Saturday, October 8, 2011

Inside Macintosh

The web is currently flooded with eloquent tributes to Steve Jobs. I’ll chime in with a personal footnote.

In 1985, when I was a graduate student at Stanford, I bought my first Macintosh computer. Like so many others, I was stunned by its elegant graphics-based interface. Like fewer others (though quite a few at Stanford), I had to learn to program it.

The programmer’s manual, Inside Macintosh, was still a work in progress and hadn’t been officially published. But in response to the tremendous demand, Apple put out a “promotional edition” printed on cheap paper in a typewriter font, bound in a thick volume resembling a phone book. For a short time you could get a copy for only $25, and my check was in the mail as soon as I learned about the offer.

My original Mac is now long gone, but I still have that promotional edition of Inside Macintosh. Paging through it brings back a flood of memories.

Most of the manual, of course, is nuts-and-bolts technical details—what programmers would now call “API reference” material. But as you study it, a bigger picture comes into view: the exquisite care that went into the design of the Mac operating system, built from the inside out with the user in mind. The enthusiasm of the Mac development team occasionally bursts out in a word like “remarkable” or “amazing” amidst the manual’s otherwise dry prose. Even though this edition of the manual was hastily assembled and printed, someone made sure it had a full-color cover with that classic minimalist line drawing of a Mac.

The most important chapter of the manual, up at the front, is titled User Interface Guidelines. Rather than describing the operating system from a programmer’s point of view, this chapter instructs the reader on the underlying principles of Mac software, and firmly invites the reader to conform to these principles:
“The Macintosh is designed to appeal to an audience of nonprogrammers, including people who have previously feared and distrusted computers. To achieve this goal, Macintosh applications should be easy to learn and to use. To help people feel more comfortable with the applications, the applications should build on skills that people already have, not force them to learn new ones. The user should feel in control of the computer, not the other way around. This is achieved in applications that embody three qualities: responsiveness, permissiveness, and consistency.”
These words were revolutionary in 1985, and they made a lasting impression on me. Even today, most programmers need to pay more attention to them.

More generally, Apple has set an example for creative people everywhere: Don’t settle for mediocrity and mere functionality. Always strive for excellence, and be sure to incorporate the joy of the creative process into your work. Patiently refine every detail of your creation, while staying focused on its ultimate purpose.

That was the ethos that Steve Jobs brought to Apple, and to so much of the world.

1 comment:

  1. I've just discovered a nice essay on the Mac User Interface Guidelines, and how they've evolved since the early days, at The Long View, a web site devoted to the history of the Mac and its software.


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