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The Network Not Taken

Raskin's Mac could have spawned the Internet

2 min read

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh, the first widely used personal computer with a graphical user interface. Less well known is that the Mac was designed from the start as much for communicating as computing. In fact, in 1979, four years before the adoption of the Internet protocol, Jef Raskin, the man who designed the Macintosh, anticipated almost all of the contemporary uses of the Internet. He even proposed that Apple build an "Internet" of its own. However, Apple failed to capitalize on his vision and instead chose to implement a simpler network protocol suitable for connecting only a few dozen office computers and printers.

IEEE Spectrum asked Raskin about the path not taken.

Photo: Martin Klimek

Jef Raskin, at home, relaxes with one of Apple's latest computers. Twenty-five years ago, he designed its predecessor, the Macintosh.

What did you say when management asked what people would do with this network you wanted for the Macintosh?

In an internal memo in 1979, among the things I listed were: time of day; news; stock market; soap opera condensations; TV program guide; message forwarding and distribution; fax transmission (sending pictures); weather; phone directory; local, area, or national business directory; software distribution channel; access to literature citations; a better way to answer user questions than a phone-based hotline; Library of Congress card catalog; legal precedents; educational courses; educational testing; voting; computer program exchange; advertising; computer dating; tax information; banking; access to large data storage for individual needs; access to computer power; insurance quotes; credit information; market research; purchasing information; plane schedules; and dictionary and encyclopedia searches.

It's like reading the links on the Yahoo home page.

Sometimes I feel like a prophet when I reread that. But I wasn't so smart; I missed the real major uses of the Internet--gambling and pornography.

What else did you miss?

Well, my meek little "advertising" has metastasized into virulent spam. I also didn't see network ills such as viruses and Trojan horses.

The AppleTalk protocol, which the first Macs shipped with, was a far cry from the Internet.

I tried to convince Apple that we should create such a network and proposed that it start with, or be built on the model of, the ARPANET [forerunner of today's Internet]. But I failed to convince management that the main use of personal computers would be communications. Of course, [an Apple network] could have been a big public failure that delayed the Internet by years. Or Apple could have become the biggest thing on the planet.

Raskin is currently CEO of Humane Interfaces LLP. His long-term project to design more usable and efficient computer interfaces is called the Humane Environment. See https://humane.sourceforge.net.

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