Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything

Rating: +

Steven Levy

Ask most geeks what the most famous television commercial is, and they'll say the 1984 Super Bowl ad announcing the Macintosh. When this computer came out, it made a huge impact, and even after several predictions of Apple finally going under, an new Mac has always comes out that gets renewed interest from the press and from consumers. Levy looks at the people and philosophy behind the development of the Macintosh computer. He argues that there are two reasons the Macintosh was as "insanely great" as it turned out - the right technical ideas were behind it, and the right people were working on it.

On the technical side, the Mac was built to be affordable for the personal user, and have an intuitive user interface that the average user could understand. One of the essential components of this intuitive interface was that it had a coherent, useful metaphor driving it. Here, the metaphor was the now familiar one of papers on a desk. But other choices, such as allowing a mouse, or having a light background to the screen, also defined the Mac experience. The ideas that the Mac team built on were, to a large degree, borrowed, but they put them in a marketable product that actually sold.

Besides explaining, in a brief but sufficient level of detail, the justifications for the technical choices made in designing the Mac and its user interface, Levy talks about the people who made the Mac possible. In fact, though he would agree that the Mac couldn't have succeeded without being the technical marvel that it was, I think he would argue that it also could not have succeeded were it not for the people involved in designing and selling it. Levy clearly believes that the Mac team was an unusually devoted team that was driven by an understanding that the Mac was the right thing to be building, rather than a desire to make money or be successful.

Because of this, most of the book is told as a series of personal experiences, pieces of interviews, and descriptions of who was doing and saying what while working for whom. At times, it reads like a geek soap opera. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like I learned enough about any of the people involved to believe their motivations were as intellectually pure as Levy implied. His position, that it was only people like these who could have pulled this off wasn't really supported by any evidence. Their enthusiasm for the project did not come through as clearly as the hurdles they had to jump.

In the end, this book gave a good picture of where the Mac was compared to the other technology of its time, and why it was so significant. For doing that, and doing it in a way that the computer layperson would understand, I give this book a moderate '+'. But if you want to get a look at the personality of computer designers and what drives them, I recommend you read Levy's other book, Hackers.


Review written June 2001.


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