Jef Raskin: Unofficial Father Of The iPad?

Jef Raskin was the father of the Macintosh.

Those of you who don’t know the history, go catch up on that by reading his Wikipedia entry, then come back here for the rest.

Raskin, now unfortunately deceased, did a lot of thinking about what makes a good user interface.

Since his death, his website pages have been dispersed to their constituent electrons for recycling.

However, thanks to the wonderful Internet Archive and its glorious Wayback Machine, many of those web pages are still available for viewing.

I’m going to excerpt a variety of sentences from him because he seems to make part of the case for the iPad. In fact, some of these excerpts make me wonder if he should be acknowledged as the unofficial father of the iPad.

From Summary of The Humane Interface: Part I: PROBLEMS WITH THE GUIs WE HAVE

For an interface feature to be humane it must be easily learned and it also must become automatic without interfering with the learning of or habituating to other features. The present blend of hard-to-learn keyboard shortcuts and difficult-to-automatize menu choices fails on both counts.


To develop an interface that can be operated automatically by a human places constraints on the design, constraints that we learn about from cognitive psychology’s studies of habit formation. For a feature to be habituating, for example, it must be usable without requiring that the user make any decisions. It is better to provide only one way of accomplishing a task when the time lost in deciding which method to use is greater than the time lost by choosing the slower of the methods.

And this one really screams “iPad”:

Interfaces must be designed to accommodate our ability to pay conscious attention to only one object or situation, called our locus of attention, at a time.

And so does this:

Another common feature of present systems, file names, causes difficulties in that it is vexing to have to come up with unique file names (within a limited number of characters) whenever you wish to save your work; it is even more difficult to try to remember file names at some later date. It is possible to eliminate file names altogether. In addition, a user should never have to explicitly save or store work. The system should treat all produced or acquired data as sacred and make sure that it does not get lost, without user intervention.


In present systems, work gets done in applications (which are sets of commands that apply to certain kinds of objects). Tasks are not accomplished at the desktop, and desktops (or launching areas in general) should disappear as interfaces improve. The idea of an application is an artificial one, convenient to the programmer but not to the user. From a user’s point of view there is content (a set of objects created or obtained by the user) and there are commands that can operate on objects.

And this, which really presages Pinch In/Out:

The twin problems of navigation and limited display size can both be ameliorated by using a video camera paradigm, where the user can zoom in and out and pan horizontally and vertically over a universe of objects.

There used to be a actual demo of this interface online several years ago, well before the introduction of the iPhone.

Imagine a sort of iPhoto album taken to the extreme — where everything is in that album, zoomed out to the point where a large collection of files are represented by images smaller than a thumbnail. Items were zoomed into and once an object filled the screen, it was something that would become active and could be worked on.

In other words, no program was ever specifically invoked or launched. Everything was file-centric.

That interface didn’t make sense, using a mouse. It would have made more sense with a touchscreen and Pinch In/Pinch Out. But I’m not keen on every kind of file — text, PDF, video, audio — being spread out in an enormous collection of very small thumbnails.

Another thing Jef Raskin worked on was a word processor brought out by Canon, called the CAT.

I had one of those, so I can speak with personal experience of it.

I did not find it to be a gratifying experience at all.

Here’s one page of its Reference Card.

I never really got used to LEAPing. And I felt very frustrated by the limitations of the system itself.

Maybe I was too used to other computing paradigms — having both used an Apple II and Macintosh and having owned a Commodore-64 and an Atari ST(!!) — but the CAT was restricting to me. In its defense, it was meant primarily for word processing, yet even at that it seemed constricting when compared to Wang word processors (which I had also briefly used).

These days, I think it’s personal computing that has reached an endpoint. Both Windows and Mac OS X have both become very time-consuming to use. I don’t think I’m the only one who winds up wasting time finding “just one more tool” to try to squeeze in a new function or get some kind of overall system improvement out of them. All of this distracts me from getting work done.

That’s partly why I think the time is right for the iPad.

Despite the limitations the iPad will have, I think we’ll quickly come to the point where people will pick up an iPad first to get things done, instead of turning on a desktop computer.

I don’t see desktop computers going away. The current monsters will still be around, but increasingly they will revert to what they were originally: basically customized hot rods. Specialist and hobbyist devices.

If you want some perspective on how much personal computing has changed, read the about the state of the industry in Raskin’s paper: Computers by the Millions, An Apple Document from 1979.

Dig this bit:

It will be very easy for a programmer (or almost anybody else) to make an error that costs the company a million dollars, even without anybody generating a lawsuit. All the error must do is force the company to make an update to a piece of software that went out with each machine for the last few months.

If that puzzles you — and I used that bit to intend it that way — go read the paper to see why.

And even back then in 1979, Raskin saw very far ahead:

The third generation personal computers will be self-contained, complete, and essentially un-expandable. As we shall see, this strategy not only makes it possible to write complete software, but makes the hardware much cheaper and produceable. The kinds of options that do not give programmers nightmares are things like case color, kind of screen (so long as size, aspect ratio and resolution are unaffected), power supply and the model name.

So, is Jef Raskin the unofficial father of the iPad? Or maybe its uncle?


