empowered him, just the way Apple engineers had hoped.

The end of the story is something of an anticlimax. The Macintosh became a hit, but in the fast-paced world of high technology, success has a limited shelf life.

Other companies, most notably Microsoft, swiped the Macintosh's most user-friendly features and put them on a software program. The upshot was that anyone using any computer could get the benefits of a Macintosh at a lower price. Apple's fortunes have sunk as a result, and the company is desperately looking for another spark of genius to vault it back to the top.

Still, Mr. Levy is probably correct when he concludes: "Long after its departure, the Macintosh will be remembered as the product that brought just plain people into the trenches of the information age."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything"

Author: Steven Levy

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 292 pages, $19.95

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