26 min

Jeff Raskin - Computer Pioneer - Human–computer Interface Designer










Jef Raskin wrote "The Humane Interface" about the fundamental issues of interaction design for usability of any computer based system. A summary of design rules:

Canon Cat


The Writing Information Appliance - It was a true information appliance which allows you to just type. It packs a surprising amount of power in a small set of tools and commands.




canon cat google image search results



screen shot of the computer's info on font size and type
"proprietary proportional font ... allows an average of 78 characters per line while requiring only 320 pixels in the horizontal direction. All the digits are of the same width so that numerical column line up.


At Information Appliance Inc., we decided to use the Apple II, as a development environment. Running our own Forth (tForth), we developed and tested the software until it was our own major tool for every task at hand. These tasks included word processing, spreadsheet, software development, communications (then over phone lines) and data storage and retrieval -- we were strong believers in the maxim that if the product isn't good enough for us, it's not good enough for our customers. Of course, we were aware that the converse was not true. If it was good enough for us, that didn't prove that it was good enough for our customers.

To assure that it was good enough for our customers, we did a lot of testing, and one of the results was that the testees nearly always wanted to know when they could get the software. After you've heard such a request repeatedly, the idea arises that perhaps we had an Apple II software product. First we supplied it as a ROM on a plug-in card, which was called "SwyftCard". This had the advantage of being a piece of uncorruptible and uncrashable software. A lower-cost alternative was then developed, with the software being delivered on a 5 1/4 inch floppy. This was called "SwyftWare".

We sold the rights to market SwyftWare to a company run by a friend in San Diego.

The code was extraordinarily well-documented and there was a test word for every word in the program, as well as a word that ran all the tests as an automatic suite so that we could check for side-effects whenever we made a change. It is to these methods I attribute the nearly unique accomplishment of Information Appliance: a piece of commercial general-purpose software in which no bugs were ever discovered. We had the same splendid results in designing the Canon Cat.

Some of the IA devices were prototypes and not the laptop versions, I think.

I think these were a finished design:



Menu options at bottom of screen?

Text align:
- left justify
- center
- right justify
- block or align on both sides, whatever that's called

Line spacing?:
- 1
- 1 1/2
- 2

Font size?
- I
- II


Canon Cat brochure images


Work Processor

I like that description: "work processor."

"It can help you write and edit, communicate and calculate. It’ll even dial your phone."

Another image of yet another brochure for the Canon Cat

Some of the brochure's text reads with my emphasis added:

The Canon Cat is the world’s first Work Processor. It’s a simple but powerful office machine. The Canon Cat is not a typewriter, electronic or otherwise. Yet minutes after you plug it in, you can be typing on the Cat like a veteran.

The Canon Cat is not a word processor. Yet it will let you write and edit faster than any word processor in the world.

The Canon Cat is not a personal computer. Yet it will let you do calculations right in the text, store information and communicate with other office machines.

What is the Cat? As we said, it’s the world’s very first Work Processor. It can help you write and edit, communicate and calculate. It’ll even dial your phone.


The Canon Cat was designed by Jef Raskin, who in 1979 initiated the original Macintosh computer project while working at Apple (Raskin was Apple employee #31).

The Macintosh, so-named by Raskin, was to be an inexpensive, text-based, keyboard-controlled system meant for the average "person in the street" (PITS). After Steve Jobs took over the project while still in its infancy, Raskin left Apple to start his own company, Information Appliance, Inc., where he was free to develop his ideas without external influence.

Continuing his "user interface" (UI) concepts, he developed the SWYFT, a protoype system which eventually evolved into the Cat, after Canon bought and financed the development.

The Canon Cat is an single unit, with the keyboard, electronics, and monitor all housed in an ergonomically-design enclosure. A convenient carrying handle is formed into the enclosure, behind the display.

Although the Cat has a serial port and software routines to support input devices such as a mouse or pointing pad, none were released or supported by Canon. The Cat also has advanced graphics tools in ROM, but they were never utilized - the Cat as released supports text only.

The optional Cat180 (Canon PR100) daisy wheel printer can print only text, and it does it very well, but at only 18cps (characters per second).

All of the required software is permanently stored in system ROM. Floppy disks are required only to save and restore documents and other work. Approximately 80 pages (180kB) of text can be saved to each floppy disk.

The operator can easily and quickly save all current work to the floppy drive, by simply hitting a two-key combination - the entire 256K system memory is saved to the SSDD disk. When the Cat is restarted, the system RAM is restored from the floppy disk, allowing the operator to continue where last left off. By design, there is no operating system, as far as the user is concerned.

