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The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac was Made -- An Interview with Andy Hertzfeld

by Derrick Story
01/04/2005

When I first flipped through the pages of Andy Hertzfeld's Revolution in The Valley, I realized that I was not merely stepping back into the history of the Macintosh, but into the genesis of personal computing itself. Regardless of what you think about Apple Computer -- its personalities, hardware, or approach to design -- there's no denying that Apple engineering and marketing had a profound impact on the evolution of the PC.

Andy jumped in with both feet in 1978 when he spent his life savings on an Apple II. The price tag was $1,295 plus tax. By August 1979 he was an Apple employee. In 1981 he joined the engineering team that designed the Macintosh, which was introduced in January 1984 with arguably the most remembered Super Bowl ad of all time.

During his years in Cupertino, Andy worked closely with, and befriended many Apple employees who are now legends in personal computing history. But it's not easy to write a book about those who had confided so freely with you as a coworker, not a historian. As a result, only recently has Andy felt comfortable telling the stories that shaped many of our lives.


Software team from the story, "Real Artists Ship." (All images from the book,
Revolution in The Valley.)

The first time I saw Andy speak was at an O'Reilly Open Source Convention in 2000. Right away I knew he was my Apple historian of choice, at least for this slice of technology history. Now thanks to the release of his book, I have an excuse to correspond with him directly and ask him some of the questions I've had about the phenomenon we call the personal computing revolution.

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Related Reading

Revolution in The Valley [Paperback]
The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made
By Andy Hertzfeld

Derrick Story: Andy, it's wonderful to be talking with you about Mac folklore. Before we get too far into this conversation though, can you give us a quick snapshot of your involvement in the Apple II and Mac projects?

Andy Hertzfeld: I was one of Apple's early customers, buying a 16K Apple II in January 1978, and I became so enchanted by it that I abandoned graduate school to start work at Apple in August 1979. My first job was developing a nifty little thermal printer for the Apple II called the Silentype.

After a management shake-up (see the story "Black Wednesday" in my book), I became the second programmer on the Mac team, after Bud Tribble, in February 1981. At first I worked on the low-level part of the system, writing interrupt handlers and device drivers, but in 1982 I wrote the main UI routines called the "User Interface Toolbox," which included the window manager, menu manager, etc., based on the work that Bill Atkinson did for the Lisa. I also wrote a bunch of the original desk accessories like the Scrapbook and Control Panel.

I left Apple in March 1984 after a conflict with my boss (see the story "Too Big For My Britches" for the gory details), but I continued to develop system software for the Mac, which I sold to Apple, including Switcher in 1984-5, Servant in 1986, and QuickerDraw in 1988.

DS: Literally, you were there in the middle of everything as it unfolded. It's interesting though, you've done so much since the Apple days -- starting the Radius business with Burrell Smith and Eazel with Bud Tribble, just to name a couple of things. Do you ever feel that Mac history has overshadowed some of your other accomplishments?

Andy Hertzfeld: At this point it's pretty obvious that the Mac was the most significant thing I ever worked on. Much of what I did subsequently, like Radius or even General Magic, built on the work that I did at Apple anyway. I feel very lucky to have played as big a part as I did in something as significant as the Macintosh.


Steve Jobs and Bill Atkinson.

DS: Yes, I have to admit, having the line item "one of the creators of the Macintosh" on one's resume isn't exactly a career liability, is it? OK, so let's discuss your latest project for a bit. The first time I saw your Mac folklore talk was at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in July 2000. I just loved it and thought at the time, "This guy should write a book." So in 2004, that became a reality. Could you tell us a little bit about the chain of events that led to you writing Revolution in The Valley?

Andy Hertzfeld: At the time of the O'Reilly Open Source Convention you're referring to, I was working at Eazel. My talk was about the importance of making open source software easier to use, but I did try to put it in a historical perspective and consequently told a lot of anecdotes about working at Apple, some of which made it into my book.

I first conceived of my Folklore project, which was a website for collective storytelling, in the fall of 1996, after I left General Magic. I made a prototype website and a list of about 100 stories to write, but I got distracted by other things and didn't pursue it beyond registering the domain name folklore.org.

I'm an avid reader, and I always wanted to be a writer. In June 2003, I was looking for a new project that combined writing prose with writing code, and my wife Joyce reminded me of my Folklore project. I decided to try writing up a few anecdotes about the birth of the Mac and was surprised at how easily they seemed to flow out of me. After writing around 20 stories, I shifted gears and worked on the web software to publish them, writing a simple authoring system in Python, which I love to program in. By August I had the folklore.org website going, which was publicly unveiled in time for the Mac's 20th birthday in January 2004.

I got to know Tim O'Reilly during the Eazel days, and when I showed him the Folklore website in October 2003, he suggested that O'Reilly publish it as a book. I quickly agreed without trying to shop it around anywhere else, because I love Tim and his company. You guys really understand the web and were completely undaunted by the fact that all of the stories were already available for free on the Folklore site under a Creative Commons license.

Tim introduced me to my editor, Allen Noren, who guided me through the process to transform the Folklore site into a beautiful book. We decided to make it graphically rich to better exploit the relatively high resolution that's available on the printed page, and luckily we got to access Apple's corporate marketing archive, which we mined for lots of rarely published photos. Mark Brokering suggested a new title, "Revolution in The Valley," which I didn't like at first. But gradually they wore me down.

DS: My opinion is that you're the best storyteller of the original engineering team. Part of the reason I believe this is because you have an uncanny ability to see things from others' points of view. So there seems to be less judgment in your stories. Do you agree? And if so, is this a conscious effort that you make, or is it just the way you see the world?

