kottke.org posts about Steven Levy

The Macintosh is 30 years old todayJan 24 2014

Apple is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh with a special subsite.

Incredible that the Mac is still around; the 90s were a dire time for Apple and it's amazing to see the current fantastic iMacs and Macbooks that came after some epically bad mid-90s machines. Here's Steve Jobs introducing the original Mac in 1984 (a snippet of the full introduction video):

Steven Levy writes about covering the introduction of the Mac for Rolling Stone.

First, I met the machine. From the instant the woman running the demo switched on that strange-looking contraption (inspired in part by the Cuisinart food processor), I knew the Macintosh would change millions of lives, including my own. To understand that, you must realize how much 1984 really was not like 2014. Until that point, personal computers were locked in an esoteric realm of codes and commands. They looked unfriendly, with the letters of text growing in sickly phosphorescence. Even the simplest tasks required memorizing the proper intonations, then executing several exacting steps.

But the Macintosh was friendly. It opened with a smile. Words appeared with the clarity of text on a printed page - and for the first time, ordinary people had the power to format text as professional printers did. Selecting and moving text was made dramatically easier by the then-quaint mouse accompanying the keyboard. You could draw on it. This humble shoebox-sized machine had a simplicity that instantly empowered you.

Here's the piece Levy wrote for Rolling Stone.

If you have had any prior experience with personal computers, what you might expect to see is some sort of opaque code, called a "prompt," consisting of phosphorescent green or white letters on a murky background. What you see with Macintosh is the Finder. On a pleasant, light background (you can later change the background to any of a number of patterns, if you like), little pictures called "icons" appear, representing choices available to you. A word-processing program might be represented by a pen, while the program that lets you draw pictures might have a paintbrush icon. A file would represent stored documents - book reports, letters, legal briefs and so forth. To see a particular file, you'd move the mouse, which would, in turn, move the cursor to the file you wanted. You'd tap a button on the mouse twice, and the contents of the file would appear on the screen: dark on light, just like a piece of paper.

Levy has also appended a never-seen-before transcript of his interview with Steve Jobs onto the Kindle version of Insanely Great, a book Levy wrote about the Mac.

Dave Winer participated on a panel of developers on launch day.

The rollout on January 24th was like a college graduation ceremony. There were the fratboys, the insiders, the football players, and developers played a role too. We praised their product, their achievement, and they showed off our work. Apple took a serious stake in the success of software on their platform. They also had strong opinions about how our software should work, which in hindsight were almost all good ideas. The idea of user interface standards were at the time controversial. Today, you'll get no argument from me. It's better to have one way to do things, than have two or more, no matter how much better the new ones are.

That day, I was on a panel of developers, talking to the press about the new machine. We were all gushing, all excited to be there. I still get goosebumps thinking about it today.

MacOS System 1.1 emulator. (via @gruber)

iFixit did a teardown of the 128K Macintosh.

Jason Snell interviewed several Apple execs about the 30th anniversary for MacWorld. (via df)

What's clear when you talk to Apple's executives is that the company believes that people don't have to choose between a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone. Instead, Apple believes that every one of its products has particular strengths for particular tasks, and that people should be able to switch among them with ease. This is why the Mac is still relevant, 30 years on-because sometimes a device with a keyboard and a trackpad is the best tool for the job.

"It's not an either/or," Schiller said. "It's a world where you're going to have a phone, a tablet, a computer, you don't have to choose. And so what's more important is how you seamlessly move between them all.... It's not like this is a laptop person and that's a tablet person. It doesn't have to be that way."

Snell previously interviewed Steve Jobs on the 20th anniversary of the Mac, which includes an essay that Jobs wrote for the very first issue of Macworld in 1984:

The Macintosh is the future of Apple Computer. And it's being done by a bunch of people who are incredibly talented but who in most organizations would be working three levels below the impact of the decisions they're making in the organization. It's one of those things that you know won't last forever. The group might stay together maybe for one more iteration of the product, and then they'll go their separate ways. For a very special moment, all of us have come together to make this new product. We feel this may be the best thing we'll ever do with our lives.

Here's a look inside that first MacWorld issue.

As always, Folklore.org is an amazing source for stories about the Mac told by the folks who were there.

Susan Kare designed the icons, the interface elements, and fonts for the original Macintosh. Have a look at her Apple portfolio or buy some prints of the original Mac icons.

