March 1, 2005

A Farewell to Jef Raskin

As many of you may already know, Jef Raskin, commonly credited as the creator of the Macintosh computer, died on Saturday, February 26th, 2005.

Jef was both my mentor at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2004, and became my employer the following summer, when I began to work with him on his next-generation computing platform, called Archy.

This isn’t to say that I was particularly close to the man; my relationship with him was strictly professional, and as such, I don’t know how much I can say about him.

But I can say a few things.

What struck me most about Jef was the perspective from which he approached computing. For someone who was so deeply involved in the technology industry, his approach was remarkably simple: unlike many other people I’ve known in the field, he wasn’t terribly interested in issues of efficiency, speed, multimedia glitz, or other so-called miracles of technology; he was just interested in helping people. Any interest he had in algorithms or programming or anything else technical ultimately derived from his interest in making products that anyone–be they someone who had never touched a computer before, or the world’s most experienced programmer–could learn about and use with the greatest of ease.

Raskin himself wasn’t even much of a computer “expert”, in the common sense of the word. There are many things most casual twentysomething computer users know that he didn’t. At first I thought this was just an idiosyncrasy of his, until he made me realize that there’s so little people should need to know in order to use a computer. Why, for instance, should someone need to know what an “operating system”, an “application”, a “desktop”, and a “filesystem” are in order to write a simple letter or balance their checkbook? Why should they need to be trained to constantly “save” their work for it to not be lost in case an accident happens? Why are people forced to store their information in a hard-to-navigate heirarchy of folders, labeling their work with an obscure name that they’ll have trouble remembering after two months? Why do they need to know what an IP address, a DNS, a gateway, a network mask and a hub are just so they can share information with another family member’s computer?

In many ways, I see Jef Raskin as a sort of “Morpheus” of the technology industry. When I first enrolled in his class on user interface design, I had assumed that he was going to talk about what technology experts call “user interface standardization”–that is, making your computer application look like all the other ones so new users can acclimate to it as quickly as possible. What I learned was that the very concept of an “application” at all was entirely arbitrary–a system, as Morpheus would say, imposed upon we the users by programmers simply because it is the easiest thing for them to implement, not for us to use.

I’ll admit that Jef may not have come up with the perfect solution with Archy; but neither Archy nor the Macintosh are ultimately what I will remember him for. The greatest gift he gave me, rather, was his perspective; the idea that there must be another, easier and more productive way to accomplish what we need to do, and then offering us the insight needed to make such an idea a reality.

© Atul Varma 2020