West of Eden Review
Title: West of Eden – The End of Innocence at Apple Computer
Author: Frank Rose
Publisher: Hutchinson Business Books, 1989
Have you ever used a Macintosh? If so, have you ever wondered how such a machine – one so radically different in design and functionality from anything which preceded it – came into existence?
In fact the Macintosh did have an ancestor. It was called the Alto and was developed at the Palo Alto Research Center in California, which was established as an experimental foray into the growing field of computers by the Xerox Corporation in the early 1970’s.
At that time, the dominant ethos in computing was one of subservience to technology. Most computer interaction required the user to learn an arcane set of commands in order to communicate with the system, and to adapt one’s thinking to the requirements of the software.
The Alto encapsulated ideas known collectively as the Dynabook, or ‘dynamic book’. Most of the features of the Alto – which included a high-resolution bit-mapped screen, overlapping and movable windows, a point-and-click mouse, command icons, and WYSIWYG word-processing software – were simply on-screen representations of the way in which people naturally worked with pen and paper.
Such innovation is not cheap. By 1984, after 10 years, Xerox had spent 100 million dollars on research at Palo Alto without the emergence of any significant products. In that time, the original management had been replaced by a more conservative board which was less prepared to take the financial risks associated with lavish research projects; instead they decided to pursue an alternative path into the computing market place by investing in one of the local home computer manufacturers. This manufacturer was Apple Computer, and it was selling Apple personal computers at a rate which was increasing exponentially year by year.
The apocryphal story of the origin of Apple is now part of the folklore of computing. In 1976 two enthusiasts from an amateur hobbyist computer club, together with an indeterminate amount of catalytic input from other members of the club and from the new microprocessor technology, went into business together selling a computer assembled in the garage of one of their parents’ houses.
The two founders of Apple combined two important ingredients of a successful production team. Steve Jobs had the vision, the energy, and the ability to sell ideas, while Steve Wozniak possessed superlative engineering skills and could translate Jobs’ ideas into practice. By 1983 both were multi-millionaires.
Part of the deal in which Xerox bought 100,000 shares in Apple Computer was the agreement that Steve Jobs should be allowed to visit the Palo Alto Research Center. The technology which he witnessed on that visit, and the Alto in particular, immediately fired his imagination; from that moment onwards his prime concern was how to transform the highly expensive interpretation of first-class ideas into an affordable product which would be available to everyone. The ultimate result was the Apple Macintosh.
However, this is not a book about the Macintosh. That is just one of many fascinating peripheral sketches which embellish the central theme. Others include: a brief history of Silicon Valley; the origins and development of the IBM PC; a truly nightmarish account of an attempt to cure bugs in several interacting components of the Macintosh system software a week before its release; and an informative look into West Coast working practices, in which the "most productive" time of the day is considered to be between 5.00 and 7.00 a.m.
The main story line concerns life on Bandley Drive – the home of Apple Computer – from 1982 to 1986. It relates events from the time when Steve Jobs brought in a new president (John Sculley of PepsiCo) to give Apple the professional leadership being demanded by Wall Street, up until the unwilling departure of Jobs from Apple three years later.
It describes the volatile atmosphere which pervaded Apple; an atmosphere, largely attributable to the presence of Steve Jobs, the effects of which ranged from inspirational to harrowing. The transition from the former to the latter is as important a part of the story of Apple as the material events which took place.
Written in a style which effectively conveys the pace of life at Apple, the book is based upon prodigious research and personal interviews. In a postscript, the author states that he was "struck by the number of people who told me that working at Apple had been the high point of their lives – not their careers, but their lives". After reading this book, that isn’t difficult to believe.
Frances Blomeley — [email protected]