Andy Hertzfeld: Actually, the "ability to see things from others' points of view," also known as empathy, is a crucial skill for creating great user interfaces, because you have to be able to see things through the eyes of the user; and not just one user but the whole crazy gamut of them, all with varying technical expertise and life experience. Understanding human nature is crucial in both UI design and storytelling, as well as lots of other spheres of endeavor. In a way, marketing is storytelling, too.

I have enormous respect for all of the key people on the Mac team, which I hope comes through in my stories. It's better to allow the readers to make their own judgments, except in a few places where I thought it was important to let readers know how I felt.


Notes from initial stab at memory layout. (Click on image for
full-size view.)

DS: Does this explain, at least in part, your ability to maintain a friendship with Steve Jobs, even as you continue to serve as an Apple historian and write about the unflattering aspects as well as the genius?

Andy Hertzfeld: My relationship with Steve Jobs has had its ups and downs over the years. But I feel very close to him, like all the other key people on the original Mac team. Creating the Mac together forged lifelong bonds, like we're war buddies or something. To this day, I'd do practically anything for any one of them.

In many cases, the unflattering aspects are inseparable from the genius, and the stories wouldn't ring true if they were whitewashed. Besides, Steve has pretty thick skin by now -- it's not exactly news to him that people think he can be difficult.

DS: And how is Steve these days? I know you had a chance to sit down with him and reminisce when you showed him the book.

Andy Hertzfeld: I went over to Steve's house recently to give him the first copy of the book that I gave to anyone, and he seemed to enjoy browsing through it and reminiscing about the good old days. He was curious about what everyone was doing nowadays, and we agreed that we were too young and naive to have a clue about what we were doing back then.

Obviously, the cancer thing is profound, and it's not my place to talk about it. I think he's doing extremely well under the circumstances.

DS: Since we're talking about personalities, we can't forget the source of some of your best early stories: Woz. His genius is legendary in the Apple community. Is he really that amazing when you work with him?

Andy Hertzfeld: Actually, I didn't get to tell most of my best Woz stories in the book, since it focused on the development of the Mac, and he didn't work on it directly. But yes, Woz is my hero and there's no doubt that he was responsible for a huge chunk of the spirit of the Macintosh, which was just the spirit of the Apple II ported to the 68000. Woz is a terrific person, who is extremely brilliant, kind, and generous, and he's probably the most accomplished and prolific prankster on the face of the Earth.

DS: Ah, well you've left me the opening that I was hoping for. Since you didn't get to talk that much about Woz in the book, will you share an anecdote now? Maybe about one of his pranks?

Andy Hertzfeld: I don't have room to write a complete anecdote in this interview, and I plan to eventually add the Woz stories to the Folklore site, so I don't want to sap my energy for doing that. My best set of stories about Woz involve copy protection; their titles are "Visicrook," "Fuzz Box," and "I'm Still Trying." In the last story, Woz bets me $50 that he can copy a floppy disk using a laundry iron.

Or, for a really quick one about a prank, there was the time in October 1983 that Woz called the Cupertino police to report that a silver Mercedes was parked in a handicapped space in Apple's parking lot, which happened to belong to Steve Jobs, only he told them that his name was "Andy Hertzfeld" and gave them my phone number at work.


Steve Wozniak.

DS: Let's jump back to Revolution in The Valley for a moment. In particular, I want to talk about Burrell Smith. One of the things that excites me about this book is that it shines a light on this truly brilliant and important Mac architect. Personally, you seem to have a soft spot in you heart for him. Can you share with us why?

Andy Hertzfeld: In my view, Burrell was the spiritual heart and soul of the project. His awesomely creative digital board preceded everything else (except Jef Raskin's vision, but I give a lot more credit for actual design). It was the seed crystal of brilliance that the rest of us coalesced around. Burrell also has a unique, endearing personality, so it was easy and fun to write about him.

Of all the key contributors, Burrell is probably the one who is the least well known, possibly because he is a private person who likes to maintain a low profile. One of my goals in the book was to celebrate Burrell -- I hope he's not mad at me for doing it -- I haven't had a chance to show him the book yet, but hopefully I will soon.

DS: Thanks for that Andy. Umm, let's see, I want to go back to the Folklore site for a moment. What are your favorite stories there?

Andy Hertzfeld: The Folklore website allows readers to rate the stories, and I find that I pretty much agree with the site's consensus. My personal favorite is probably "Switcher," but I also like most of the Burrell stories, like "I Invented Burrell" or "Are You Gonna Do It?" I think the best-written piece is the summation essay, called "The Macintosh Spirit."

DS: Just as a note to all reading this, after you finish Andy's book, I encourage you to visit the folklore site at www.folklore.org. It's the living history of what we're discussing here.

So you're going to be at Macworld SF, right? What's going on there that we should know about?

Andy Hertzfeld: I have no idea. I'm sure Apple's going to make a big announcement, but I don't know what. I'm hoping for a wireless iPod, so I can stream to AirPort Express without needing a Mac, and maybe even share music with my neighbor.

On a personal level, I'm going to appear during David Pogue's day 2 keynote to shamelessly promote my book for ten minutes or so, and I'll also hang around the O'Reilly booth all three days to give a few talks and sign copies.

DS: Yes, I'm going to ask you to sign my copy of Revolution.

Andy Hertzfeld: I'd be happy to. In fact, I'll sign one for anybody who asks me to, although I'll probably live to regret saying that.

DS: I'm looking forward to it, Andy. As always, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. See you in San Francisco.

Andy Hertzfeld: It was fun talking with you, too. See you in January.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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