Has the Mac Hit Raskin’s Ideal?

by Chris Seibold Sep 11, 2006

The Mac started out as a request for a game console, morphed into a low-cost computer and finally became a full fledged but underpowered PC with a nine-inch screen. The man most responsible for the Mac’s early direction was Jef Raskin; the man most responsible for the Mac’s final form is Steve Jobs. The friction between the two provides an interesting lesson about what the future might bring.

Steve Jobs had asked Jef Raskin to outline what he wanted a Mac to be, and he further instructed Jef to disregard cost. Seeing this as a chance to make the point that the price was just as important as the capabilities, Jef wrote a scathingly sarcastic memo specifying exactly what he wanted out of a Mac.

Jef wanted the Mac to sport a very thin 96 character by 66 line monitor. The request seemed silly when cathode ray tubes dominated (even orange plasmas were quite a few years away), but the idea made a certain aesthetic, if not practical, sense. If the display requirements seem puny by any normal standard remember that this was a text-based machine, 66 lines was a ton compared to contemporaneous machines and 96 characters would have been a boon for programmers in 1979. (Note that Apple’s first monitor came out in 1980 and displayed 80 24 characters).

As of this writing Apple’s largest all in one computer features a 24 inch display with an ample 1920 x 1200 display. That certainly meets Jef’s requirement of 96 characters by 66 lines. The screen is also very thin, so again Jef would be sated. From the perspective of the monitor, any 2006 iMac exceeds Jeef’s requirements/

Jef was also desirous of pocketable memory. Of course not just any pocketable memory would do. Jef wanted pocketable memory that would cost 50 cents a megabyte in quantity. Using Apple’s standard markup in 1979 that means Jef would have expected the memory to sell for $2.50 per megabyte.

If you’re wondering if today’s pocketable storage can meet Jef’s specs, grasp your handiest USB thumb drive or flash card. Gaze in wonder at the tiny proportions of the miniscule repository of digital files. Finally, reflect on the price you paid for the thing and realize that, if you had waited another month, you could’ve got it even cheaper. For example, a GB of flash memory goes for $29.95 and a 1 GB JumpDrive will set you back $42.99. Running the numbers we see that memory is going for some where between three and four cents a megabyte. Recalling that Jef expected the memory to retail for $2.50 a megabyte we can see modern memory bests Jef’s ideal by two orders of magnitude.

Jef also wanted software and lots of it. An “unexcelled collection of application programs” is the term Jef used. He wasn’t done, he also wanted to include six programming languages and an emulator for every processor since the IBM 650. Taking iLife into consideration, and spending a few moments surfing the net most of the requests can be easily fulfilled. Score one more for the modern Mac.

Jef was a musician as much as a computer guru and his love of music shone brightly in his final request. Jef wanted the Mac to synthesize music up to and including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing backup to Caruso (not the annoying CSI guy, this one). Welcome to the world of GarageBand.

There was one thing Raskin wanted that hasn’t happened and that concerns printing. Raskin wanted a printer built right into the Mac, a printer that printed anything on the screen (no problem), featured a resolution of 1000 by 1200 (cake), printed one page per second (imagine the paper cuts) and never needed a ribbon. Obviously, the printer requirements are complete fantasy, everyone knows the profit in a printer is with the continuing sale of ink!

Finally, the cost issue must be addressed. Jef wanted, badly, for the original Mac to cost $500. There is not a single Mac, let alone one with a screen, that retails at that price point. But recall that Jef was thinking in 1979 dollars. $500 in 1979 is about $1350 in 2006 dollars and if you’ve got that much to spend Apple will be happy to sell you a Mac. All in all, it seems that the aughts have ushered in the era of Jef’s ideal Mac, but the printer makers need to get on the stick.

