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May 02, 2005

Mary Meets Steve Jobs – Why the Mac?

At the risk of having my blog banned at Apple, I have a Steve Jobs story to tell.  Steve doesn’t come into the story until the last episode, however; this post is about how I became a Mac developer which, of course, led up to the less-than-fateful meeting.

Mary and I ran a software development company in Vermont called Solutions, Inc.  The major publisher of our software at the time was Dow Jones News Retrieval.  The software we did for them ran on Tandy TRS-80s Models II and III, Apple IIs and IIIs, and IBM PCs and accessed the databases on News Retrieval. 

It is November of 1983.  Lisa has flopped and Apple is now working on the Macintosh in which I have little interest.  I think Lisa proved once and for all that taking a rodent in your hand is not something users want to do and certainly not a very good marketing concept.

Bill Dunn, the brilliant progenitor of most things electronic at Dow Jones and the man to whom News Retrieval reported, tells me in his usual forceful way why I am wrong.  “All of the people who are willing to read news in a fucking green monofont on a fucking black screen are already doing that,” he said.

“Huh?” I ask.

“Look at this,” he says, grabbing a convenient fresh copy of the Wall Street Journal and waving the front page in my face.  “Without fonts this would be a fucking grey blur.  Fonts are the way editors arrange information for readers.  We’ve been developing the fonts in the Journal for 100 years and still keep refining them.

Now Steve Jobs understands that.” he continues.  “The Mac has fonts.  It has a white screen with black type.  That’s how people read.  No fucking monofont.”

“Oh,” I say.  I vaguely remember from my days writing headlines for my Junior High School paper that fonts come in different sizes.

“So here’s the problem,” Bill says.  “I promised Steve Jobs that we (meaning Dow Jones Software) would develop something for the Macintosh.  We’ve been working on it internally but we’re not getting there.  We get a new ROM for our prototype very two weeks and it breaks everything we’ve written so far.”

“Yeah,” I say, “serves you right for doing internal development.”

“Well I don’t see you bringing us any Mac products,” says Bill.  “You think you can do any better?”

“Of course,” I say.  Neither software developers nor CEOs are known for modesty and I was both at tiny Solutions, Inc.  “But what’s in it for us?” the CEO in me forces me to ask.  The programmer had already bought into the challenge.

“Exclusive spot for your new product in our booth at SoftCon in New Orleans next February,” says Bill.

“February?  You need a product by February?”

“Either you can do it or you can’t,” says Bill.

“What about space for the rest of our products?  The ones we already wrote that haven’t paid back their advances yet?  What about promotion?”  But I’m hooked and Bill knows it.

My tiny rental car is so stuffed that I have only tunnel vision. It’s full of boxes containing the prototype Mac, the Lisa with its five meg external harddrive that holds the development system for Macintosh, reams of xeroxed documentation, and the last two versions of the ROM which haven’t been installed yet.  I decide it’s safer to drive back to Northern Vermont, even with a little sleet, than to try to check all this stuff into an airline at Newark.  By the time I get home at 3AM, I’m exhausted.

But I take the Mac out of the box and plug it in on the kitchen counter.  The smiley face appears.  I mouse around clumsily for a few minutes and go to bed.

When I wake up in the morning my eight and five year old daughters, Kelly and Katy, are happily drawing with MacPaint!  Now I AM impressed.

Next episode:  developing “the product”.

Then Mary actually meets Steve.

There is more about the early Macintosh days in my post about Glue.

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