Thursday, December 20, 2018

Insanely Great

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, The Computer That Changed Everything
© 1994, 2000 Steven Levy
304 pages

Apple Computers had already made its mark before 1984, by pioneering personal computers long before IBM entered the consumer market.  In January 1984, it hoped to make a larger one -- to make a dent in history.   So it did...just not quite the way its creators intended. Insanely Great chronicles the history and influence of the Macintosh computer,  which became the company's chief product before its wildfire consumer products of the 2000s. Originally written in Apple's lost years when it hemorrhaged talent and could not find a stable hand at the rudder,  it includes an afterward on the recent turn of Jobs.  It's a history that doubles as a labor of love, because it has a biographical thread concerning Levy himself -- a man grudgingly seduced by computers. who was so enamored with the promise of the Macintosh that he bought on on release.

Although Jobs would later shanghai the project, the Macintosh originated in the person of Jef Raskin, who wanted to create an extremely cheap but versatile computer, an electronic Swiss Army Knife,  that would be easy for first time users to pick up, with an intuitive interface. While it wouldn't boast any specs worth mentioning, it would have simple tools that ordinary people would find useful, like a word processor.   Raskin wanted to push this computer into the familiar realm of home appliances:  when computers became like phones and calculators, he thought, then they would have arrived. After working with the Lisa project, Apple's first attempt at creating a machine with a GUI which proved to be an extremely expensive dud, Steve Jobs drifted into the Macintosh room and was seized by its potential.  Jobs would take over the team and make the Mac far beefier than Raskin ever intended, eventually, and his obsession with perfecting every detail meant that for all its expanded capacity, the Mac was under-powered for much of its basic operations.  Maintaining a glowing screen full of images, and drawing each bit of text effectively as an image, was asking a lot of 128K memory. And it wasn't going to be like an Apple II, either; users couldn't just open up the hood and add to the Mac's hardware.  (The Mac team snuck around on the side and allowed for the ability to do a little memory expansion, since they knew -- Jobs not withstanding -- the Mac was going to need more as soon as consumers started playing with it.)

Perhaps the Mac was a little too user-friendly.  Although those who tried it loved the operating system, many looked past it. It wasn't a serious machine; it looked like a toy.  Apple II and IBM machines which still ran the DOS system may have required getting used to typing in computer commands,  but they had a well-established library of software, including the business applications people were mostly relying on computers for. Mac was still developing its own, with the help of Microsoft.  Microsoft would use its experience with Macintosh's graphical user interface to develop Windows, though this was not a simple care of Microsoft taking Apple's idea: the pioneers there were Xerox, and  several  GUI systems were in development in the mid 1980s.  Although the little Macintosh would take over the company -- via Jobs, who diverted more resources into it away from the Apple II line, which also had the GUI by now -- and still lives in Apple in name (its current computers are much more like the Macintosh than the moddable Apple II, and have the same working-out-of-the-box approach), Levy admits that its greatest success was achieved by leading to Windows, which took a commanding lead over OSes to the point that prior to Chromebooks, it had an effective monopoly.

Although Insanely Great is sometimes more of a tribute than a serious history, I enjoyed the look at history it offers, both into the Lisa and Macintosh project, and the bit of biography: given that Levy is definitely a tech enthusaist, I was astonished to learn that he had once been anti-computers, and only when he was asked to do Hackers was he won over.  He shared Job's hatred and distrust of IBM, and  for him seduction by the Macintosh was his entry into the world of computers. Therein lies his affection, for the little machine. which literally changed his life.

For a more balanced perspective, I would recommend this video in which an Apple fan argues that the Macintosh was a mistake, and that Jobs hobbled the performance of Apple II's GUI model (GS) to promote the technically inferior yet more expensive Macintosh instead.  It's 8 minutes.  For a look at the "other side",  there's also a video on YouTube of someone unboxing a new 1984 IBM-AT.  That one is much longer, but I was surprised at the amount of software setup required just to get it started, and it helped me  appreciate the "turn on.....ready" approach of the Mac.


  1. Replies
    1. You're welcome!I've got another Levy book in the mail, this one on Google.

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