Tag Archives: steve

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

BOOK REVIEW: High Performance Web Sites

high-perf-websites

Last year I reviewed Even Faster Web Sites, an eye-opening book that revealed some website performance tricks “hidden in plain sight,” due to their simplicity and reliance on everyday aspects of web technology. I learned this book is actually a sequel to another highly-regarded book, High Performance Web Sites, so I had to review it.

High Performance Web Sites is extremely similar to its successor. Steve Souders authored both books and has the same analytical, left-brained approach to measuring performance and capturing best practices in simple rules. Thorough testing is conducted and reported, and the tests can still be duplicated at stevesouders.com, three years after the book’s publication. There’s nothing as illuminating as conducting tests on your own, with Steve’s clear guidance.

Despite its age, High Performance Web Sites is still very pertinent because it improves performance on essential things such as reducing HTTP requests, structuring external script and stylesheet requests to keep data moving and other very basic tricks. This book is even more simple than its successor and deals strictly with the basics. This makes it a very helpful book for all web designers at all skill levels, which in itself is hard to do.

I don’t give out perfect ratings very often, but I did for Even Faster Web Sites and I will do the same for High Performance Web Sites. The book is clearly written, very effective, almost unprecedented in its usefulness for all designers, and thoroughly researched. The only thing I wish is that it were longer.

High Performance Web Sites
Steve Souders
Published by O’Reilly
US$29.99
Rating: 10/10

BOOK REVIEW: Even Faster Web Sites

soudersbook

It’s rare for a book to catch me off-guard with unique techniques, but Even Faster Web Sites seems to have done it. The book is written about the topic of website performance and optimization, which grants users a faster, leaner browser experience and less hassle with slow-loading pages and images. I had always known about image optimization tools in Photoshop and coding techniques that help make pages smaller and faster but Even Faster Web Sites surprised me with tactics and techniques that are a level above.

First, a strong pedigree

The book’s stable of authors is enough to make web designers take notice. The main author is Steve Souders, who works on web performance at Google and created the Firebug extension YSlow. Some chapters are written by other authors including:

This is a large group of authors from some of the most recognizable companies in the web technology industry. The books such authors put out often stand out, such as Web Form Design by Luke Wroblewski. The writing is solid and the grasp of the web technology is really top-notch.

Magic behind the curtain

I was surprised at how much Even Faster Web Sites revealed to even an experienced web designer like myself. The chapter on image optimization offers several techniques such as PNG crushing and optimized sprites that only experienced web designers will already know about. I think some parts of the book are less helpful for designers than developers and programmers, but all designers working with HTML, CSS and JavaScript are programmers by definition and those chapters might be dense but are definitely helpful.

One of the most impressive aspects of Even Faster Web Sites is the testing and research produced by the authors. Some books get away with stating rules and best practices, but this one provides evidence to support what it recommends. The charts and tables convinced me that I have some room to improve my own website-building practices for my clients, and I’m excited to provide even better service thanks to this book.

Even Better Web Sites is an outstanding book, and a rare book that’s a good read for designers and developers of every skill level. The only designers who don’t need this book are those who know everything about web design already. Some of the techniques explained in this book seem to border on magic. I recommend you pick up a copy and learn how your websites can move even faster.

Even Faster Web Sites
Steve Souders
Published by O’Reilly
US$34.99
Rating: 10/10

Reviewing An Old Favorite: Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think

Don't Make Me Think
Don't Make Me Think

Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think left a big impact on me when I first read it several years ago. I knew the basics of writing and designing for web usability but Don’t Make Me Think crystallized the subject in a way that appealed to both web designers and users who didn’t know HTML but did know a bad website when they saw one.

The second edition, which was published in 2006, offers a few new chapters on accessibility and user “goodwill” but leaves out some of the chapters on user testing (though they can be found online at www.sensible.com/secondedition). I re-read the book recently and was surprised by the experience: Don’t Make Me Think is still a great book, still a classic, but it is beginning to look dated.

Many of the examples shown are either ancient (see Yahoo!, circa 1999, on page 27) or no longer exist (Productopia.com, which is studied in detail on page 118–121). This is bound to happen to any book, but Don’t Make Me Think is four years old in its current edition and the first edition was published way back in 2000. Web design has changed so much since then and it’s time for Steve to revise Don’t Make Me Think to acknowledge the changing landscape.

Don’t Make Me Think also makes assumptions about average users that I think could be revisited. I think Steve is still mostly correct in describing users’ behaviors as comparable to firemen making snap decisions, but some more specific behaviors and assumptions deserve another look. One is the notion that users don’t expect to reach a homepage by clicking on the logo at the top of a page. Another is the assumption that pull-down menus are bad for usability: I personally agree with this one but they are often effective for quick access when users don’t need to scan a long navigation. I’d be very interested in seeing a third edition of this book that takes another look at users’ “default” behaviors.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy
Rocket Surgery Made Easy

Don’t Make Me Think is still a valuable book for any web designer, and years later I still find myself using Steve’s ideas to describe web usability to clients. I hear Steve plans to have a new book out before year’s end, Rocket Surgery Made Easy. It’s listed as a “do-it-yourself guide to finding and fixing usability problems,” and might incorporate some of the user testing chapters pulled from Don’t Make Me Think. Perhaps it will address some of the new possibilities and pitfalls in web usability that have developed in the last decade.