Apple legend Bill Atkinson's new mission: Save the postcard

The creator of the Macintosh's QuickDraw graphics system, MacPaint, and HyperCard wants to save the postcard from extinction.

Dan Farber
9 min read
Bill Atkinson holds a sheet of PhotoCard postcard prints. Dan Farber

It's 5:00 a.m., and Bill Atkinson makes his way downstairs to begin his daily routine of, as he calls it, milking the cow. Not of the bovine species, of course. In this instance, it's PhotoCard, a free iOS app that makes postcards from digital photos and sends them via e-mail or in printed form via the US Postal Service.

The morning milking begins as Atkinson takes command of his fully-loaded Mac Pro in his home office, surrounded by books on programming languages and fine art prints of his photography. He scans his inbox for incoming orders, inspects the contents and creates PDF files to send to the printer. "This postcard project has taken over my life," Atkinson said.

The post office, of course, is a shadow of its former self, an obvious and early victim of the rise of e-mail. People now send more than 150 billion e-mails every day. That compares with the 160 billion items the sent via the postal system -- in all of 2012. And postal usage is falling steadily.

Since debuting in December 2009, PhotoCard has lured 50,000 active users, Atkinson said. The app has been downloaded a quarter of a million times since it first became available for iOS devices in December 2009. PhotoCard is an extremely long way from saving the traditional postcard, however, with only about 700 cards on average per week going through the USPS. Nor is Atkinson profiting from his PhotoCard venture.

"This is a labor of love. I want to see the postcard rescued. It's going to die, if we don't do something," he said. "I am now a digital postal worker -- I shepherd along these little packets of love. Nobody sends hate mail on a postcard. I want it to be beautiful, not like junk mail."

"The printed postcard is a lovely old tradition," he added. "Instead of getting rid of it, we can use mobile computing to reinvigorate it, and make it more personal and unique. I've give you a little page layout program that can give you a unique keepsake, like a Kodak moment. It's better than Hallmark card, it's a keepsake that will be treasured by grandma."

PhotoCards can include stamps and stickers and the iOS-only app has a library of nearly 300 fonts. PhotoCard screenshot

Atkinson isn't just any iOS app developer. He is a certified Apple legend, who joined the fledgling company when it had just a few dozen people. He was recruited to Apple by Jef Raskin (Apple employee No. 31, who came up with the idea for the Macintosh) via the University of Washington in Seattle, where he was studying neuroscience and writing programs to render 3D imagery of the pleasure centers in monkey brains. He had never seen an Apple computer before his visit to the company's headquarters on Bandley Drive in Cupertino, Calif., in 1978, but the 23-year-old Steve Jobs hooked him.

Steve Jobs and Bill Atkinson posing prior to the launch of the Macintosh. Norman Seeff

"I came down, and Steve Jobs spent the whole day with me. His mission was to recruit me, and he brought me around and introduced me. There were 30 people at Apple, and I met all of them," Atkinson said. "Toward the end of the day what Steve said that got me, he said, 'Up in Seattle where you read about some hot new technology in Electronic Design News or something, that technology is really two years old. You're at the end of a lag time, a distribution lag time. The time the public gets something is two years after it was invented. If you want to change the world, you have to be ahead of that lag time. Come to Apple and help to invent the future.' I was working at Apple two weeks later."

The Macintosh launched on January 24, 1984. It has 128K of RAM, an 8-MHz processor, a 3.5-inch floppy disk and a 9-inch black-and-white monitor. The cost was $2,500, and 50,000 Macs were sold in the first three months. Apple advertisement

The 27-year-old Atkinson began his career at Apple as a fixer, cleaning up Apple II programs written by others. He quickly became primary software developer for the Apple II Pascal language and the Lisa, a workstation computer aimed at business users. While working on the Lisa, he created the revolutionary QuickDraw bit-mapped graphics and user interface elements, such as drop-down menus and tool palettes, which became the foundation for Macintosh user interface.

He formally joined the Mac team in early 1983, creating the MacPaint application that showed off the graphical capabilities of the machine. It was shipped free with the Mac from its launch on January 24, 1984, until it was discontinued in 1998.

MacPaint Apple

In 1985, Atkinson turned his attention to creating what he described as a "software erector set that lets non-programmers put together interactive information." It became a HyperCard and was released in 1987, included for free with every new Macintosh for two years. While HyperCard looked less revolutionary when the World Wide Web of networked, hyperlinked pages came along in the early 1990s, it contained many of the concepts that are now common web browsers, mobile apps, authoring tools, and visual programming languages.

"Bill Atkinson is undoubtedly one of the greatest programmers of the 1980s," said Andy Hertzfeld, another Apple software wizard who was instrumental in the creation of the Mac. "Bill always wrote code with exceptional clarity and tender loving care. Fortunately, we all appreciate Bill's beautiful source code since the source for QuickDraw and MacPaint is available for download at the Computer History Museum Web site."

HyperCard was free with every Macintosh sold for two years after its April 1987 release. Apple

In 1990, Atkinson ended his career at Apple, joining several others from the original Macintosh team, including Hertzfeld, to form a startup, General Magic. He was intrigued about the possibility of creating a consumer device and what would be a precursor to PhotoCard.

"You'd take a picture, you'd flip it over, and you write a little something on the back, you'd send it off into the ether. A TeleCard, an electronic postcard, would be sent through the air and arrive in my daughter's pocket. It wouldn't ring, it wouldn't bling. It was just the next time she looks, she'd say, 'Oh, I got a telecard from Dad,'" Atkinson said. "That was the vision. So that's what I left Apple to do, because they weren't interested in doing something like that. They did computers. They didn't do consumer electronics. This is long before the iPod."

