Jef Raskin

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Jef Raskin outdoors, photographed by his son, Aza

Jef Raskin (March 9, 1943February 26, 2005) was an American human-computer interface expert best-known for starting the Macintosh project for Apple Computer in the late 1970s.


Raskin was born in New York City. He received degrees in mathematics (B.S. 1964) and philosophy (B.A. 1965) at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He earned a master's degree in computer science at Pennsylvania State University in 1967. His first computer program, a music program, was part of his master's thesis.

Raskin later enrolled in a graduate music program at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), but stopped to teach art, photography and computer science there, working as an assistant professor from 1970 until 1974. He occasionally wrote for computer publications, such as Dr. Dobb's.

Raskin first met Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak following the debut of their Apple II personal computer at the First West Coast Computer Faire. Steve Jobs hired his firm, Bannister and Crun, to write the Apple II BASIC Programming Manual. In January 1978 Raskin joined Apple as manager of Publications, the company's 31st employee. For some time he continued as director of Publications and New Product Review, and also worked on packaging and other issues.

From his responsibility for documentation and testing, Raskin had great influence on early engineering projects. Because the Apple II only displayed uppercase characters on a 40-column screen, his department used Intel-based machines running CP/M to write documentation; this spurred the development of an 80-column display card for the Apple II. His experiences testing Applesoft BASIC inspired him to design a competing product, called Notzo BASIC, which was never implemented. When Steve Wozniak developed the first disk drives for the Apple II, Raskin went back to his contacts at UCSD and encouraged them to port the UCSD P-System operating system to it, which Apple later licensed and shipped as Apple Pascal. Through this time he continually wrote memos about how the personal computer could become a true consumer appliance (including an essay titled "Computers by the Millions") and how even the Apple II was too complex for nontechnical people. While the Apple III was under development, Raskin was lobbying for Apple to create a radically different kind of computer that was designed from the start to be easy to use.

He later hired his former student Bill Atkinson from UCSD to work at Apple, and began the Macintosh project in 1979. The machine he envisioned was much different than the Macintosh that was eventually released, and had much more in common with PDA's than modern GUI-based machines. The machine was similar in power to the Apple II and included a small 9-inch black-and-white character display built into a small case with a floppy disk. A number of basic applications were built into the machine, selectable by pressing function keys. The machine also included logic that would understand user intentions and switch programs on the fly. For instance, if the user simply started typing it would switch into editor mode, and if they typed numbers it would switch to calculator mode. In many cases these switches would be largely invisible to the user.

In 1981 Steve Jobs, who had supported the Macintosh project but was more deeply involved in shaping the direction for the Apple Lisa, was asked to stop interfering in the Lisa project. He directed his attention to Raskin's Macintosh project, intending to marry the Xerox PARC-inspired GUI-based Lisa design to Raskin's appliance computing, "computers-by-the-millions" concept. Raskin takes credit for introducing Jobs and other Apple employees to the PARC concepts, but it appears this is not really the case. Raskin also claims to have had continued direct input into the eventual Mac design, including the decision to use a one-button mouse as part of the Apple interface, a departure from the Xerox PARC standard of a three-button mouse. Larry Tesler, among others, debates this claim. Raskin later stated that were he to redesign the mouse it would have three clearly labelled buttons - two buttons on top marked "Select" and "Activate," and a "Grab" button on the side that could be used by squeezing the mouse.

Raskin left Apple in 1982 and formed Information Appliance, through which he implemented his original concepts for the Macintosh. The first product was a firmware card for the Apple II, called the SWYFT card, which was a keyboard-driven integrated application suite. Information Appliance later shipped the Swyft as a stand-alone laptop computer. Raskin licensed this design to Canon, who shipped a similar product as the Canon Cat. Released in 1987, the unit had an innovative interface which attracted much interest but it did not become a commercial success. Raskin claimed that its failure was due in some part to Steve Jobs, who successfully pitched Canon on the NeXT Computer at about the same time.

Missing image
A small tribute to Raskin drawn by J.D. Frazer aka "Illiad." that he put in his webcomic, User Friendly.

Raskin also authored a text, The Humane Interface, in which he developed his ideas about human-computer interfaces.

At the start of the new millennium, Raskin undertook the building of a new computer interface based on his 30 years of work and research, called The Humane Environment, THE. On January 1, 2005, he renamed it Archy. It is a system incarnating his concepts of the humane interface, by using open source elements within his rendition of a ZUI or Zooming User Interface.

While best-known as a computer scientist, Raskin also had other interests. He conducted the San Francisco Chamber Opera Society and played three instruments. His artwork was displayed at New York's Museum of Modern Art. He received a patent for airplane wing construction. He was said to be an accomplished archer, target shooter and an occasional race car driver.

Jef Raskin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2004 and died in Pacifica, California on February 26, 2005, at age 61.

See also

External links


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