It's the "Leaping" ability of the Cat which gives it its name, as well as its unique ability to quickly move about within a large text document without using a mouse or cursor keys.

Navigation is performed using the "Leap" keys. With different Leap key combinations, it's possible to instantly jump to any paragraph in the document, any sentence, or any individual word to perform editing or correction. It's just as easy to return to the end of the document to continue writing.

The software is advanced enough to perform mathematical calculation right in the text document, using the [CALC] button. Columns and rows can be combined to act as a spreadsheet, allowing the use of advanced and complicated formulas.

The built-in 90,000 word dictionary helps minimize spelling errors, while the [EXPLAIN] key offers instant help on most topics and key useage.

The Cat has an internal 300/1200 baud modem, capable of connecting and transferring text (only) to and from another computer, or even another Cat. Simply highlight the desired text on the screen and hit [SEND] to transmit the text to the other system. All incoming text appears on the screen and becomes part of the current document. The Cat can also act as a 24-hour message center, saving all incoming messages to the floppy drive.

The Cat is actually much more powerful than let on by Canon, who marketed it as a closed-architecture secretarial workstation, not as the real computer which exists under the hood.

Because of poor sales, Canon discontinued the Cat after only six months. This was due to poor marketing, according to Raskin.



Some functions shown in the above image:

  • phone : lets you automatically dial phone numbers.
  • send : lets you communicate with other Cats or other computers.
  • sort : lets you arrange in alphabetical or numerical order numbers, words, sentences and paragraphs.
  • undo : undoes the last thin you've done, so you can change your mind.
  • spell checker :
  • LEAP : lets you get where you want to be -- instantly.
  • learn : lets the Cat automatically do any repetitive task you want it to do.
  • copy : lets you copy any amount of text.
  • calc : lets you calculate.
  • explain : answers your questions about the canon cat.
  • print :
  • highlighting : points out the text you want to do something with.
  • memory gauge : always lets you know how much room you have left in your cat.
  • built-in micro floppy disk drive :
  • disk : lets you record what you've typed, or play it back.

Appliance vs computer


The term information appliance was coined by Jef Raskin around 1979. As later explained by Donald Norman in his influential The Invisible Computer, the main characteristics of IA, as opposed to any normal computer, were:
  • designed and pre-configured for a single application (like a toaster appliance, which is designed only to make toast),
  • so easy to use for untrained people, that it effectively becomes unnoticeable, "invisible" to them,
  • able to automatically share information with any other IAs.

This definition of IA was different from today's. Jef Raskin initially tried to include such features in the Apple Macintosh, which he designed, but eventually the project went a quite different way. For a short while during the mid- and late 1980s, there were a few models of simple electronic typewriters with screens and some form of memory storage.

These dedicated word processor machines had some of the attributes of an information appliance, and Raskin designed one of them, the Canon Cat. He described some properties of his definition of information appliance in his book The Humane Interface.

Larry Ellison, Oracle Corporation CEO, predicted [in the mid-1990s] that information appliances and network computers would supersede personal computers (PCs).6 This prediction has not yet come true.

Norman wrote the book: "The Design of Everyday Things"


The philosophy of Archy, among other things, is to eliminate the artificial distinction between the Operating System and applications (just as in Jef's pioneering Canon Cat, where he eliminated the notion of files and documents). Why not make it that any command can be invoked at any time?

In other words, to add a different capability to the system, we don't need to write a specialized application, with its specialized command structure, but rather leverage the commands that already exist and add any news ones that might be required.

Among other things, this guarantees a consistency of operation not otherwise possible when each application has to rebuild many of the functions already existing in other applications.

Archy borrows from the pioneering work of Ken Perlin's Pad system, so that moving around material is done by zooming and panning (see the Pad system initially developed by Perlin and Fox and then by Hollan and colleagues

Perlin, K., & Fox, D. (1993). Pad: An alternative approach to the computer interface. Proceedings of 1993 ACM SIGGRAPH Conference.

[ http://mrl.nyu.edu/publications/sig93-pad/siggraph-93-origpad.pdf ]

I still have not fully digested Archy, but I urge more people to investigate the precepts, especially people who think that we have reached a dead end in the development of interaction paradigms for text. (I have made this claim, for example, arguing that although many novel interaction schemes are being -- and will be -- developed, for writing pure text, such as this essay, the mouse, keyboard, and screen serves me well. Does it?)









Jared Spool is right on. My mentor was Jeff Raskin (designer of the original Mac UI and many other cool innovations). What I learned from Jeff is that if you want to design a successful product that will be widely adopted the one thing you need to know all about is Habits.

