Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Missing Two

More than 100 members of the original Macintosh team were on hand last Saturday night, January 25th, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the computer’s launch in 1984.  The event, consisting of various fascinating panel discussions featuring Macintosh team members and others instrumental in the conception, birth and coming of age of the Mac, took place at De Anza College’s Flint Center in Cupertino, the same venue where Steve Jobs introduced the Mac to Apple’s shareholders on January 24th, 1984.

It was a magical evening.  Those of us in the audience who were not part of the Macintosh team felt honored just to be in the same building with those amazingly talented individuals, and vastly fortunate to be able to listen, in person, to their anecdotes and insights.

During the event I couldn’t help but think of two people who should have been there, but were not.

One of them, of course, is Steve Jobs, although I have a tough time imagining the event as presented with him involved.  Would he have been content to simply take part in one of the panel discussions?  Would he have emceed the event (instead of Bill Fernandez)?  Would he have kicked off the evening with introductory remarks?  I can’t see him in any of those roles.  My thought is that, had Jobs still been with us last week, the event would have been totally different.  Or maybe he would not have have participated.  Or maybe the event would not have taken place at all.   Who knows.  The point is, Steve Jobs should have been around on the Mac’s 30th anniversary, just as he should be celebrating his 59th birthday next month.

Perhaps even sadder than Steve Jobs’ absence was Burrell Smith’s.

In his Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson called Burrell Smith the “star of the [Macintosh] team”.  Initially hired as an Apple II repair technician, Smith wound up designing the Mac’s logic board, among many other critical contributions.  "I would say that Burrell Smith's logic board was the seed crystal of brilliance that drew everyone else to the project," said Andy Hertzfeld, another key member of the Macintosh team.  Daniel Kottke, who built and tested the logic boards designed by Smith, had this to say: "Burrell was a brilliant engineer and just all around brilliant.  He was temperamental, funny and playful…”

The consensus is that Burrell Smith was to the original Macintosh what Steve Wozniak was to the Apple II: the wizard that was somehow able to make less hardware do more.  Not only was Smith a technical genius, his playful personality and distinctive style of expression helped ease the tension faced by the team as they struggled to comply with Jobs’ often unreasonable project demands.

Smith clearly should have been at the Flint center last Saturday night.  He was not.  I’ll leave it to Walter Isaacson to explain why in the following passage from “Steve Jobs”:

After leaving Apple, Smith descended into schizophrenia. He lived in a house down the street from Hertzfeld, and as his disorder progressed he began wandering the streets naked, at other times smashing the windows of cars and churches. He was put on strong medication, but it proved difficult to calibrate. At one point when his demons returned, he began going over to the Jobs house in the evenings, throwing rocks through the windows, leaving rambling letters, and once tossing a firecracker into the house. He was arrested, but the case was dropped when he went for more treatment. “Burrell was so funny and na├»ve, and then one April day he suddenly snapped,” Jobs recalled. “It was the weirdest, saddest thing.”

Steve Jobs was unable to participate in the Macintosh’s 30th anniversary celebration because a disease we do not understand inexplicably attacked his pancreas.  Burrell Smith was unable to participate because his mind is as fragile as it is brilliant.

Is it tragic that Jobs and Smith weren’t able to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their world-changing creation?  Or is it incredibly fortunate that they were healthy enough at the time to make it happen in the first place?