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3/7/2005
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The Real Mac Daddy: Jef Raskin, 1943-2005

Jef Raskin, the creator of the first Macintosh computer, died Feb. 26, not long after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I'm a bit disappointed and surprised that it took me--a hard-core news junkie--more than a week to discover that Raskin had checked out

Jef Raskin, the creator of the first Macintosh computer, died Feb. 26, not long after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I'm a bit disappointed and surprised that it took me--a hard-core news junkie--more than a week to discover that Raskin had checked out.

A century from now, I suspect Raskin and his work will get more recognition than either received during his lifetime. He deserves it: At a time when most desktop operating systems looked as if they took their design cues from the East German post office (a trait that many of them imitate to this day), Raskin's work at Apple hit the industry like a "wish you were here" card from Mars.

In fact, a lot of the suits holed up at places like IBM and DEC, waiting for the consumer PC fad to pass, simply couldn't grok the impact the original Macintosh would have, thanks to innovations such as the graphical user interface, a desktop and icons, the mouse, double-click and click-and-drag behavior, WYSIWYG editing, and long file names.

Raskin's work also, of course, spawned the most blatant, wildly successful, and utterly shameless copycat product in the history of American business: Microsoft Windows. The world is probably a better place today, thanks to the fact that Redmond's magpies flew back home all those years ago with plans to build cheap, semi-functioning Macintosh knockoffs, rather than cheap, semi-functioning knockoffs of someone else's user interface innovations.

Jef Raskin probably allowed some of his own statements to outrun the truth a few times--Larry Tesler, for one, has questioned how much influence Raskin really had on the famous decision to use a one-button mouse instead of the three-button model developed at Xero PARC.

That's one small grain on the wrong side of the scale; on the right side, we have Raskin's background in cognitive psychology, along with his artistic leanings and aggressive curiosity about what made his fellow humans tick. All of these qualities played a role in shaping the other work for which Raskin is famous: His book, "The Humane Interface," is one of the most important analyses of what works in UI design, what doesn't, and why large numbers of brilliant, highly paid people seem incapable of sorting out the difference.

Raskin's final, unfinished work is a software project, called The Humane Environment, built on open-source technology and designed to implement many of the software and interface design principles Raskin espoused over the years. I'm not very familiar with the project, although several people whose opinions I trust have compared to Sun's Project Looking Glass more than once, a comparison that suggests Raskin might have been on to something big if he had lived to see his project through.

Raskin's son and his Sourceforge collaborators will have to finish The Humane Interface on their own. I know many of you don't share my passion for OS X or, for that matter, care much for any desktop operating system that favors the GUI over the CLI. Still, I think most of us can agree that the PC industry today would be a very different place, and probably much less diverse and innovative as well, if Jef Raskin hadn't put up with Steve Jobs long enough to help the Macintosh survive a difficult and dangerous adolescence.

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