Software wizards of the 128K Macintosh

Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, Steve Capps, and Larry Kenyon share their thoughts about developing the core software for the original Macintosh, which is about to mark its 30th anniversary.

Dan Farber
8 min read
Macintosh team members: Row 1 (top): Rony Sebok, Susan Kare; Row 2: Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, Owen Densmore; Row 3: Jerome Coonen, Bruce Horn, Steve Capps, Larry Kenyon; Row 4: Donn Denman, Tracy Kenyon, Patti Kenyon Norman Seeff
This article is part of a CNET special report on the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh, looking at the beginnings of Apple's landmark machine and its impact over the last three decades.

The Macintosh hardware was brought to life by several teams working in concert on everything from the logic board, disk drive and power supply to the mouse, plastic casing and factory production line. Similarly, a small team of young and talented software engineers were writing the code that would bring the Macintosh to life.

At the core of the Macintosh software were the QuickDraw graphics routines, which performed the operations that painted the screen with graphics and user interface elements. Bill Atkinson wrote the code for Apple's Lisa workstation computer, and then it was ported the Macintosh.

Bill Atkinson would code from his home office and take Polaroid photos to share his progress with the team. Folklore.org/Bill Atkinson

Atkinson began his career at Apple cleaning up Apple II programs written by others. He was the primary developer for the Apple II Pascal language and then applied his talents to the Lisa, creating QuickDraw (which was formerly called LisaGraf) and implementing user interface elements, such as drop-down menus and tool palettes. He joined the Macintosh team in early 1983, writing MacPaint, which showed off the bit-mapped graphical capabilities of the machine. 

"You could summarize everything I did at Apple was making tools to empower creative people. QuickDraw empowered all these other programmers to now be able to sling stuff on the screen. The Window Manager, Event Manager, and Menu Manager. Those are things that I worked on that were empowering other people," he said.

Bud Tribble was friends with Atkinson and Jef Raskin, who conceived the Macintosh project, and joined the team as its first software developer. He started in September of 1980, when the Macintosh team consisted of three people other people -- Raskin and his long-time colleague Brian Howard and hardware engineer Burrell Smith. Tribble wrote some graphics code for the Motorola 6809 processor that was being used for the Macintosh project, but later convinced Macintosh hardware wizard Burrell Smith to switch to the more powerful 68000.

At that point Steve Jobs had become involved in the Macintosh project and began exerting his substantial influence on how the low-cost, user-friendly machine would evolve. He brought in Andy Hertzfeld from the Apple II team to work on the project in February 1981. "Writing a big chunk of the system software for the original Macintosh was the high point of my career, if not my entire life," Hertzfeld said.

"I was involved in getting the system software going at the beginning of the project, creating a development system," he added. "I designed and coded the initial I/O system and most of the original device drivers. Later, I wrote the User Interface Toolbox, which was the foundation of the user interface, based on the work that Bill Atkinson did for Lisa. I also wrote most of the original desk accessories like the Scrapbook and Control Panel."

The Macintosh desk accessories Folklore.org

Hertzfeld's biggest challenge was holding the Macintosh project together after Tribble left Apple to return to medical school in Seattle in December 1981. "I had to work long hours to manage the software team for a few months in addition to all the technical work I was doing," he said.

Steve Capps, who joined the software team at the beginning of 1983, gives credit to Hertzfeld for keeping the software team focused as the pressure was mounting. "Andy was the emcee, keeping everything going. He was the impresario that pulled it off, coordinating the software engineers activities. The Finder [the graphical Macintosh file manager] would not have gotten out without him," he said.

Capps became known as the Macintosh software team designated hitter. He arrived at Apple in September 1981 from Xerox PARC to work on printing for the Lisa computer. He also wrote games in his spare time, which caught the attention of Jobs, who recruited him join the Mac team in January 1983.

Steve Jobs (far right) joins members of the Macintosh software team for a picture taken by famed photographer Norman Seeff. From left: Randy Wigginton, Jerome Coonen, Rony Sebok, Donn Denman, Andy Hertzfeld, Bruce Horn, Bill Atkinson, Susan Kare, Owen Densmore, Steve Capps, Larry Kenyon, Patti Kenyon, Tracy Kenyon, Steve Jobs. Norman Seeff

"I was there because everyone else was burned out. I did everything that wasn't getting done," he said. Capps wrote a disk utility to transfer data from the Lisa to the Mac and a text editing package that fit in the Mac's tiny ROM, the chip with the core instructions to run the machine.

He also worked with Bruce Horn, the main programmer for the Finder, as the final software deadline approached and as friction among the team was increasing with the public relations campaign in high gear. Jobs had selected only a few on the team to be Macintosh heroes for the press tour, and some of those who weren't chosen felt dissed.

