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The Mac at 20

The DigiBarn Computer Museum Celebrates
The 20th (now the 25th) Anniversary of the Apple Macintosh Computer!
Commentaries: Interview with DigiBarn Curator Bruce Damer by Michelle Delio of Wired
(January 5, 2004, updated January 14, 2009, oh how time flies!)

1: how long have you been planning to put up the anniversary page? How long did it take you to do it?

The DigiBarn Computer Museum project has been accumulating Mac artifacts for so many years that we decided we had a critical mass to pull all these together quickly for the anniversary. The pages and content have been in planning for about 4 months. Anniversaries come fast and furious in the computer history field and as soon as we had finished presenting the Xerox Alto 30th birthday bash in October we started getting read for "Mac/20". We put up the basic site in a week and will be filling it with some real goodies in the next couple of weeks, then following the anniversary date, for all of 2004. The DigiBarn is a community-based museum and website so many contributors are making this happen. We purchased a slide scanner for some key never-before-seen images to be scanned by one contributor, and others are writing new pieces. We invite anyone to contribute as this is the only way that the big story of computing history is going to be told (if we tell it ourselves). By the time historians get around to it, it will be too late to get the real detail.

2: what's your favorite exhibit on the Mac anniversary page? why? (feel free to pick something that's in process as long as it'll be workable by Wednesday -- and will 'weird mac' be clickable soon? and can you give me a rundown of your weirdest macs?)

I like the really early Mac stuff, the prototypes, diagrams, documents and first hardware efforts between about 1979 and 1983. The story of how the Mac was conceived and put together is the real drama. A lot of invention, creative borrowing of ideas of others (like that of Xerox), personalities, struggle, dreams and frustrations make it a great tale. Many books treat this story but to hold the artifacts, notes and photographs in your hand brings it to reality.

As for our weirdest Macs, I would say, are the odd "black Macs" (see references in Wired News from 2 years ago: http://www.wired.com/news/mac/0,2125,51670,00.html and http://www.wired.com/news/mac/0,2125,51983,00.html ).

These systems are tempest-hardened Cold War Macs meant for use in secure areas like Navy battleships. They are odd shapes and have weird configurations (two floppy drives on a Mac Plus) and have strange names and product numbers. Another oddball is the MIKO, which stands for Mac Inside King Outside, a touchscreen Mac in an angled black case with a gooseneck web camera. This was made by King as a kiosk and modified by Apple.

3: you wrote: "we are a 'hands on' place where (at the risk to breaking them) folks come here, boot up the systems, load their software and relive some of their past. Can you tell me a bit more about that? maybe recount one or two experiences (mac-related if possible) of people who showed up, floppies in hand, for a trip down memory lane?

Yes, one day we had a visit from Daniel Kottke who brought his portable musical personal computer, which consisted of a traveling salesman's briefcase with an old Apple II board embedded along with custom hardware, a joystick, a home built interface to an electronic keyboard and one of a those flat fronted CRT's bought by Jef Raskin for Macintosh prototyping in 1979. Firing up this system, which was the most strange hybrid I have seen, you could move the joystick which would run BASIC programs in the Apple II and send signals to the keyboard for playback. Daniel built this around 1980 to bring to bars in Palo Alto and play space music. So here you have something made up out of parts of the first mass consumer personal computer, one of the earliest pieces of a Mac prototype and all put into a format (suitcase) to drive an electronic keyboard (before MIDI). This is something so strange and so educational in terms of the vision of the personal computer in the creative future of digital music that it amazes people who visit the DigiBarn. The Kottke briefcase musical computer is in some odd way the great ancestor of the iPod. It stored electronic music on floppies, drove a music synthesizer and you could carry it with you. Of course the iPod doesnt come with a joystick, and the briefcase doesn't have headphones but you get the idea.

Other stories include Niel MacDonald and Dan Crogan, former Apple guys, who showed up and networked almost all our Macs and then installed some weird and historic games on the network like the original Maze War. Folks played this during the grand public opening of the DigiBarn two years back.

