2014-01-24

Co.Labs

NeXT Cofounder George Crow Reflects On Engineering The First Macintosh

"Speaking as a user, I wish they would come out with something new. They've pretty much just been refining products since Steve died."



George Crow was part of the original Macintosh team, working alongside Steve Jobs at Apple, then later went on to cofound NeXT with Jobs before returning to his Apple stomping grounds in 1998. He retired barely eight years ago and recalls Macintosh's early days and the current state of computing hardware.

How long was your tenure at Apple?

It's complicated because I started at Apple in 1981 and when Steve Jobs was forced out in '85, I went to cofound NeXT Computer with him. I was at NeXT for about eight years and when NeXT made the decision to get out of the hardware business, I left the company and consulted for smaller companies. Then, I went back to Apple in 1998. Then I retired in 2006. Of course, I retired right before the iPhone, which was a huge success. When I first went back in '98, they were really still struggling, and then after the iMac things really took off. By the time I left, it was clear Apple was going to be a long-term success. It was about 12 years, but I like to include NeXT since it's completely interwoven with their products now. OS 10 has really repackaged NeXT's software. I usually say I was with them for 25 years with an asterisk.

Does it feel like it's been 30 years?

It definitely doesn't feel like it's been 30 years; it's just amazing how fast time flies. It's just incredible. Another incredible thing is if you look at the change in specifications from the original Mac to the Macs we have on our desktops today, the change is just unbelievable. In fact, I get confused because we started out in kilobytes, and then we went to megabytes, then gigabytes, and now we're up to terabytes. For that to occur within a short span of 30 years, I think that's unbelievable.

Thirty years ago and the time leading up to it, did you expect it to get as big as it did and transform the computer industry the way it did?

I knew we were doing something important with the Macintosh and expected it to be successful, but I never dreamed that Apple would someday be the world's most valuable company. The Mac certainly had an immediate impact on the software industry and really was the product that spawned Windows, but as recently as 17 years ago, the Mac was on the verge of becoming irrelevant. It's interesting that the product that saved Apple, the iMac, was really the original Mac repackaged and updated to late '90s technology.

What were some of the biggest obstacles you guys had to get through in creating the Macintosh?

The challenges across the board were extreme--we were early adopters of the Motorola processor. Cost was really important because we were trying to do the first graphic interface computer at a quarter of the price of the Lisa, so cost was extremely critical. From the hardware perspective, it really came down to simplification and getting by with absolute minimum cost, which was a big challenge. I think both the logic board and analog board were breakthroughs because they were both so simple for what the system was able to do. We had to figure out how to manufacture at an automated factory in Fremont, and those weren't very common so we had to do a lot of new engineering just to get the manufacturing process going. And then the software was the real breakthrough with the Macintosh, but the big problem was with scheduling and the fact that it really wasn't ready when we decided to introduce the product. (Laughs) Of course, software is never ready. But it just shows how hard the software team had to work to make it so that it could even boot for the introduction. So it was really just a mammoth effort.

Obviously things are much different today, but what is some advice you would give to programmers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who need to make their products cheaper?

Since everything is highly integrated now, it's much different and everyone has the same building blocks. The things they have to look at now is business arrangements where they can get things assembled less expensively. You have to look at whether you're going to outsource internationally or whether you're going to try to make the product here. The challenges we had--there was a lot of work we had to do on basic design to reduce cost. Whereas now, the emphasis is on programming and doing a clever job with your software because the hardware blocks are pretty much already designed. There's no longer a whole lot of competition for hardware but for the user level, people need to get clever with product design that's easy to assemble, have a good manufacturing process, and of course software, which differentiates their product.

Can you recall any specific spats or arguments you and Steve Jobs got into regarding components to include or not include in the final Macintosh product?