Steve Capps wrote Alice, an animated twist on a chess game for the Lisa, and then ported it to the Macintosh. Jobs agreed to publish the game for the Macintosh, renaming it Through the Looking Glass and packaging it like an ancient book. Steve Capps

"Bruce would see people from Rolling Stone magazine come in and talk to Andy Hertzfeld in next cube. He would get distracted and was becoming less effective. Bruce had a chip on his shoulder, and thought he didn't get enough credit for his work on the Mac. Given he started working at Xerox PARC when he was 13, it's understandable," Capps said. "We found room in building where the mail came in and finished the Finder, well isolated from all the shenanigans. It was a crazy time. If you knew what you knew now, you wouldn't have done it." The two managed to finish the Finder, consisting of just 46K bytes of code, in time for launch.

Larry Kenyon, who previously had worked three years at Amdahl doing hardware logic design, sat next to Andy Hertzfeld when he joined the Apple II team in 1980. He eventually followed Hertzfeld to the Macintosh team in early 1982 and worked on the file system, memory manager, drivers and whatever else needed attention.

"Andy, who was our team architect at that point, would offload things to me. He did the original Apple II disk driver for Mac. He taught me how that worked, and then I did the Twiggy [5.25-inch floppy drive] and Sony [3.5-inch floppy drive] drivers, and a disk utility program for hardware guys to help them develop the hardware. I also worked with Bruce Horn to get the Resource Manager supported in the File Manager. Kenyon's wife, Patti, was the software librarian for the Macintosh team and the couple had a daughter in the weeks before the Macintosh launched.

Kenyon, along with software manager Jerome Coonen, was among those on the original Macintosh team who continued to work at Apple after the Macintosh failed to bury the IBM PC and the corporate politics that led to Jobs' departure in September 1985.

"It was chaotic after Jobs left," Kenyon said."There was not a guarantee of success at that point or confidence that Apple would continue to invest in Mac. With Jobs, you always knew what needed to be done and what you shouldn't do, although there were some things we always knew needed to be done that he didn't want to do, such as using the Sony drive rather than building one ourselves. Not having that leadership made it difficult with the typical company politics. Steve was a challenging individual in some ways, but he brought focus."

Following the exodus, Kenyon focused on providing continuity and building a new team, and importantly improving the capabilities of the original Macintosh. "It was heads down to clean up performance issues, improve the boot time, interface with hard drives and get LocalTalk networking designed and implemented," he said. "The LaserWriter and desktop publishing finally gave us a beachhead for the Mac to where it would be successful."

Hertzfeld summed up the experience of creating the Macintosh for the team: "I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time to play a significant role in the development of a world changing product, redefining personal computing and delivering it to the rest of us. It was exciting to watch it take root and transform businesses and lives. And of course the best part of participating in designing the Mac was getting a great computer to use for the last 30 years.

After leaving Apple following the introduction of the Macintosh, Hertzfeld and other Apple exiles cofounded a successful Mac display maker, Radius. He was also a co-founder of General Magic and Easel, where he helped develop the Linux GNOME desktop. In 2005 Hertzfeld join Google and was a key designer of the Google+ Circles user interface. He retired from Google in 2013.

In 2004, he started folklore.org, a web site that contains dozens of anecdotes about the development of the original Macintosh. The stories have been collected in a book, Revolution in the Valley.>

Following the launch of the Macintosh, 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. HyperCard contained many of the concepts that are now common in web browsers, mobile apps, authoring tools, and visual programming languages.

In 1990, Atkinson left Apple, joining Hertzfeld and others from the original Macintosh team, to co-found General Magic, which was developing a handheld "personal intelligent communicator." He left General Magic in 1995 to focus on nature photography and is currently focusing on PhotoCard, a free iOS app that makes postcards from digital photosand sends them via e-mail or in printed form via the US Postal Service. "This is my best work, much better than QuickDraw, MacPaint and HyperCard all rolled together," he said.

Capps took a break of a few years from Apple to work on electronic toys and digital audio tools, including Jam Session and SoundEdit. He returned to Apple in 1987 to work on the Newton, a personal digital assistant that failed to catch on. He left Apple in 1996 for Microsoft as a user interface architect for the company's Internet software, and is now an independent developer.

Kenyon helped develop the Mac Plus and Macintosh II and then moved on as one of the original members of the Newton team, along with Capps. He left Apple in 1996, joining Apple and General Magic alums at WebTV Networks. The company, which turned a TV into Internet access device, was sold to Microsoft in 1997. Kenyon then held various management positions at Microsoft for more than a decade. He is currently consulting for companies developing mobile applications.

"We stayed in touch with the people we worked with on the Macintosh, and having opportunity to work with Jobs was cool," Kenyon said. "It was a project that made an impact on the industry. It was such a highly visible project that it was difficult for a lot of people to get back to a 'normal' life, especially those for whom it was their first job out of college. We had a family and I had worked at other jobs before Apple. But it was such an intense experience that it stands out more than the 8 years I spent working on the Newton or the 12 years on Microsoft TV."