Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made

Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made
Publisher: O’Reilly
Price: Paperback from $24.95

‘Revolution in the Valley’ is a collection of anecdotes that describe what was happening at Apple during the development of the original Macintosh computer. Written by Andy Hertzfield, one of the key engineers on the Macintosh team, the stories are presented in chronological order from 1979 and 1985, but they aren’t tied together in a single narrative. Instead the book is more like an edited and neatly presented collection of memories and ephemera, with all sorts of interesting photos and screenshots accompanying the text. This gives the book a very humane and personal feel, and it’s hard to sense the depth of feeling Hertzfield and the other Apple engineers had for the company and the project that they were working on. In between the tension and the arguments there are moments of genius and incredible foresight, and though computer historians may well argue over who invented the graphical user interface and the truly user-friendly personal computer, there’s no question that the Macintosh was the product that brought them together into a package that was economical, powerful, and above all commercially successful.

Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made
Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made

The anecdotes themselves are largely drawn from the website that holds many bits of early Macintosh history. There’s actually an interesting chapter in the book that discusses how the ‘Revolution in the Valley’ came into being and how it differs from the website. Suffice it to say that there are some key differences, not least of which is that other authors beyond Hertzfield add anecdotes to the site, whereas ‘Revolution in the Valley’ consists entirely of Hertzfield’s own words (though many of the images come from other sources). The website is an evolving document too, unlike a book, which once printed, exists in its fixed form only (though this revised September 2011 edition has a couple of extra sections absent from the original December 2004 edition). Finally, there are reader comments on the website accompanying most of the stories, a dimension that’s absent from the book.

With all that said, ‘Revolution in the Valley’ is a terrific book. What makes it unusual is its insider’s view of the design process. Hertzfield is writing about what he saw within the Macintosh team, so in a sense, it’s what historians call a primary source. It isn’t a book put together by writers who weren’t around at the time, and while that may well mean it has a particular bias or point of view, Hertzfield is at least telling things that outsiders wouldn’t otherwise know about. And that’s fascinating, because the members of the Macintosh team really were pushing computer design in an entirely new direction.

After a preface by Steve Wozniak and a brief introduction, Hertzfield gets the book started with a four-page section on the characters involved. Wozniak and Steve Jobs are too well known to need much introduction, and Mac users with long memories will surely be familiar with the likes of Bill Atkinson and Jef Raskin. But other engineers on the Macintosh team are likely to be less well known, and it’s great to see their contributions laid out briefly before the stories start.

The main body of the book consists of five parts. The first largely covers Hertzfield’s early career at Apple. It’s significant that the first anecdote centres on another person, Burrell Smith, because Smith is, in some ways, one of heroes of the book. While not a household name among Apple users, Smith created some of the technology around that was, as Hertzfield says, the “brilliance that everything else coalesced around”. Steve Jobs makes his entrance in this section too, and unlike some of the more cuddly characters at Apple, Jobs was driven and temperamental. It’s a boisterous entrance, Jobs literally pulling the plug on Hertzfield’s work by unplugging Hertzfield’s computer and then walking him over to his new desk in the Macintosh team’s building.

Chapters two and three concentrate on the Macintosh engineering team. They’re working long hours and doing great things, but often find themselves frustrated and irritable. There’s as much here about personalities as programming, but long-time Mac users will be fascinated by the technical wizardry. Among other things, there are sections on how the start-up bong sound was created and how desktop icons became status symbols. Then there’s the nuts-and-bolts stuff about sound cards and window managers, the things that made the Mac so different to what had gone before. Nonetheless, for all their engineering brilliance, it’s Jobs’ fiery temper that’s the driving force that keeps the project moving forward. Now remembered for his insight and vision, at times Jobs wasn’t always viewed so positively. When Michael Moritz wrote about Apple for Time Magazine in 1984, his portrayal of Jobs was less than flattering, and that led to some harsh words on the Apple campus.

The fourth chapter looks at how the Macintosh was finally brought to the marketplace. In hindsight it’s easy to assume that its success was a foregone conclusion, but at the time, things looked very different to those working inside the Macintosh team. Hertzfield makes it clear that quite a bit needed to be done to get the Mac fit to ship, including fixing bugs and managing costs. Team-members were working ninety-hour weeks, and that meant losing out when it came to family and friendships. For all that though, the fifth chapter, covering what happened after the Macintosh was finished, is very much a bittersweet coda. In one section Hertzfield recounts his poor relationship with his line manager, and in doing so, reminds the reader that while the mavericks at Apple might seem to be the heroes, there was a need for by-the-book managers to ensure that projects are completed on schedule and within budget.

Hertzfield’s book is a touching, often painful, look at how groups of highly motivated people work together on a single project. In the brief afterword written for this second edition of ‘Revolution in the Valley’, Hertzfield describes Apple’s success with the the iPod and iPhone, and comments on the imagination and innovation that drive the company forward. He makes a point to place Steve Jobs at the centre of this success, and indeed, for many people Jobs is, or at least was, the face of Apple. But what this excellent book does is make it clear that Jobs wasn’t the only persona responsible for the Macintosh, and that many of the other people at Apple were at least as talented, though perhaps in different ways. With Steve’s recent passing, it’s even more important to be prepared to place his legacy in context, and that’s something that Hertzfield’s book does rather well. Highly recommended; MyMac rating: 10/10.

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