Macworld • January 1987

 

The Making of the Macintosh II

by Steven Levy

 

A backstage look at the creation of the new machine and the unsung heroes who designed it

 

 

Before embarking on a column about the designers of the Macintosh II, I first had to wrestle with an ominous question. Was this a machine with sufficient character to justify a curiosity about its originators? I must confess that my first glimpse of the machine was disorienting and slightly depressing. Its massive footprint made me marvel that none of its numerous code names was “Bigfoot.” To one accustomed to the compact, feisty Macintosh box, the “open Mac” seemed something cooked up by the geometry police from IBM-land.

 

Thankfully, that disquieting first impression soon dissipated. The turning point came when I noticed something in the upper-left corner of the super-crisp black-and-white display. The little Apple icon that pulls down the desk accessories faithfully replicates the blazing colors—colors!—of Apple Computer's logo. The purity and resolution of the color is something I've never seen before in a display, and it's both a technical tour de force and a promise of the creative power within the machine.

 

The message was clear: with the Mac II, We're Not in Kansas Anymore. Not being in Kansas anymore is what the Macintosh is all about. With this reassurance, I could proceed with a clear conscience to relate the inside story of the Macintosh II.

 

Let us go back to what some people refer to as the Dark Days of Macintosh. It is early 1985, and after a successful launch, the Mac's vital signs are not good. The business market in particular has decided that the limitations of the Mac—particularly its closed architecture, limited storage, and sluggish performance—keep the machine in the realm of toyland, merely aspiring to be a capitalist tool. The people at Apple were considering various responses to this perception. Most notable was a computer being designed around the powerful Motorola 68020 microprocessor, a project known in-house as “Big Mac.” Another contender was a powerful personal computer code-named “Jonathan.”

 

 

 

The Dhuey Decimated System

 

The odds seemed slim that the ultimate solution would begin with a diminutive, bearded engineer in his twenties named Mike Dhuey. Though respected for his design skills, Dhuey had been associated with a number of products that had never reached the marketplace. Things like the Apple Phone. Color Lisa. The Gray Scale Mac. The Apple File Server.

 

Students of Apple history, though, will note Dhuey’s pedigree; he is the same kind of grass-roots hacker as his predecessors—Woz, Burrell Smith, Andy Hertzfeld. Initially charmed by computers as a 13-year old in Wisconsin, Dhuey was blown away by the Apple II as a teenager and later was a founder of the Madison Apple user group. His first trip to Silicon Valley was to interview for a job at Hewlett-Packard, but he spent part of the visit dropping in on Apple and setting up an interview there. Guess where he wound up.

 

By early 1985, Dhuey was sitting at Apple with his soon-to-be-killed File Server. Not one to brood, he was trying to figure out his next project. “I like more control of my destiny, so I like to propose things,” he explains. “I wanted to design Apple’s next computer.” He realized that the equipment he had most recently created—a hardware server based on the same 68000 chip as the Mac (not to be confused with the AppleShare software released by Apple last January) might easily be converted to a computer that could be the next iteration of the Macintosh, regardless of Big Mac. Unlike the original, this would be an open architecture machine that the user could modify. Yet it would maintain software compatibility. As Dhuey put it in a memo, “The Macintosh II is designed to combine the Macintosh software base with the expandability of an Apple IIe.” A suggested code name was “Little Big Mac.”

 

About the same time, a hardware engineer by the name of Brian Berkeley, who had worked on the analog portion of the original Mac (stuff like video display and power supply), was drafting his own memo. The subject was “Future Product Strategy: Survival.” Berkeley, an athletic, mustachioed 30-year-old, thought that the gap between the Mac 512K and the projected Big Mac was “as wide as the Grand Canyon.” Something should fill that chasm, he argued: a high-volume computer with a 12-inch display (bigger than the original Mac’s 9-inch screen, smaller than the Big Mac’s 17-inch monitor) and more power. This would be “MiddleMac.”

 

Obviously these guys were destined to get together. However, this took some urging, because their only previous contact had been when Berkeley, while testing some equipment near Dhuey’s cubicle, accidentally sent out radio interference that wiped a morning’s work from Dhuey’s computer. But once the two engineers recognized the similarity of their goals, they realized that collaboration was inevitable. And as it turned out, they share a passion for high-quality consumer electronics.

 

Both of them, for instance, own Sony projection televisions.

 

 

 

Making Milwaukee Famous

Apple allows its engineers relative freedom, but it was not long before some manager asked about this “underground thing” that Dhuey and Berkeley were supposedly working on. Once explained, the project got a tacit go-ahead. This was around the time that Jean-Louis Gassée arrived at Apple to head the Macintosh division; eager to produce a successor to the Macintosh, Gassée became an early supporter of what was by then called “Milwaukee,” inspired by a picture of the city’s skyline sent to Dhuey by his mother. But there was still some light treading to do. With Steve Jobs still at Apple, pockets of the original Macintosh religion were formidable. A primary commandment of that faith was Thou Shalt Not Open the Box. So in his memos, Dhuey avoided the troublesome word “slots.”

 

However, the Macintosh’s troubles finally caused even Jobs to relax the dogma. One day Jobs and Apple’s chief scientist, Alan Kay, dropped by Dhuey's cubicle. “Do you think it should have slots?” Jobs asked the designer. “Yes,” replied Dhuey. Jobs turned to Kay and asked what he thought. Kay agreed.

 

“All right,” said Jobs and from then on Dhuey could use the S word without fear.

