Insanely Great
The Life and Times of Macintosh,
the Computer That Changed Everything
by Steven Levy

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Viking: New York, 1994

292 pages May 2008

Vision becoming technology

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything is the story of a visionary arc becoming common technology. In Steven Levy's concise account, the birth of the Apple Macintosh personal computer is the critical passage of that generation-long development. Macintosh is the threshold where important visions of human usability — information for the asking, the desktop metaphor, windowing, standard-language naming, a freehand pointing device, and so on — were brought together in a practical product that ordinary people could learn easily and afford to buy.

Insanely great is Steve Jobs' visionary target for what Apple Computer's Macintosh development team should strive for: not a good product, not a even great one, but something insanely great that would change the world. Did the Mac development team succeed? Look around you. If there is a computer nearby that has the above characteristics — instead of tantalizing glimpses in some engineering-laboratory documentary — it's because Macintosh crossed that threshold.

Genealogy and progenitors

Levy sketches the big picture, from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, and some key players: Vannevar Bush (visualizing a "sort of mechanized private file and library"); Douglas C. Engelbart ("a crusade to augment human capabilities by applying new technologies and developing ways to interact with that technology"); J. C. R. Licklider at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA); Ivan Sutherland (Sketchpad, the first drawing program); Alan Kay at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) (design the interface for the user: the desktop metaphor); Ivan Sutherland (the Alto computer with bit-mapped graphics). And a few others.

And then on to the great Macintosh crew, a bunch of motivated rebel-artists of technology. This is the center of Levy's story, and handled well. This visionary arc, and the breakthrough Macintosh, could never be a drift of place-holders; these are believers in their vision. Led by Steve Jobs, they are dedicated, creative, and competent enough to make it happen: Bill Atkinson, Steven Capps, Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, Bruce Horn, Susan Kare, Larry Kenyon, Jef Raskin, Burrell Smith, Randy Wigginton.

The Macintosh toolbox

What made the Macintosh user-interface so distinctive — and so easy to use?

In contrast to the Lisa approach, the Macintosh team implemented its interface issues on an ad hoc basis. When disagreements came, the criteria was not What would an average Joe like? but What do we think is the right thing? ...

... the look of the screen would be the same no matter what application program was running at a given time. ...

Once users became accustomed to the standard conventions of Macintosh computing, they would reject applications that flouted those standards. ... Meanwhile, the Macintosh toolbox acted as sort of a built-in ease-of-use czar. Sitting mainly in Andy Hertzfeld's ROM chip, this toolbox performed like a telephone switchboard, accepting input from the application and placing a "call" to a specific aspect of Macintosh. One call might invoke a window, with the standard scroll bars and title bar. Another might control a menu. Another might trigger a dialog box, offering the user one of several command options.

Apple Macintosh As a result, the entire software base of Macintosh became a coherently created world in itself, one with an immediate familiarity to anyone who had mastered the elemental skills of using the machine. ... You could launch a strange application, and accomplish something instantly, without even touching the manual.

Fun with pixels

Even down to such design-level detail, Insanely Great is not too technical; the reader needn't be a programmer or engineer to enjoy it, and to appreciate the big picture of personal-computer development. I presume that anyone reading this is thereby familiar with sufficient basic concepts.

If you hunger for more detail about these very bright folks and the challenges they invented and programmed their way through, go on to Andy Hertzfeld's Revolution in the Valley.

Levy continues with the Macintosh's introduction and reception, including the famous Macintosh 1984 television commercial, and then discusses some of the aftermath: public reaction, various shortcomings and near-fatal mistakes, and changes to software and hardware. Most immediately important to boost Macintosh acceptance was Paul Brainerd's PageMaker, the perfect fit for Apple's new LaserWriter printer; teamed with the Macintosh they created the new realm of desktop publishing.

The first computer I owned

When some of my close friends and myself bought Macintoshes in Spring 1984, we weren't thinking of the long arc of development that was ascending with the Macintosh. Mostly we were thinking of what a neat computer it was.

I especially was struck by the clean black type on a clean white screen, instead of the eye-straining semi-focused yellow-green on black generally used by computer monitors. Given two books, one printed in black ink on white pages, and another printed in yellow-green on black pages, which would you choose? The original Mac offered plenty of other attractions, but that was sufficient.

Serious computer users don't use a mouse

It's funny to look back, as Levy does, on the diehards who claimed that any serious computer wouldn't have pull-down menus or — especially — a pointing device like a mouse. Real writers and programmers would never take their hands off the keys, but would forever be memorizing arcane combinations of keystrokes and playing them like complex piano chords.

Over time, I came to agree that Steve Jobs was correct: the Macintosh indeed embodied the insanely great breakthrough he wanted. My personal thanks to all the guys and gals at Apple and elsewhere whose vision, skill, and dedication made it happen for all of us. Steven Levy's book is a fine introduction and overview to The Life and Times of Macintosh; and why this became the Computer That Changed Everything.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

Andy Hertzfeld's
Revolution in the Valley
The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made

The Wall Street Journal
Steve Jobs’s Best Quotes
with links to interviews in 1985, 1996, etc.

R. W. Franson's review of
"A Logic Named Joe" (1946)
by Murray Leinster

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