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If you think of Apple, you probably think of the iPhone or iPad and perhaps even the MacBook Air, but the name Mac was once much more important to Apple. The Mac was a groundbreaking computer that introduced the world to the GUI and many things we now take for granted.
It is difficult not to see the whole story of Apple as just being part of the Steve Jobs story and it is true that he, more than any other person, influenced the development of the company.
However Steve Jobs did not design the Apple II, the machine that started it all. That particular machine was more or less the product of Steve Wozniack's ability to design minimalist electronics. If Steve Jobs can claim the credit for any single product then it has to be the Mac - and then only in conception rather than anything technical.
In 1979 the Apple II was selling well but it was clear that a new machine was needed. The Apple III - code-named Sara - was nothing more than a slight upgrade, a stopgap measure.
Something more radical was needed and Steve Jobs had decided to use this opportunity to show that he too could be a creative genius like Woz. This one would be Job's machine - a super computer like nothing that had existed.
To do the job he hired two Hewlett-Packard people, John Couch and Ken Rothmueller. He admired HP design.
The Lisa project
The project was codenamed Lisa and its specification was to produce a machine that cost around $2000 using 16-bit architecture. It would have two floppy drives and be built for business.
With this rather vague specification Couch worked on software and Rothmueller on hardware. By late 1979 they had a bitmapped display working with a green phosphor monitor and built-in keyboard.
It looked like something HP could have produced - solid engineering and not the radical new machine that Jobs was looking for. The trouble was he didn't exactly know what he was looking for and the HP engineers he had hired couldn't supply the missing creative leap.
What did supply the missing idea was a visit to Xerox Parc - the futuristic research center intended to keep Xeroz ahead in technology in the coming years.
Steve had persuaded Xerox to invest $1 million in Apple and in this also allowed him to see the fruits of their research. Bill Atkinson and Jef Raskin, two Apple engineers, had a design project of their own underway to build a low cost machine. They were worried about the way that the Lisa project would leave Apple with no future machine for home and education. Atkinson also knew about the sort of work that was going on at Xerox Parc and he urged Jobs to go and have a look.
He went and believed he had seen the future.
The Xerox Alto
The Xerox Alto had everything you would expect of a modern computer - it had a GUI interface and a mouse and the operating software to make it all work. If Xerox had had the marketing to go with its technology we would probably think of them now as a computer company rather than a copier manufacturer.
The Lisa would use a GUI and a mouse - this would be the revolution that would take Apple into the next era of personal computing.
On the drive back to Apple, Jobs decided that he would build a machine better than the one that Xerox had. He asked Atkinson how long it would take. Six months was the answer - a ridiculously short time span for any project - Steve was committed.
However when he tried to get Rothmueller to introduce the extra features needed to make the Lisa suitable for a GUI he refused. He resented having to design everything over.
Steve ordered Rothmueller to do it and he refused. The battle to get the GUI accepted was a difficult one. They even resorted to getting a mouse hand built in wood and coupling it to a drawing program to prove that it worked as a pointing device!
Lisa Part 2
The Lisa project grew and grew and swallowed a lot of development cash. The $2000 price tag was forgotten somewhere along the line and the machine grew pricier as hardware was added. Steve Jobs didn't help get the project along because of the basic disagreement he had with the design heads about what the Lisa should be like.
Eventually he was removed from the project during a reorganization of Apple masterminded by Mike Scot and Mike Markkula. Couch was put in charge of the Lisa in an effort to try to get the product to market.
Lisa With An External Hard Drive
Steve Jobs wasn't pleased with being removed from the project and started to think about building his own new machine that would do everything he wanted it to.
Jef Raskin and Bill Atkinson's low cost experimental machine suddenly took on a new importance. They had finished the prototype over the Christmas (1979) holiday. Raskin decided to name it the Mackintosh but misspelled it as Macintosh.
Raskin's machine was designed to be sold for $1000 and built for around $300. It was a very reduced design and similar to the sort of thing Woz might have produced had he been working on the project. To make up for the simple hardware the software would be more closely integrated with it and would provide the extra facilities needed. The Mac was as much a software designed machine as hardware driven.
The Mac team - Burrell Smith (holding keyboard), Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson holding the Mac.
The original Mac prototype was based on a Motorola 6809 - a half-way house between the old 6800 8-bit processor and the new 68000 16-bit processor. There were engineers at the time who claimed that with careful coding the 6809 was actually faster than the 68000. It also had a 256 by 256 monochrome bit-mapped screen.
The circuit board was designed by Burrell Smith - a self taught hobbyist in the style of Woz. They worked on the project almost clandestinely. They "borrowed" parts from the Lisa project and wrote the code in the dead of night. Andy Hertzfield, an Apple II old hand, joined in and wrote much of the software.