 

In fact, a later codename for the machine was “Reno,” in honor of the slots. Other code names included “Uzi,” which was discarded as too militaristic; “Beck’s,” named after Brian Berkeley’s brew of choice; and “Paris,” in honor of Gasée. Jean-Louis, incidentally, was the person who decided that the machine should have six slots.

 

For the next several months, design proceeded while various Apple people tried to decide what features the computer should have. According to Ron Hochsprung, a systems engineer who joined the project early, “There’s a big difference between an Apple II and a Cray supercomputer. You have to choose where in the middle you’re going to be.”

 

Meanwhile, Brian Berkeley’s main emphasis was on developing the monitor’s breakthrough design, which provides rich color in the same package with stunning monochrome resolution. “I knew it would take no less than a complete, major, revolutionary step in display technology,” he says. Considering that the designers are videophiles, it was no surprise that Sony was chosen to manufacture the monitors. But few would guess that the monitor plans were so integrated into the machine design that, until fairly late in the process, the designers placed the computer’s power supply in the monitor. When they finally discarded that idea, the already bulky main component of the machine—which contains the main circuitry, the microprocessor, the slots, and room for two floppy drives and a hard disk—had to be enlarged by four more inches.

 

Then came the Bus Wars. There were several hot contenders. For a variety of technical reasons, Ron Hochsprung spearheaded a movement to go with an architecture called NuBus, which provides a way of mixing and matching cards in the slots that is consistent with the Macintosh’s renowned ease-of-use.

 

The biggest step, though, came in the autumn of 1985, when it became clear that the computer was more than a year from completion. By that time, the marketplace would be demanding considerably more power from its computers, and the IBM world would be ready with units built around the mighty 80386 microprocessor. The logical step was to switch from the merely powerful 68000 chip to the lusty 32-bit 68020 microprocessor. But this additional power forced Apple to reposition the new machine in its plans.

 

In any case, a decision was imperative, and Jean-Louis Gassée was key in making that decision. His choice was Little Big Mac. Gassée says that one factor was the machine’s projected compatibility with the current Macintosh software base. Ultimately, he says, “It was a question of people. I felt that Mike Dhuey was capable of doing it.” Within a matter of weeks, Apple back-burnered Big Mac (which was moot once its designer joined Steve Jobs to form a new company called NeXT) and postponed (and later killed) Jonathan.

 

The successor to the Macintosh was chosen. Apple placed its chips on the Macintosh II.

 

 

 

Up from the Skunkworks

By then things were very busy on the Mac II project. Whereas the hardware engineers working on the machine in the summer of 1985 could describe the project as an obscure “background skunkworks,” by the end of the year dozens of people were involved. Apple assigned John Medica to be the “champion,” the one who pulls together all the teams and assumes responsibility for getting the product out the door. It was a role that Medica had filled admirably with the Apple IIe and the Apple IIGS.

 

Unlike the original Macintosh project, which carried on in relative isolation until fairly late in the process, the Macintosh II drew wide participation from within Apple. “It was the largest product we’ve ever done at Apple Computer,” says Gassée. For instance, the new sound capabilities were provided in part by engineers from research and development, and a crew of software wizards came on to handle the tricky task of empowering the machine and maintaining compatibility with the Macintosh software base. A fellow named David Fung, who worked on the beefed-up ROM chips, was nicknamed “Fungfeld” as a tribute to Andy Hertzfeld, the man behind the original Mac ROM. A 23-year-old named Ernie Beernink brilliantly recrafted the QuickDraw graphics routines to accommodate color.

 

T-shirts were printed bearing the various code names. Parties held. Deadlines set, sometimes met. Optimists believed that the machine could be finished by November 1986. Realists hoped for a January 1987 completion. No one was really shocked when the announcement date was pushed back to March. By that point, everyone agreed that the Macintosh II was, in computer parlance, a big win. And Mike Dhuey would finally see one of his products shipped.

 

 

 

A Machine for the Rest of Them

A few weeks before the announcement date, Dhuey and Berkeley have a meal at a falafel joint near Apple headquarters in Cupertino. Since I’m going along for lunch, they leave Dhuey’s Porsche behind, driving instead in Berkeley’s souped-up Mercedes. While wolfing down Bulgarian Beef pitas, they give a designer’s-eye view of the philosophical difference between the original Macintosh and the Macintosh II. Although he emphasizes that the original Mac was great, Dhuey thinks that its proscriptive attitude—the religion that decreed no cursor keys and a closed box—was overly indulgent. “Steve Jobs thought that he was right and didn’t care what the market wanted. It’s like he thought everyone wanted to buy a size nine shoe.”

 

“The Mac II is specifically a market-driven machine, rather than what we wanted for ourselves,” continues Dhuey.

 

“My job as an engineer is to take all the market needs and make the best computer. It’s sort of like musicians—if they make music only to satisfy their own needs, they might lose their audience. I’m proud to bring together a machine that can do the Mac software base and also be so powerful in doing other things.”

 

Berkeley concurs. While the original Mac crew said that they built a machine for themselves, he says, “I built this for everybody else. And myself, too.”

 

So that’s how it happened—a proposed product that kept the faith with its predecessor, survived internal competition, and became the state-of-the-art Apple computer. True, the story lacks the romance of the original Mac team, which flew the pirate flag and hijacked the personal computer world into believing in a new vision. Yet it is encouraging that Apple has acted on its boast that, to stay alive, it would raise the technological ante of the personal computer poker game. And it is downright inspiring that Apple has once again relied on unheralded young engineers to develop this project. Like the Macintosh II itself, the story is less conventional, and more impressive, than it seems at first glance.