Apple Museum: Biography: Jef Raskin – by Ruth Bonnet
Recollections of the Macintosh project
Jef Raskin: A Life of Design
ACM: A Conversation with Jef Raskin
Intuitive Equals Familiar
Wired: Down With GUIs!

9 responses to “Jef Raskin: Unofficial Father Of The iPad?

  1. If a paradigm shift in user interface is to take place potential users must be compelled by inviting properties.
    I believe the ultimate invitation and apex developers should strive for is the manifestation of a perception that there is little or no learning curve.
    The original GUI achieved the breakthrough that was needed to foster such a paradigm shift.
    The Mac, Next, and iPhone os’s are worthy stages of refinement to what will eventually culminate into the Haiku of interface.

  2. Mike, I have enjoyed your many postings. Keep it up.
    I am a disabled person who has hearing, sight, some learning disabilities too. Over the last 20 years I have moved my reading from paper to screen. The iPad could be what I have been waiting for 25 yrs. However, there somethings I wont know tell I get my hands on or perhaps you could and post them. Here is my test list:

    1. Can I transfer .txt,. rtf, and .html and .pdf files my my iMac to the iPad? If yes, how?
    2. Can I organize those imported files somehow via categories, sorta like folders?
    3. Can I underline, highlight or add notes to those files once in the iPad? If yes, how?
    4. Can I copy/paste text from those imported files into Pages or Notes?
    5. Can I have more than one file open to compare content between them?
    6. Can I transfer my annotated files back to my iMac? If so, how?
    7. Do you find any scholar’s research app in the app store to make the iPad a good research tool?

    Thanks for considering these questions.

  3. Mike, are you unwittingly channeling me again? ;-))

    Posted this 5 weeks ago in the context of who should be considered father of the iPad: “Apple has always had a share of forward thinkers, among them my own favorite Jef Raskin, who cumulatively left plenty of footprints behind.” I stand by that statement, but wouldn’t go as far as calling Raskin the father. I think that distinction rests firmly with Steve Jobs, and credit be shared with current Apple development team. They were farsighted enough to rethink the tablet and risk it again after the failure of the Newton. Rethink and dare to come out with an item that, to the techno-glitteratti, lacks so many of the “obligatory must-haves.” (Apparently not ;-)) That alone took plenty of guts; while making the device more understandable, more accessible and attractive to the target group General Public.

  4. From what I know *at this moment* (which is subject to change):

    1. Can I transfer .txt,. rtf, and .html and .pdf files my my iMac to the iPad? If yes, how?
    These should be able to get onto an iPad via Shared Folder. The problem will be which app will handle them. TXT and RTF should be handled by iWork. These, however, might first need to be opened on the iMac and then saved as iWork/Pages files first. HTML … hmm, I want to say Safari, but I don’t know if there will be a folder hook for that. If you mean to edit a file that is HTML code, save it as TXT. PDF will most likely require a third-party program. I’m interested in PDF myself and have specific PDF tests I will be doing.

    2. Can I organize those imported files somehow via categories, sorta like folders?
    You’ve seen how iWork displays files, one long scrollable list. I don’t think this first iteration of iWork will have categories.

    3. Can I underline, highlight or add notes to those files once in the iPad? If yes, how?
    TXT and RTF will be live documents in iWork/Pages, so yes to simply adding Bold or Italic or Underline as a font function.

    4. Can I copy/paste text from those imported files into Pages or Notes?
    TXT, RTF, yes, because they will already be in iWork/Pages and from there, yes, into Notes (which has a 32K or 64K or so limit, I think — I can never remember this figure; it’s the maximum size of an Outlook Note). HTML, if displayed in Safari, yes. PDF depends on third-party software as well as the kind of PDF (don’t expect to be able to copy anything from a PDF that is basically a scanned image file, for example).

    5. Can I have more than one file open to compare content between them?
    No. Unless you want to go crazy, for instance, trying to compare HTML in Safari to TXT/RTF in Pages by doing that Home Screen tango: Safari->Home->Pages->Home->Safari. To do a document comparison of this kind, it’d be better to have a source document opened on the desktop with the version of it you want to edit on the iPad.

    6. Can I transfer my annotated files back to my iMac? If so, how?
    Anything opened in Pages can be saved back to the iMac at sync time via Shared Folder.

    7. Do you find any scholar’s research app in the app store to make the iPad a good research tool?
    I haven’t looked, so I have no information about this. I wouldn’t expect there to be anything of that sort until third parties create it for the iPad. I couldn’t see anyone trying that for the iPhone, with its tiny screen.

  5. Raskin really saw ahead and I hope more people will learn of his thinking and see what parts can still be applied to the future.

  6. Looking forward to learning how to use touch to build Pages and Keynote projects.

  7. Wasn’t Raskin’s ultimate UI text based?(Quicksilver)
    Everything could be done through this instead of launching applications.

    His son created a windows only app based on this idea.

  8. I saw an online demo of a UI he proposed, which used a zoom-in/zoom-out interface as I described in the post. I forget now if the zooming was accomplished via mouse movement or keyboard commands (up/down arrow keys). It used graphics, not text. A text-based one sounds somewhat like the Zune UI.

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