People are creatures of habits. They have needs -- and often are articulate about those that aren't being met, or aren't being met regularly, or very well. But they aren't good at articulating a better way to meet those needs -- that is what the designer needs to do.

And the designer needs to start by understanding the user's existing habitual way of trying to meet those needs -- and they have to extinguish that existing habit, or there will be no possibility of adoption.

Next you need to address habit formation -- only when you make it easy to make a replacement new habit will adoption be ensured.

And finally you need to understand habit maintenance. Otherwise you lose people who have already tried your product.

Note that these issues are all about human cognitive psychology -- it doesn't matter whether you work in basic HTML and CSS, Ruby on Rails, Drupal, Python or any other technology -- if you don't get the habit management right technology won't save you, and if you get the habits right, the underlying technologies are invisible to the user.

Check out the early books and materials by people who founded the Association for Software Design (ASD), while the platforms and technologies they use may have changed a lot, people's motivations and the way habits determine their behavior have barely changed in recorded history. There is a lot of wisdom there.


It all started in 1979 when Jef Raskin, an Apple employee, wanted to make an easy-to-use, low-cost computer for the average consumer. In September 1979, Raskin was given permission to start on the project. He put together a team of people, partially pictured to the right, that consisted of Chris Espinosa, Joanna Hofman, George Crow, Jerry Manock, Susan Kare, and Andy Hertzfeld. Bill Atkinson, a member of the Lisa team, introduced Jef Raskin to Burrell Smith, a service technician who was hired earlier that year.

Smith built the first Macintosh board according to Raskin's specifications: 64K of RAM, Motorola 6809E microprocessor, and had the ability to support a 256×256 B&W white bitmap display. By December 1980, Smith was able to design a board that utilized 68000 and had the capacity to support a 384×256 bitmap display. This design used few RAM chips than Lisa, the other computer that was being developed by Apple, and was mych cheaper. The final Mac design was self-contained and had a non-expandable 128 kilobyts of RAM. This design caught the eye of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple. Jobs realized the Macintosh was more marketable than Lisa so he focused his attentions on the new system. Raskin left in 1981 due to personality differences with Jobs. Jobs, hearing about a new graphics user interface being developed at Xerox, traded Apple stock options to see the GUI. After his visit to Xerox, Jobs hired Harmut Esslinger to work on the Macintosh line. Jobs' leadership at Apple ended in 1985 when there was an internal power struggle with Apple's CEO John Sculley. Jobs went on to found the company NeXT.


In early 1979, after successfully building an outstanding pubs department, Jef turned the reins over to Phyllis Cole and started thinking about what it would take for personal computers to expand beyond the current hobbyist market, writing up his ideas in a series of short papers. He presented his idea for an ultra low cost, easy to use appliance computer to Mike Markkula in March 1979, and got the go-ahead to hire a few people and form an official research project later in September 1979, naming it Macintosh, after his favorite kind of eating apple. Most of his ideas for the new machine were collected in a set of papers he called "The Book of Macintosh".

There's no doubt that Jef was the creator of the Macintosh project at Apple, and that his articulate vision of an exceptionally easy to use, low cost, high volume appliance computer got the ball rolling, and remained near the heart of the project long after Jef left the company. He also deserves ample credit for putting together the extraordinary initial team that created the computer, recruiting former student Bill Atkinson to Apple and then hiring amazing individuals like Burrell Smith, Bud Tribble, Joanna Hoffman and Brian Howard for the Macintosh team. But there is also no escaping the fact that the Macintosh that we know and love is very different than the computer that Jef wanted to build, so much so that he is much more like an eccentric great uncle than the Macintosh's father.

Jef did not want to incorporate what became the two most definitive aspects of Macintosh technology - the Motorola 68000 microprocessor and the mouse pointing device. Jef preferred the 6809, a cheaper but weaker processor which only had 16 bits of address space and would have been obsolete in just a year or two, since it couldn't address more than 64Kbytes. He was dead set against the mouse as well, preferring dedicated meta-keys to do the pointing. He became increasingly alienated from the team, eventually leaving entirely in the summer of 1981, when we were still just getting started, and the final product utilitized very few of the ideas in the Book of Macintosh. In fact, if the name of the project had changed after Steve took over in January 1981, and it almost did (see Bicycle), there wouldn't be much reason to correlate it with his ideas at all.