Stephen Fry recounts his experience with the Mac, including the little tidbit that he and Douglas Adams bought the first two Macs in Europe (as far as he knows).

I like to claim that I bought the second Macintosh computer ever sold in Europe in that January, 30 years ago. My friend and hero Douglas Adams was in the queue ahead of me. For all I know someone somewhere had bought one ten minutes earlier, but these were the first two that the only shop selling them in London had in stock on the 24th January 1984, so I'm sticking to my story.

Review of the Mac in the NY Times from 1984.

The Next Web has an interview with Daniel Kottke (no relation) and Randy Wigginton on programming the original Mac.

TNW: When you look at today's Macs, as well as the iPhone and the iPad, do you see how it traces back to that original genesis?

Randy: It was more of a philosophy - let's bring the theoretical into now - and the focus was on the user, not on the programmer. Before then it had always been let's make it so programmers can do stuff and produce programs.

Here, it was all about the user, and the programmers had to work their asses off to make it easy for the user to do what they wanted. It was the principle of least surprise. We never wanted [the Macintosh] to do something that people were shocked at. These are things that we just take for granted now. The whole undo paradigm? It didn't exist before that.

Like Daniel says, it's definitely the case that there were academic and business places with similar technology, but they had never attempted to reach a mass market.

Daniel: I'm just struck by the parallel now, thinking about what the Mac did. The paradigm before the Mac in terms of Apple products was command-line commands in the Apple II and the Apple III. In the open source world of Linux, I'm messing around with Raspberry Pis now, and it terrifies me, because I think, "This is not ready for the consumer," but then I think about Android, which is built on top of Linux. So the Macintosh did for the Apple II paradigm what Android has done for Linux.

A week after Jobs unveiled the Mac at the Apple shareholders meeting, he did the whole thing again at a meeting of the Boston Computer Society. Time has the recently unearthed video of the event.

Amazon's new KindlesSep 28 2011

They look better, are way cheaper, and, well, let's just say that Amazon puts themselves in a very good position with these increasingly impressive portable media stores. From Tim Carmody:

The advantage traditional paper-based media has always had over electronic media is that the consumer doesn't have to bear the cost of the technology up front. If you buy a book or a magazine, the technology that enables its production and transmission is already built in.

The cost of the device can turn an electronic media gadget into a prestige device, like Apple's iPod or iPad. But it's nevertheless a hurdle for customers. $500 for an iPad or $400 for the first-generation Kindle is a lot of cash to drop for folks who want to read. It's also a levee bottling up a torrent of content that can be sold and delivered over those devices.

With Amazon's new $79 Kindle, $99 Kindle Touch, $149 Kindle Touch 3G, and $199 Kindle Fire, Amazon dynamites that levee. The devices aren't free, but they're so much cheaper than comparable products on the market that they will likely sell millions of copies and many more millions of books, television shows, movies, music and apps.

And more from Steven Levy.

Hackers, 25 years laterMay 06 2010

For the 25th anniversary of his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy talks to a few of the book's subjects (Bill Gates, Richard Stallman, Steve Wozniak) about how they've changed and what hacking means today.

On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable," [Stewart Brand] said. "On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other." His words neatly encapsulate the tension that has since defined the hacker movement -- a sometimes pitched battle between geeky idealism and icy-hearted commerce.

Not your father's PageRankFeb 26 2010

Steven Levy on how Google's search algorithm has changed over the years.

Take, for instance, the way Google's engine learns which words are synonyms. "We discovered a nifty thing very early on," Singhal says. "People change words in their queries. So someone would say, 'pictures of dogs,' and then they'd say, 'pictures of puppies.' So that told us that maybe 'dogs' and 'puppies' were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it's hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance."

But there were obstacles. Google's synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. "Hot dog" would be found in searches that also contained "bread" and "mustard" and "baseball games" -- not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what "hot dog" -- and millions of other terms -- meant. "Today, if you type 'Gandhi bio,' we know that bio means biography," Singhal says. "And if you type 'bio warfare,' it means biological."

Or in simpler terms, here's a snippet of a conversation that Google might have with itself:

A rock is a rock. It's also a stone, and it could be a boulder. Spell it "rokc" and it's still a rock. But put "little" in front of it and it's the capital of Arkansas. Which is not an ark. Unless Noah is around.

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