Tag Archives: history

BOOK REVIEW: Andy Hertzfeld’s Revolution in the Valley

Revolutions cover

Not long before Steve Jobs died in October, O’Reilly published a second printing of Andy Hertzfeld’s Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How The Mac Was Made. This book was first published back in 2004, and before that most of the material was (and still is) available at folklore.org, which Andy still maintains. I’ve always loved the stories at folklore.org and this book continues to be an engrossing and very vivid retelling of the events that made many of us computer users.

For those who don’t know, Andy Hertzfeld was a member of the original Macintosh team and designed the Mac’s system software. Users like me who really got to know the Mac in the early 1990s with System 7 will remember the Control Panel, Scrapbook and other built-in applications. Hertzfeld wrote many of those. In Revolution, Andy’s writing style seems effortless: descriptions are vivid, dialogue and the “storyline” seems intense all of the time, and there’s a real plot throughout the book as the initial Mac team is brought together, hangs together as they build this “insanely great” new personal computer, and eventually moves on one by one. It’s a moving story and Andy tells it very well. (I should also note several other Mac team members like Steve Capps and Bruce Horn contribute some great stories.)

I couldn’t put Revolution down for a couple weeks: the stories and characters are so engrossing that I was reading through the book even though I’ve read many of the stories already on folklore.org. I think the story of the Macintosh’s development is so rare—when a great group of characters and geniuses come together to build such an important device for our generation, the stories that come out are bound to be phenomenal. Of course, one of the greatest characters in the book is Steve Jobs himself, who comes across as a driven, egocentric genius but without the business acumen he gained after being booted out of Apple.

Unfortunately, there’s not much new material in the book that isn’t already on folklore.org. The best new takeaways are Andy’s written notes, which really illustrate the day-to-day work behind the Mac, but I wanted even more images. I’m also not a big fan of the book’s cover, which looked dated even in 2004 and even more so now in 2011.

Fans of the Macintosh, Apple, or the PC industry in general should have a copy of this book, even if they have folklore.org bookmarked on their browser. The stories have an inescapable, timeless quality that both geeks and regular people can enjoy. If you ever used a Mac from the mid-1990s or earlier, Revolution might mean even more to you.

Revolution in the Valley
Andy Hertzfeld
Published by O’Reilly
US $24.99
Rating: 9/10
Buy at Amazon

BOOK REVIEW: Hackers Illustrates Our Early Years

The computer and Internet industries are old enough now that one can feel nostalgic about their early days. Many of us remember the first computer we used (mine was an Apple II Plus) or the year we first used the Internet (1994) and the web browser we used (NCSA Mosaic).

Those who might reminisce about their “computer youth” would enjoy the 25th anniversary edition of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy. I have enjoyed learning about computing history since the 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds, and Hackers is more thorough and dives deeper into the very early days of computers in the 1960s and 1970s. Computing used to be a cutting-edge activity isolated to nerds and hackers, but it has been mainstream for years now and the computer industry has enough history behind it now to be studied and enjoyed like any other venture.

Hackers is very well-written—there’s a reason it’s being republished 25 years after its initial release—and what I really appreciate is the fact that the anecdotes and stories are colorful and vibrant. Moreover, the book is thick with interviews from the hackers being portrayed in the book and what they say makes the stories even more memorable. One would think hackers and techies would be bad interview subjects and would focus on mundane technical material, but it’s not true at all. These are people who are passionate about their craft and proud of what they accomplished, and that passion energizes what they say in Hackers. That is what makes this book a joy to read.

There is one significant drawback to the book: it’s quite dated. The original edition was published in 1985, when computer memory was one-hundredth of one percent of what it is now. This anniversary edition does have the 1995 afterword and a new afterword for 2010 but they are small and a quick read. The Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are covered in the original’s pages—Woz has a full chapter devoted to him—but in 1985 their eventual impact with the Macintosh and Apple’s future consumer products had not yet hit the industry. Jobs in particular is only mentioned a few times in the book.

I think the question is whether Hackers is an artifact of its time or should be a history book for the future. There’s no right answer to this question, and today Levy and the publisher O’Reilly have decided to keep Hackers as an artifact of its time, and in that regard it is a beautiful artifact of those early years in hacker history. Those who want to learn about hackers and hacker culture beyond 1985 will want to read other books for the full picture.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Steven Levy
Published by O’Reilly
US $21.99
Rating: 9/10