I tended to be a pretty independent guy and Steve and I got along quite well but to a fair extent we both had volatile personalities so we would butt heads every once in a while. But, probably the most critical was the disk drive. Apple was designing their own floppy disk called Twiggy. Not too long before we shipped the Macintosh, it became obvious that Twiggy wasn't going to work. Steve had an unfortunate meeting with Sony and wasn't in favor of using them for the disk drive. So Steve said anyone who got caught working with Sony would get fired (Laughs). With my supervisor's approval we decided we were going to push ahead with the Sony anyway and do it underground. Fortunately we were successful and really contributed to the success of the product. Certainly, If we didn't have a disk drive, we would have had to delay a year or two. Another one was resolution. They wanted to use a lower resolution--standard TV resolution--and I was able to convince Steve that we could go up to a higher resolution without increasing cost. But Steve was very open-minded with everything. He was very opinionated but was very good at discussing it all with us engineers. He truly was a visionary. The problem we had with the Mac and the reason Apple wasn't immediately successful was because it was ahead of its time. We were trying to do things that weren't possible yet.

Is it bittersweet for you to not have him here on the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh?

Oh, absolutely. I worked with Steve for so long, I always feel loyalty to Steve and just a tremendous amount of respect so it's very sad he's not here. In fact, I was sad because when he was ill, of course, nobody was willing to admit he was ill and I didn't feel comfortable approaching him since we didn't have a real relationship after I left Apple. I'm sorry looking back. But the problem was he and Apple were trying to present this positive perspective that he was doing fine and I didn't feel it was my place to call him up and ask him if he was OK.

Do you wish you had reached out to him?

Emotionally, I do. But, intellectually I know why I didn't do it. I was no longer involved with Apple and not really a part of Steve's life and as much as I cared for him, he had bigger problems than talking to me. It was very difficult for me to not do it.

If you could do it all over again 30 years ago, would you change anything about how you created the product, whether it be design-wise or workflow?

Not really. There were some component issues I wish I caught, so there were some things I would have been able to do to make it more reliable. But overall, the design, I thought, was just world-class. The only thing I would change is when Steve had approached me to go to Apple about six months before I actually went. I was at Hewlett-Packard at the time and was really enjoying my job so I turned him down and didn't go to Apple till he came back six months later and invited me again. But I wish I had taken the first offer because I would have been there that much earlier on the Macintosh project.

What is your take on the current state Apple's innovation?

I don't have a strong opinion, but speaking as a user, I wish they would come out with something new. They've pretty much just been refining products since Steve died. And, I don't know if that means they are having a hard time innovating or if they are doing something so different it's taking a while. But I am anxious to see a product that's radically different and not just thinner and lighter.

Do you still keep in touch with the other members of the original Macintosh team?

I keep in touch with some pretty regularly. And the whole team has been getting together every five years for a reunion so I've been going to those. But the last time I saw a lot of people was when the Steve Jobs movie with Ashton Kutcher was released. Rod Holt, who I worked for when I first started at Apple, is a part owner of a movie theatre in San Francisco and he invited all the team members up for a command showing before the movie was actually released. And a lot of the team was there to see the movie.

What did you think of the movie?

I thought it wasn't bad. I felt that the information there was reasonably accurate, but what I felt it was missing was the excitement of the actual project. Kutcher did a fine job of portraying Steve and looking like him and it did pick up the highlights of what was going on but it didn't pick up the excitement and thrill of the project. Working with Steve was really fun and it was a roller coaster but it was exciting. And I just feel the movie didn't pick up that excitement.

What are you up to now?

My wife and I are doing a lot of traveling and I've also been on some non-profit boards. I like classical music and opera so I was on the board of Opera San Jose for about 10 years and now I'm on the San Francisco Merola opera board. I'm also on our condo board. Occasionally, I do a little consulting but I'm really trying to keep an eye on myself and make sure I'm really staying retired.

Are you doing anything to celebrate the 30th anniversary?

Tomorrow (Jan. 25) we're having a big get-together at the Flint Center (for Performing Arts) to celebrate. So I'm going to that along with most of the members of the Macintosh team. I'm looking forward to it--it's going to be great.