General Magic's Magic Cap user interface for personal communicators. computerhistory.org

The company developed a personal communicator operating system, called Magic Cap, and Telescript, a software-agent technology that could traverse the Internet on behalf of the user to perform tasks, such as purchasing a theater ticket.

General Magic went public in February 1995, raising $82 million on top of $77 million in private funding from potential hardware partners including Apple, AT&T, Motorola, and Sony. Atkinson left General Magic at the end of 1995, and after a few unsuccessful pivots the company was liquidated in 2002.

"I left because it was pretty clear to me that we had failed to make the personal communicator happen," Atkinson said. "The cost of the devices was way too high, and not subsidized by a service; the infrastructure for sending TeleCards was not there, as digital cellular was not deployed; and the meteoric rise of the Internet in 1993 had pulled many of our best partners back to work on the web instead."

Now, as the self-styled "shepherd of little packets of love" with roots in HyperCard and TeleCards, Atkinson is the sole PhotoCard tech support staff, responding to over 60 e-mails a day and processing about 100 postcards for printing, some of which require his personal touch to fix addresses or for color correction and adjusting underexposed images in PhotoShop.

Atkinson has been working on PhotoCard for more than five years. It's not the only postcard generator app in the App Store, or the most popular, but it exhibits all the elegance and polish that his former boss Steve Jobs and he demanded from Apple products.

"I'm a perfectionist in that I want to make something really beautiful," he said.

PhotoCard has tools for editing photos and creating custom graphics and hand-written signatures and includes a library of more the 280 fonts, 220 stamps, and 450 stickers. The 8.25x5.5-inch postal cards are printed on a HP Indigo digital press and laminated, and cost $1.50 each, including first class postage, and $2.25 to other countries.

"Because they are laminated, they will be just as beautiful 50 years from now. It's important that they become historical artifacts," he said.

Atkinson's perfectionism extended to dealing with USPS. He figured out how to avoid the bruising stamp canceling machines by assigning a unique serial number to each postcard that doesn't require canceling. The USPS had concerns that custom images placed in the stamp area of PhotoCards might be offensive, so Atkinson became a deputy postal inspector with authority to approve or reject custom stamps.

PhotoCard also became a conduit to share his passion for nature photography, which captivated him as a youngster.

"When I was 10, my mom gave me a subscription to 'Arizona Highways' magazine. I saw these glowing aspen pictures done by Josef Muench, who is David Muench's father and Marc Muench's grandfather [a family of landscape and nature photographers]," he said. "I cut these pictures out, and I put them on my bedroom wall. I noticed I got some nourishment out of them. I told myself, 'When I grow up, I want to make pictures that can inspire and nourish people.' Immediately, when I was 10, I started photographing nature. I built a darkroom. My first really good darkroom, not just down in the cellar, was when I was 14."

The app comes with 220 of his nature photographs free for use. Since 1999, Atkinson has focused his camera on rocks with shiny polished surfaces millions of years old.

Morrisonite, a varicolored jasper found in the cliffs of the Owyhee River Canyon in Oregon. Atkinson photographs the rocks with a large format scanning digital camera using custom high-intensity lights and prints them on a Epson Stylus Pro 11880 printer. Bill Atkinson

"Instead of making a statement, rocks ask a question," he said. "They call up your own history and ask what do you see in this thing."

In the process of printing his own photographs and setting up PhotoCard, Atkinson mastered another art, becoming a world-class expert in color management and digital printing.

"I'm not interested in pleasing color, I'm interested in exact color," he said. He has trained many of the top-flight nature photographers and printing houses in his innovative color management and printing techniques.

"Bill's prints are impeccable. His mineral close ups are the best that have ever been done. They have incredible colors and typical printing methods could not reproduce those colors," said Charles Cramer, a fellow landscape photographer and colleague of Atkinson's.

Atkinson builds his own frames and developed a technique for stretching his canvases to eliminate sagging and other problems. Dan Farber

In 2004 Atkinson published a fine print book, "Within the Stone," with 72 of his polished rock images. He made a deal with his printer in Tokyo to color manage its entire workflow in exchange for printing the book for free. Atkinson's color profiling ended up saving the printer millions of dollars. "He created a book that is unrivaled in the printing industry with its color gamut, using the same methods he used to color manage an ink jet printer," Cramer said.

Atkinson isn't only interested in solving complicated software problems. He prints, frames, stretches, and varnishes his prints using techniques and tools he invented. The prints sell for between $400 and $2,600.

Bill Atkinson collection of awards and vanity license plates from his days at Apple and General Magic. Dan Farber

Atkinson, who is now 62, calls PhotoCard his "magnum opus."

"It's hard to follow the Mac. There I did something of earthshaking importance," he said. "I don't have to be solving big problems like clean water or starvation. I can be solving a problem to delight and empower people. I make tools to empower people. If people are excited and having fun making cards, I am doing something right. If they are confused and feeling stupid, then it's not right."

While PhotoCard doesn't come anywhere close to reaching the audience that MacPaint or Hypercard did, Atkinson believes he is doing something that is worthwhile and challenging.

"PhotoCard has 20 times as much code as sum of QuickDraw, MacPaint, and HyperCard," he said. "It is more elaborate and complicated, with all the client and server stuff. It took a lot more of me to do this than other projects, requiring an almost Mother Teresa dedication to do it.

"Every artist has a greatest work they will be known by and is their best work. Beethoven's 9th is hard to beat. This is my best work, much better than QuickDraw, MacPaint and HyperCard all rolled together."