RIP Jeff Raskin: Father of the Mac
Polymath, inventor of the Information Appliance
Obituary "A computer," Jef Raskin told me in his house in the hills above Palo Alto, "is a device for running programs. An Information Appliance is something with a processor in it, but which has a function. This software is The Information Appliance." And he demonstrated his software, running on an old Apple II, and it was amazing.
Everything he did was amazing. I ran into him at a San Francisco party given shortly after the launch of the Apple Mac which, he told me (interrupting my conversation with Jim Warren to say: "You really ought to interview me, you know!") was his design. He invited me to visit.
When I arrived at the vast house in the forest, dodging deer while driving up the road to his front door, my first thought was that he had about the best Hi-Fi system I'd ever heard. "Come in!" he called from upstairs; and when I got there, I realised that part of the quality of the sound - piano music really is hard to reproduce perfectly! - just had to be the size of the room, which would easily seat 40.
The disk playing was something fiendishly complex by Rachmaninov. And as I entered the room, I realised that this wasn't reproduction. The pianist was Raskin himself, on his own grand.
In the next two hours, I found out what a real programmer was like.
I also discovered what a real aeronautical engineer was like, what a real typographer was like, what a real sculptor was like, what a real composer was like, what a real inventor was like, and just what a nice guy this short, round and rather pompously cheerful bundle of energy was, too. We became good enough friends that I would stop by his house there - and, later, in Pacifica - whenever I was in town.
At that time, Raskin had fallen out with Steve Jobs, and was shortly to be eased out of his job with Apple. His job there had been to design the Mac, something his break with Jobs meant was not credited to him - they even left his signature off the inside of the Mac case, which supposedly had everybody's name who was associated with the project. Only years later was he recognised as "the father of the Mac" and I think it was the millionth Macintosh which was presented to him to honour that achievement.
The Information Appliance was dazzling. If people tell you that the best ideas succeed, show them the IA. It did everything, on a floppy disk in an Apple. The project was taken up - and utterly destroyed - by Canon, which bought all rights, developed the IA into the Canon Cat, and as far as anybody can tell, refused to sell (or allow anybody else to sell) a single model. Raskin himself told me he had a firm order for 200,000 machines from a large corporate. A month later, he told me that Canon had refused to appoint a distributor to handle the contract, wouldn't acknowledge the order until a distributor had been set up, and wouldn't allow its typewriter salesmen to handle non-typewriter "terminals".
On various days, we did various things. I remember looking down on the Pacific with him from his cliff-top place in Pacifica (see picture) South of San Francisco, where he showed his stunt planes, and the cardboard model gliders, with which he had won endurance contests. We discussed his patents (years earlier) on musical notation, allowing sheet music to be printed out by computers. We drove to a local school, where he was teaching conducting. He explained why a wing was better than a sail for small sailing boats - a white paper he printed out for me on continuous stationery two decades ago.
Every time I arrived in town, amazingly, he'd remember who I was, and invite me round. And yet, he knew so darned many people, and he was always lecturing, consulting, and pouring out his ideas at local events, colleges, conventions, seminars; I never knew a tenth part of one percent of Jef Raskin, and envied those who lived in the Valley, who could see him every day, if they chose.
Don't google for Raskin. You'll be in your chair for the rest of the week, and still won't get a twentieth of the man.
In one respect only, I could feel sorry I accepted his invitation. It was the end of my relationship with Steve Jobs, who is, truly, one of the more remarkable people on the planet - but one who doesn't cope well with being "cut down to size." Raskin was probably the one man who could do that, and he did.
I don't think Jobs will ever really forgive Raskin for his soubriquet: "Old Reality Distortion Field" - and I doubt that anybody who particularly admired Raskin will ever be on Job's dinner party invite list. Which is a pity.
But having known Raskin really makes the sacrifice worth while. The world will miss him: there are few left who can match his memory; and to lose him at only 61 years old is simply too unfair to accept.
Sympathy to his family: I'll never forget him, or the honour of being admitted to his circle. And every time I see a model plane in the sky, I'll remember him. And if you ever talk about an Information Appliance, then so should you.
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