4: You wrote: "Official" histories like you might see on "Triumph of the Nerds" leave out 99% of the real life and times, missing the rank and file folks who were hands-on building the industry rather than more well known industry leaders. Any notable rank and file Mac creators who have been left out of the official history? what unknown geek(s) should Mac folk be saying thank you to this month?

Gosh I am pretty sure that Jef Raskin and Daniel Kottke and others are great sources for those folks. For instance, from the original "gang of 4" that started the project once Jef Raskin had defined it: Brian Howard, Marc LeBrun, Burrell Smith... those folks may have some holes to fill in the story. Beyond the later team in the "Macintosh Division" there were a whole periphery of people. Most interesting to me is the flow of people and the cross connections. For instance, some Xerox PARC people ended up at Apple working on the Mac. There were ideas, people and technologies moving fluidly throughout the industry and academia that informed the Mac's design. It wasn't as though the Mac was born in isolation and from scratch at Apple. I think that the stories of those who created the Alto and Dorado at Xerox PARC, the Star 8010 at Xerox Corp, Ethernet, laser printing, concepts of object oriented design and direct manipulation user interfaces, they are all part of the Mac story. There is a lot more missing from that key part of the story than the official histories that are often cited. For example, in the book "Fire in the Valley" there is hardly any mention of Xerox and that is a real shame. The DigiBarn is well on the way to helping to right that situation.

5: You keep all these machines up and running, correct? does it take a lot of tinkering, or do the Macs basically take care of themselves? do you struggle more with one make of computer than others? (what machines really torture you technically, as a curator?)

To tell you the truth the Macs are like the Volkswagon Bug in Woody Allen's film "Sleeper", they just start up no matter how old or how or where they have been kept. Everything else is hit or miss. The S-100 kit computers are, well, tinkerers machines. If a CPU board isn't working, just pop in another. Some of the other early systems and workstations have popped caps, have no boot media, or are just impossible to keep running. Our Three Rivers PERQ, a marvelous machine from 1980 (which was the original system that the Mach kernel was developed on at CMU, and therefore is the great grandaddy of Mac OSX), is a lovely machine with perhaps 3 people on Earth who can keep it running. Ours has stopped booting and I am at a loss at the moment. The Cray supercomputers won't ever run again and I am thankful of that as they required tens of thousands of bucks in power bills per month back 25 years ago.

6: what Macs are you longing to add to the collection?

Gosh what a tough question! As Macs were produced in quantity all the major ones are easily found. I am still looking for some that were produced in limited numbers like the 20th anniversary Mac (the flat guy with built in speakers from 1997) and, believe it or not, the original see-through G3 cube. We have an original Mac with a red floppy drive light, according to experts this is one of the first shipped (they switched to green later) but it has been gutted. A prototype 64K Mac from late 1983 would be true prize for us. We also crave a Lisa 1 with the big floppy drives (we have several Lisa II/XLs). Any prototype systems prior to release would be most appreciated.

7: Looking over your Mac collection as a whole-- what stands out: how far we've come in a fairly short period of time? How capable the first Macs really were? or?

Truthfully when I sit down at our Xerox Star 8010 or other workstations from 1981-4 I get depressed. These machines had a cleaner desktop interface, better network interfaces, and even a better mouse, than almost any machine in our collection and to some extent, than the machines I use today. The Intran software on the PERQ still sets the state of the art for a drawing and publishing system, and it is lost to history. The expediency of getting a system out fast to meet a market demand and a combination of lack of understanding of prior work and the famous "not invented here" syndrome has led to what I think of as a stagnation in the user experience on personal computers for 25 years or so. People were happy to copy the basic ideas from Xerox and others, add a few twists, slap on their logo and just ship a machine, leaving the harder problems for someone else to solve later. This was a problem embodied in the Mac from the moment it shipped in 1984. The Lisa had a true multi-tasking operating system in 1983, the Mac did not get one until the dawn of the 21st Century (OSX). So in a way, the underlying architecture and initial user experience of the Mac was just good enough to allow for its success when desktop publishing came along, but it was always somewhat limited by early choices made and nobody could own up to these before Steve Jobs returned, tossed the whole thing out, and brought in Mach and Aqua to take Apple forward. Sadly for Apple, the Mac had fallen so far behind technologically that by the mid to late 90s, developers couldn't even build modern software systems for it.