So, if not Jef, does anyone else qualify as a parent of the Macintosh? Bill Atkinson is a strong candidate, since he was almost singlehandedly responsible for the breakthrough user interface, graphics software and killer application that distinguished the Mac. A case could also be made for Burrell Smith, whose wildly creative digital board was the seed crystal of brilliance that everything else coalesced around. But ultimately, if any single individual deserves the honor, I would have to cast my vote for the obvious choice, Steve Jobs, because the Macintosh never would have happened without him, in anything like the form it did. Other individuals are responsible for the actual creative work, but Steve's vision, passion for excellence and sheer strength of will, not to mention his awesome powers of persuasion, drove the team to meet or exceed the impossible standards that we set for ourselves. Steve already gets a lot of credit for being the driving force behind the Macintosh, but in my opinion, it's very well deserved.

Jef created the Macintosh project, but Jobs created the Macintosh product.



Raskin started the Macintosh project in 1979 to implement some of these ideas. He later hired his former student Bill Atkinson from UCSD to work at Apple, along with Andy Hertzfeld and Burrell Smith from the Apple Service Department, which was located in the same building as the Publications Department. The machine was similar in power to the Apple II and included a small 9-inch black-and-white character display built into a small case with a floppy disk. A number of basic applications were built into the machine, selectable by pressing function keys. The machine also included logic that would understand user intentions and switch programs on the fly. For instance, if the user simply started typing text it would switch into editor mode, and if they typed numbers it would switch to calculator mode. In many cases these switches would be largely invisible to the user.

In 1981 Steve Jobs directed his attention to Raskin's Macintosh project, intending to marry the Xerox PARC-inspired GUI-based Lisa design to Raskin's appliance-computing, "computers-by-the-millions" concept. Raskin takes credit for introducing Jobs and other Apple employees to the PARC concepts. Raskin also claims to have had continued direct input into the eventual Mac design, including the decision to use a one-button mouse as part of the Apple interface, a departure from the Xerox PARC's 3-button mouse.[citation needed] Others, including Larry Tesler, acknowledge his advocacy for a one-button mouse but say that it was a decision reached simultaneously by others at Apple who had a stronger say on the issue.[citation needed] Raskin later stated that were he to redesign the mouse it would have three clearly labeled buttons—two buttons on top marked "Select" and "Activate", and a "Grab" button on the side that could be used by squeezing the mouse.5 This description nearly fits the Apple Mighty Mouse (renamed "Apple Mouse" in 2009), first marketed in 2005. It has the three described buttons (two invisible), but they are assigned to different functions than Raskin specified for his own interface and can be customized.

Raskin left Apple in 1982 and formed Information Appliance, Inc. to implement the concepts of his original Macintosh concept. The first product was the SwyftCard, a firmware card for the Apple II containing an integrated application suite, also released on a disk as SwyftWare. Information Appliance later developed the Swyft as a stand-alone laptop computer. Raskin licensed this design to Canon, which shipped a similar desktop product as the Canon Cat. Released in 1987, the unit had an innovative interface that attracted much interest but it did not become a commercial success. Raskin claimed that its failure was due in some part to Steve Jobs, who successfully pitched Canon on the NeXT Computer at about the same time. It has also been suggested that Canon canceled the CAT due to internal rivalries within its divisions. (After running a cryptic full page advertisement in the "Wall Street Journal" that the "Canon CAT is coming" months before it was available, Canon failed to follow through, never airing the completed TV commercial when the CAT went on sale, only allowed the CAT to be sold by its typewriter sales people, and prevented Raskin from selling the CAT directly with a TV demonstration of how easy it was to use.) Shortly thereafter, the stock market crash of 1987 so panicked Information Appliance's venture capitalists that they drained millions of dollars from the company, depriving it of the capital needed to be able to manufacture and sell the Swyft.



Mr. Raskin left Apple in 1982 after his relationship with Steve Jobs, the company's co-founder, soured. But he is credited with providing the vision for the Macintosh, the highly accessible and affordable computer that hit stores in 1984.

"He really spent his life urging a degree of simplicity where computers would be not only easy to use but delightful," said Steven Levy, a technology writer and the author of "Insanely Great," a history of the Macintosh computer.

By almost any measure, Mr. Raskin was a Renaissance man. He was an accomplished musician, composer, conductor and painter, as well as a mathematician, book author and model airplane designer.

Mr. Raskin is often referred to as the "father of the Macintosh." Among Mr. Raskin's greatest legacies was the Macintosh project, which was taken over by Mr. Jobs in 1982.

By many accounts, Mr. Jobs and Mr. Raskin had differing visions of what the Macintosh should be.

"Jef had an idea of a much more focused machine in mind, not really a general-purpose computer which the Mac became," Mr. Levy said. "He had this idea of a Swiss Army knife of computers, and Steve really wanted it to be a new kind of computer which could perform any kind of task."

"It was clear that Steve's vision was going to be the one that was going to take the Macintosh through to its development," Mr. Levy added.

