Stanford Library’s Tech History Collection

Later stages of the first Mac/Lisa mouse design.I just discovered Standford Library’s collection of documents relating to the technology and culture in Silicon Valley and the development of the Mac thanks to a link from Gizmodo. Gizmodo was excited about the mice “wine tastings” that Apple did in its efforts to develop the first consumer mouse. Elsewhere, however, I found this interesting little tidbit:

Reading it twenty years later, the most surprising thing about it is the amount of attention it gives to networking, and the degree to which the first Macintosh was intended to be a kind of network computer. In “The Apple Computer Network,” Raskin argues that “telecommunications will become a key part of every computer market segment,” and that “the creation of Apple communications, in some form, is part of the definition of the Macintosh computer project.” As he put it elsewhere, “Macintosh is a communications device.” The implications of this vision were great. “We don’t think of the telephone company primarily as a manufacturer of the little $40 things with dials or pushbuttons that we have in our homes and on our desks. The implications of this proposal, at one extreme, is that Apple will be seen, in the future, not so much as a builder of hardware, but as the purveyor of a service that interpenetrates the telephone network, and provides information.”

Before I knew it I was reading Raskin’s 1979 essay on “Computers By The Millions” where he considers everything from the manufacturing considerations to the social impact of selling that many computers. At the time, he reminds us, few companies had sold more than 10,000 computers and nobody really understood what might happen when consumers start buying a million computers per year or more.

Three quotes.

Here, Raskin establishes the business model for the software industry that followed. Gates must have taken note, since Microsoft has since taken this about as far as it can go.

It is clear that the concept of supplying updates to software or manuals will have to go. In its place should come much better tested software and manuals, and the concept that what you buy is what you get. Later versions will be sold as new, separate programs; compatibility (especially of data prepared under previous software offerings) will become a major concern. It can be expected that people will stick with an old, familiar system rather than buy a new one — unless it contains some new features that are in themselves worth the entire purchase price.

I’m quoting the following out of order. There was very little commercial software available in 1979, and most of it was sold with the computer by the manufacturer. Raskin’s essay took some time to explain how people might by software packages separately from the computer hardware. Here he considers the function of hardware design in supporting and promoting the development of the software publishing industry.

Another consideration is that hardware can no longer be the usual conglomeration of little boxes held together with cables. For user convenience, there should be nearly zero set-up time. Besides, manufacturing costs are far less for one box than for many. Cables are also expensive and failure prone.

The third generation personal computers will be self-contained, complete, and essentially un-expandable. As we shall see, this strategy not only makes it possible to write complete software, but makes the hardware much cheaper and producible. …

Programmers will be very happy when the computer for which they are writing software is a constant environment. This is not to say that good programming cannot handle the problems inherent in a varying environment, and on a machine which allows many different peripherals. What is being said is that it is more difficult to program for such machines, and that such programs take up much more space. We need every help we can get in simplifying the programming problem.

Finally, Rasking addresses the social impact question. He’d already taken some time to address the effect wide-scale modem use on the phone network, and the proximity of that discussion to this seems rather intentional.

It is impossible to accurately assess what changes any new technology (or any policy or political decision) will cause. It is clear that truly massive use of a technology is quite different than the mere introduction of a new class of devices. No superhighways were created for the first few automobiles.

It is easy to anticipate more of what is now underway: new legislation, new data services (e.g. the phone book in computer-accessible form), new programming companies, new computer service firms, various kinds of clubs and organizations… It is easy to anticipate that many of these computers will end up on shelves alongside of unused tennis rackets, trumpets and fondue pots. Nobody questions that small improvements in the quality of life of people who do a lot of writing, filing and scheduling will occur.

But will the average person’s circle of acquaintances grow? Will we be better informed? Will a use of these computers as an entertainment medium become their primary value? Will they foster self-education? Is the designer of a personal computer system doing good or evil?

The main question is this: what will millions of people do with them?