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2005: A Man Obsessed With the Human-computer Interface Dies

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Jef Raskin, wearing a striped shirt, holding a model of the Canon Cat
Jef Raskin holding a model of the Canon CatCredit: Aza Raskin, Wikimedia Commons

On February 26, 2005, tech entrepreneur Jef Raskin, the founding father of Apple’s Macintosh computer project, died, at the age of 61.

With a background as a musician, artist, philosopher and mathematician, Raskin the computer professional became obsessed with simplifying computer interfaces. When his vision of the Macintosh as a stripped-down, easy-to-use machine that focused on word processing came up against Steve Jobs’ ambition to develop a high-end, elegant and powerful PC, it was Raskin who lost out, and he left the company.

The 'arty' thing to do

Jeffrey Frank Raskin was born in Brentwood, on Long Island, New York, on March 9, 1943, to William Benjamin Raskin and the former Frieda Botfeld. Graduating from Brentwood High School in 1960, he then began collecting academic degrees. He started at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in both mathematics (1964) and physics (1965). He followed that with a master’s in computer science at Penn State in 1967, and began work on a Ph.D. in music at the University of California, San Diego. He never finished that degree, but instead began teaching art and photography there.

When he left the university, in 1974, he announced his resignation by flying over the chancellor’s office in a hot-air balloon, playing a soprano recorder, because, he later said, it seemed like the “arty” thing to do.

Raskin held other teaching jobs, worked as a professional musician, and founded a company that made model-airplane kits (a serious hobby of his since childhood). In 1976, he set up a technical-writing firm - and it was in this capacity that he was originally hired by Apple, in 1978, to write the user’s manual for the Apple II personal computer.

Quickly, he was appointed head of the company’s publications department.

'Stealing' from Xerox

In 1979, when Steve Jobs was still working on the “Lisa” business-oriented computer project, Raskin proposed, and was given responsibility for, developing a simple machine that he envisioned being used mainly for writing. He decided to call the proposed computer after his favorite apple variety, spelling it “Macintosh” rather than “McIntosh” so as to avoid copyright conflicts with an audio-amplifier manufacturer of that name.

It was apparently Raskin who urged Jobs and other colleagues to visit the Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center, whose Alto computer employed “graphic user interface,” or GUI, which employed icons rather than written commands, and also bitmapping, which allows for far more complex and colorful graphics than was found in other early systems. These were several concepts that Jobs later freely admitted “stealing” from Xerox, which in any case soon went out of the PC field. 

Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple: He and Jef Raskin shared a vision of computers that were simple to use, but parted ways on design.Credit: Reuters

After a reorganization at Apple, Jobs took over the Macintosh project, and both philosophical and personal differences between him and Raskin led the latter to resign.

The Macintosh that had its rollout in 1984 was a very different machine than Jef Raskin had envisioned. Though he is sometimes called – and sometimes called himself – the Mac’s creator, the consensus seems to be that it was much more a reflection of Steve Jobs’ imagination than his.

After leaving Apple, Raskin continued working on creating a personal computer whose sophistication would show in its simplicity. In 1987, Canon Cat hit the market, a “people’s computer” designed by Raskin, but sales were minimal, and the product was discontinued before the end of the year.

In 2000, Raskin published a book, “The Humane Interface,” in which he refined several decades of thoughts about the interaction between humans and their computers. The principles expounded there served as the basis for the major project Raskin was working on at the time of his death, “Archy,” a software system that was meant to be user-friendly in the most basic ways. When he died, Raskin’s son Aza took over work on Archy, eventually bringing it to the software developer Mozilla, which incorporated some of its features into an add-on for its Firefox browser called “Ubiquity.”

In December 2004, Raskin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (the same disease that killed Steve Jobs seven years later, at age 56); he died on this day the following February, at age 61.