After Mr. Raskin left Apple, he founded his own company, Information Appliance, and created the Canon Cat, a computer that had little impact on the industry.

At the time of his death, Mr. Raskin was working on Archy, a computer program that performed common tasks like word processing.

"He never stopped learning and teaching, and was teaching and learning and thinking up to this week," Ms. Blum said.


MacUser: Which person do you most admire?
Jef Raskin: For what attribute? Once again you ask a question that linearises a complex matter. I can name many. Let's start with people named George: George Cantor for moving infinity out of philosophy into mathematics, George Washington for showing how a leader should relinquish power, and George Bernard Shaw for his humanity... Or we can do it by subject and admire Aristotle, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein for their pulling from nature comprehensible laws; or Euclid, Gauss and Gödel for their contributions to mathematics; or people who have influenced me very directly, in which case I'd mention my very admirable parents and the teacher who taught me to be intellectually independent, L R Genise; or how about Claude Shannon without whose work on information theory I would have been lost.

Raskin #quote:

We have a whole valley full of people talking UNIX versus MS-DOS. What do you need any of that for? Just throw it all out; get rid of all that nonsense. Maybe you need it for computer scientists, but for people who want to get something done, no. Do you need an operating system? No.

Another quote: #humor

Icons, windows, mice, big operating systems, huge programs, integrated packages.... I would like to remind the world that just because two things are on the same menu doesn't mean they taste good together.



In addition to other office functions,The Canon Cat “work processor” can communicate with other Cats or computers and provides telephone auto-dialing for electronic mail and regular conversation. Its built-in features include software with spell checker, a 3.5” micro floppy disk drive, modem, serial and parallel interfaces.


Here is the description accompanying the photo:

The Canon Cat "work processor" provides many office functions in one compact, easy-to-use system. An operator can keep approximately 80 single-spaced, typewritten pages on a disk and locate information stored anywhere in the text almost immediately, using two unique "Leap" keys. Text can be edited, moved, restyled, underlined, boldfaced and checked for spelling with only a few keystrokes.


Users of The Canon Cat "work processor" (right) do not have to cope with menus, windows, files, booting, formatting or computer terminology or jargon. It is ready for immediate use when plugged in. It can be hooked up to a Canon Cat180 Daisy Wheel Printer (left), Canon Laser Beam Printers, other printers and most Canon Electronic Typewriters with the correct interface.


Canon Cat “work processor” combines functions of several office machines into one compact, easy system, including typing, word processing, information storage and retrieval, calculating and communicating with other Cats or computers. Engineered and produced from a concept of Jef Raskin, originator of the Macintosh computer. The Cat has two "Leap" keys, with which text can easily be edited, moved, restyled, underlined, boldfaced and even checked for spelling. Suggested list price is $1,495.


This is a Canon Cat, a rare vintage computer developed by Jef Raskin, who did early work on Apple's Macintosh. I found this in 2001 at a Goodwill store.

Wow. Found in a Goodwill Store. Yes, it would have been easier and cheaper to acquire such a computer 15 years ago. Since 2000, I'm sure that many Canon Cats have been tossed into the garbage, and if any are available for sale in 2014, they're probably drawing a decent price, since people may view the Cat as a collector's item. It would be cool to own a working Canon Cat, so that I could experience Raskin's ideas in action. It seems that some computer museums may possess a Canon Cat, so maybe someday, I'll see one up close.


Q: Who in the cognitive psychology field is doing cutting edge work in interface design?

A: That's not the kind of research that they do. When you get my book, look at my references. My references are people like Bernard Baars, who was doing research into the cognitive conscious and the cognitive unconscious, and people like Elizabeth Loftus, who do work on absorbtion and retention. But, these people are not designing interfaces. Nobody's using this work on interfaces yet.

Q: And that's where you come in?

A: Yes... Another ambition of mine, and I hope that I've succeeded, is to turn this interface design world into much more of an empirical science. We're talking about quantitative stuff, where you can go take measurements, plug in numbers, and find efficiencies. Claude Shannon and others showed that information theory was equivalent to thermodynamics. That's what gave me the idea of being able to calculate the efficiency of an interface. And it is a formal efficiency, just like efficiencies of motors. If you're a physicist [when you read The Humane Interface], you might say, "I've seen that equation before." Again, I don't explain that connection. But what I'm hoping is that occasionally someone who has a physics or information theory background might think, "Oh, I understand" in a deeper way. But people can just use the formulas, plug them into a calculator and do useful stuff. So you don't have to know the physics that I'm alluding to. If I had put the physics in there, no one would have bought the book.


#design - #ux - #history - #blog_jr

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