Obviously the preceding exercise tells us that Jef Raskin was prescient even when being sarcastic but it also tells us something more: computers haven’t fully matured yet. Looking at the strides computers have made over the last thirty years and comparing them with other areas where engineers are always trying to push the boundaries computers have advanced much more quickly. Take cars for example. Thirty years ago people wanted a car that got 150 mpg, had 600 horsepower, offered room for ten people and had plenty of cup holders. Today we have cars with plenty of cup holders. The other things are stuff we are still waiting for.

What does the next thirty years of computer innovation hold? Hard to tell, write something snarky and chances are you’ll be right more often than not.


  • How about a computer made on some kind of rubber (silicon or latex?) water and impact resistant that can be roll it up.

    I think that there is enough tech to make this happen… and I already have a name for it “rollMac”

    thetnt had this to say on Sep 11, 2006 Posts: 8
  • Excellent review of Raskin’s ideal, imo. And though Jobs is painted as antagonistic towards Raskin, I think he did an amazing job of coming as close to it as a company like Apple in the 70s could.

    Where will we be in 2036? Impossible to tell, of course. If you take a cue from the ones who dwell on the cutting edge of future theory—that would be the sci fi writers—our understanding of the brain and how to access its power may make the word, “computer” an antique by then. Just as my granddaughter wonders what I’m talking about when I say “cassette tape,” or “LP album.”

    Me? I’d be satisfied with Michael Creighton’s help angel from his novel, Disclosure.

    presser_kun had this to say on Sep 11, 2006 Posts: 3
  • Hi Chris,
    Great analysis. Kinda funny that the true genius behind Apple is not Jobs but Raskin and Woz. Jobs also took Raskin’s advice to focus on consumers, which Apple has finally achieved, too. I would have included that as well.
    Apple gets credit for “innovation,” but if you look at the whole, it has all been just a series of small steps of incremental improvement, and the marketing hype was always two or three steps ahead of the engineering reality.
    I think an interesting question will be where will the computer industry go when the twin meglomanics of Bill and Steve step down. Incremental improvement may slow to the likes of the auto industry: 4 wheels and a box in new colors and shapes….hey, that sounds familiar in the computer industry, too. grin

    Are we just watching wet paint dry?

    Steve Consilvio had this to say on Sep 11, 2006 Posts: 47
  • Good article, but I’m not sure about the description of the original Mac as an “underpowered” PC!  The IBM PC at the time had a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 CPU, which was surely inferior to the Mac’s 8MHz Motorola 68000?

    bobthedino had this to say on Sep 12, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Hi:

    I liked the article, and thought that it was a very interesting comparison. I do however, have a couple of comments.

    First: Although I believe that Jeff Raskin was the intellectual father of the Mac, and that Steve Jobs saw the project through to completion, I do want to put a word in for Burrel Smith. Smith designed the hardware for the Mac as well as its successor. Much of the machine’s design was based on the ideas of Woz, as Smith himself always pointed out, but the design of the machine was Smith’s and it was an incredibly ingenious design when one thinks of all that the original macine could do given its extremely limited resources.

    Also; a huge difference between Raskin’s dream machine and the mac centered around the interface. Raskin favoured a text-based interface, with a serparate series of command keys that initialized a menu-based interface (much like the original bootstrap demonstration from 1969). Raskin himself has always said that, although he didn’t dismiss the use of a mouse, he saw it more as a selection device, and for use in specialized programs, as opposed to the general use that is made of the mouse now.

    Although I never had a chance to actually take up this discussion with Raskin, I think that he was wrong about the specialized keys. This is because Raskin envisioned the use of the keys by a specialized operator who was very conversant with the program and its interface—which was always somewhat opposed to his vision of the computer for everyone. Studies have shown that the GUI/mouse based design allows for very quick learning of basic features/architecture of computer programs by those who are being initially introduced to a computer. This is somewhat due to the simplicity of the mouse interface as opposed to that of the specialized keys, which are more fluent when used by an expert.

    Anyhow. Great article. Thanks for prompting these thoughts.

    rogueprof had this to say on Sep 14, 2006 Posts: 17
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