Most people just buy computers, some fall in love with them, while a few fall victim to addiction, playing games or compiling programs at dead of night, forsaking human company. Steven Levy is clearly very attached to his Macintosh but that is surely insufficient reason to write a book about it. The Apple Mac seems to attract a particularly devoted ownership, but is it reasonable to claim as the title does that this computer changed everything or that it is the most important consumer good of the second half of the 20th century?
Attempts to show that the lineage of the Apple Mac runs back to the forecasts of Vannevar Bush in the 1940s seem dubious and unnecessary. Not least because they raise the complex business of what was stolen from the Xerox PARC Laboratories. Lengthy litigation, not uncommon in Silicon Valley, has finally settled who owed what royalties to whom, without quite resolving the origin of the ideas and their implementation. The tension between the researchers at PARC on the West Coast and the "suits" at head office on the East Coast, combined with a growing fear of imports of cheap Japanese photocopiers, meant that Xerox Corporation had little commitment to exploiting the ideas generated at PARC. Almost inevitably they seeped out, into Apple Computer, Microsoft, Aldus, Adobe and many other firms, often aided by the movement of staff.
Apple was simply the most conspicuous of the beneficiaries. The PARC ideas combined with ever cheaper and ever more powerful chips made the realisation of personal computing possible. What PARC had demonstrated was technically feasible, Apple made commercial, driven by a culture that wanted to ship products and make money, not content with mere scientific advances.
Today all computers are designed around the same set of ideas and the role of Apple Computer and its co-founder Steve Jobs in defining the popular conception of that set of ideas was considerable, even unique. Yet it is difficult to believe that somehow or other we would have ended up in a significantly different world if the Macintosh had not been launched. It might have taken a little longer, but we would eventually have arrived at graphical user interfaces, mice and massive power on the desktop.
The story of the development of the personal computer has been told many times before and usually from a less impassioned standpoint. Steve Jobs has twice been analysed in books, most recently by Randall Stross who likened him to a tele-evangelist, given the strength of his ability to convert people. One of the ex-converts has had his say about Apple Computer, John Sculley, the former chief executive who wrote Odyssey in which he admits his own conversion by Jobs.
Insanely Great, as the title and subtitle suggest, is a rather emotional account which adds little to our understanding of the successes and failures of the Apple Mac, nor does it help to account for the much greater success of Bill Gates of Microsoft. Setting up Steve Jobs as Luke Skywalker against IBM's Darth Vader is a colourful image but not a very informative one, especially when today Apple is tied to IBM in joint ventures. Apple no longer has heroes, Jobs and Sculley have been sacked, leaving only the product, itself mutating in the PowerMac while spawning the infant Newton.
This is a nicely produced volume prepared on the author's own Macintosh, though it lacks an index and is devoid of pictures, despite one of the important features of Mac software being the ability to mix text and pictures.
Steven Levy gives a view which is heavily slanted to the Mac world, almost to the exclusion of other factors; where are IBM, NeXT, Compaq and Sun? Although highly readable, a reader needs to be aware that this is a very partial account. The last chapter gives the game away, being a story of solving a difficult bug in the author's Mac caused by clasping pieces of software. With the Mac even the bugs are cute and cuddly.
Ewan Sutherland is lecturer in informatics at the University of Wales, Lampeter.
Insanely Great, the Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything
Author - Stephen Levy
ISBN - 0 670 85244-9
Publisher - Viking
Price - £15.00
Pages - 287pp. plus biblio