We all know about how and why the IBM PC became the dominant platform but the story of how a graphical user interface was put onto that platform is very different from the Mac and bears telling. Behind the PC was not just one company but an entire industry. The PC was an open platform. That's why you can have Windows and Linux and a whole variety of user experiences on that box today. Of course their openness is why PCs have that sense of being more cobbled together than a Mac. This tolerance for more players and more chaos meant, however, that there was a greater acceptance of the strategy of throwing things away and starting all over for each generation. That's why the tortoise PC managed to catch up and pass the Mac hare. Of course the tortoise was promiscuous and reproduced in greater numbers than the hare so that when the PC passed the Mac in terms of raw technology about 1995 it meant that Apple lost the race not just to not one competitor but to thousands.

As far as user experience, I cannot say that there is much difference between my Windows XP machine and OSX today. I think they are all variations on a theme, and that theme is a limited set of adopted designs from the Xerox era (with enhancements of course). I think if you talk with the "father of the Mac", Jef Raskin, and the "father of the mouse and UI", Douglas Engelbart, you will get a similar viewpoint. I am grateful, however, that after 25 years of reinventing the wheel, we finally have capable, stable operating systems on affordable platforms. Lets hope we can now build something truly great on that foundation in the 21st Century.

8: anything else you'd like to add, any questions you were hoping i'd ask and didn't?

Here is one thing that I experienced myself, that might shed some light on Apple and the Mac in terms of its evolution over the last two decades. In 1997 I was asked by Apple to get a group of user interface experts together and help Apple with suggestions to improve the desktop metaphor and window UI of the then upcoming Copland release of the MacOS (which later became OS8). Dutifully we worked for months and came up with a couple of dozen separate suggestions that we felt would either bring the MacOS up to par with the state of the art in UI (two button mouse, windows sizeable from any corner or edge, a taskbar, etc) and help it move ahead of others (innovative desktop icon grouping, a dynamic docket, etc). We submitted this report to Apple and after months of not receiving even a thank-you or acknowledgement, we decided to send it all to Guy Kawasaki to place on a list he was running to promote the Mac. Guy responded that, no, he couldn't forward the report onto his list because it might suggest that the Mac was, in fact, less than perfect. After some email exchange, he then said that he was amazed Apple would even listen to input from outside and that they were a difficult company to deal with. I then said to him "you mean you love the Mac but have a hard time with Apple?", "yes", he said. Eventually a few of our suggestions were adopted in OS8, with no acknowledgement of our efforts. I then knew that Apple would definitively lose the race on the final lap.

9: You use PCs now, correct? Do you ever miss using macs? If so, why? (I started out on Macs, switched to PCs, and lately I've been kind of occasionally longing to play with OSX, but haven't yet figured out if i'll stick with PC or switch back when i replace my main computer this year.) Update: the curator now owns THREE new Macs!

I have 35 Macs, but none running OSX (although I have tried OSX in all of its various versions). I will probably get a used G4 in the next year to experience some of the wonderful software Apple has produced for creative types (I am a photographer and also want to try my hand at mixing music). I could use a PC for this but if I use a Mac I will be more tied into the creative community. The PC is the day to day platform I use to run our business and lives and while I have used Macs since their introduction, I always felt that the cultural attitude at Apple would mean that its platform, always set apart from "the rest of us", would end up being marginalized. I instinctively felt that investing heavily personally and professionally in the Mac would not be a winning strategy. Today, as Apple will likely produce most of the software for the Mac it will push the state of the art and create more truly beautiful integrated user experiences. Alas, as with NeXT, those design and technical advances will percolate rapidly to the other platforms and Macs will always be specialized niche machines in the studios of the cultural creatives. Having complete control of your platform is a double edged sword, for with this approach Apple is returning to the 1970s and early 80s and the era of the all-proprietary computer companies. However, the loyalty of its users, great design, and innovation in other markets (such as is shown by the iPod), will mean that there will still be many Macs in creative hands in the year 2024.

That said the DigiBarn devotes fully 25% of its space to the Apple and Mac story, and I believe it has an unparalleled legacy in the computing industry!

 
 

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