Today in Apple history: Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin clash over the Mac

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Apple Mac
The war over the Macintosh's soul started this day in 1979.
Photo: Apple

Sept 27 Today in Apple history September 27, 1979: Years before the Macintosh will ship, Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin clash for the first time over the direction of the Macintosh R&D project.

Raskin, the founder of the Macintosh project, wants a computer that’s going to be affordable to everyone. Jobs wants a computer that’s going to be the best, regardless of price.

Guess who won?

Macintosh price vs. features

The September 27, 1979, date refers to Apple’s earliest cost investigation for the Mac. Raskin’s revolutionary idea was to build a computer, based around a graphical interface, that would cost $500 or less.

This price (which, with inflation, would equal $1,650 today) seems fairly standard by current terms. However, at the time it would have been significantly cheaper than most regular personal computers. An Apple II, for instance, cost $1,298. And even the TRS-80, a fairly low-cost, bare-bones computer, ran $599.

Even as a startup, however, Apple was already taking a high-margin approach to its business. The company expected to put a markup of 400 percent on its machines. That meant Raskin’s computer would need to be manufactured and packaged for $125. The September 27 memo spelled out that this was not possible. It suggested a more reasonable price of $1,500.

The memo caused a clash within Apple. Jobs told Raskin that he shouldn’t “worry about the price” and should instead “just specify the computer’s abilities.”

Jef Raskin rips Steve Jobs on Mac pricing

A bristling Raskin responded with a sarcastic memo to Jobs, replicated in the excellent book Apple Confidential 2.0:

“[I want] a small, lightweight computer with an excellent, typewriter style keyboard. It is accompanied by a 96 character by 66 line display that has almost no depth, and a laser-quality printer that also doesn’t weigh much, and takes ordinary paper and produces text at one page per second (not so fast that you can’t catch them as they come out.) The printer can also produce any graphics the screen can show (with at least 1000 by 1200 points of resolution). In color.

The printer should weigh only a fraction of a pound, and never need a ribbon or mechanical adjustment. It should print in any font. There is about 200K bytes of main storage besides screen memory and a miniature, pocketable, storage element that holds a megabyte and costs $.50, in unit quantity.

When you buy the computer, you get a free unlimited access to the ARPAnet, the various timesharing services, and other informational, computer accessible databases. Besides an unexcelled collection of application programs, the software includes BASIC, Pascal, LISP, FORTRAN, APL, PL\1, COBOL, and an emulator for every processor since the IBM 650.

Let’s include speech synthesis and recognition, with a vocabulary of 34,000 words. It can also synthesize music, even simulate Caruso singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with various reverberation.

Conclusion: starting with the abilities is nonsense. We must start both with a price goal, and a set of abilities, and keep an eye on today’s and the immediate future’s technology. These factors must all be juggled simultaneously.”

Why the clash over the Macintosh price matters

A few things about the clash between Jobs and Raskin fascinate me. The first is that Raskin’s sarcastic version of what a Macintosh should include isn’t worlds away from Jobs’ vision.

The second is that, while history tells us Jobs had the right impulse for the Mac (Raskin’s idea wound up being launched as the Canon Cat a few years later, and promptly disappeared), it’s more nuanced than that.

Jobs’ “feature creep” insistence on building the best possible computer, with no thought for a price point, wound up undercutting a lot of his work at NeXT, the company he founded after leaving Apple. Raskin’s approach, meanwhile, was based on the idea of democratizing technology — which is something Apple has become known for over the years.

Finally, although it took several more years until Jobs seized control of the Macintosh project, it’s easy to see as far back as 1979 that Raskin and Jobs were never going to happily coexist on Team Mac.

  • CelestialTerrestrial

    I think they should have bought NeXT by 1990, and then spent time to do everything they did, only a few years earlier. Who knows, they might have got more traction and held off Microsoft’s onslaught if they did.