Fresh: in remembrance

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 10
Digital Citation

Jef Raskin, pioneer

Richard Karpinski

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Jef was the smartest, kindest, and most accomplished man I ever knew. He shared his vision with respect to computers and people in many ways, initiating the project that made computers accessible to ordinary people. Hundreds of millions of people use the results of that project.

And yet there are fundamental flaws in the structure of modern GUI-based systems. He not only recognized many of these flaws, he made very large efforts to address them over the course of three decades. These projects included Swyftware, Information Appliance, and the Canon Cat in concrete developments. But they also included intellectual property like the patented Leap technology and even contracts carefully drawn to preserve the utility of those patents.

These efforts generated some incredible successes: like selling 20,000 machines where no user ever reported a bug; like building a machine which made its users smile and appreciate it rather than generating the more usual frustration experienced by computer users. But there were also repeated and mysterious failures, which would have completely stopped many a lesser man. Why was the Cat dropped? Why was the laptop abandoned? Why did use of Leap just fade away?

Then Jef sought to develop the academic theory to support these ideas and created the first broadly systematic treatment of the human-computer interface ever presented. His book shows success in opening the eyes of readers, in sales, in published translations, and in adoption for university-level courses.

In some sense, our efforts at the Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces (RCHI) to build and promulgate Archy (the humane user platform) constitute the natural completion of the work laid out in The Humane Interface, a proper path toward rescuing our species from the continuing frustrations built in to the current ways of computing. (Read about the project at Perhaps some of Jef's goals were loftier and purer than this endeavor to improve the interaction between people and the things they build, but fixing subtle problems for hundreds of millions of computer users is no small task.

Accomplishing that project will be a fitting monument to a wonderful and inspiring human being. Let us push past the many problems and failures we can expect to encounter in the coming months and years. Let us build and promote systems worthy of the man who led us to where we find ourselves today. Let us enjoy and celebrate the successes we have along the way. I am sure that Jef wanted each of us, and all those who join us on this path, to proceed with confidence and pleasure each day. That is the way he was.

Jef and I wandered around several universities and programming jobs before settling in at UCSF, as what we now call a system administrator, for three decades. I helped people use the mainframe IBM systems and later UNIX while studying computer languages and reporting bugs. This experience led me to a deep appreciation for robust systems that do not get in the way of users.

Despite my delight at the technical marvels and inherent simplicity of UNIX, I came to realize that the introduction of the Macintosh did more to make computers accessible to ordinary people. When I subsequently encountered Jef Raskin, then advocating better ways to make computers easy to use and less frustrating, I jumped onto his bandwagon. As a well-trained master nitpicker, I offered my services to Jef with respect to manuscripts of his forthcoming book, The Humane Interface.

We found both comfort and stimulation in each other and I became an unofficial member of the Raskin household for some years. I picked up the kids from school. I reviewed and critiqued Jef's articles on wide-ranging topics. I spent months scanning in nearly 9,000 photographs Jef had accumulated over 40 years. And most recently, I've become a Documentation Generalist for the Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces. In that regard, I log bugs and suggestions into our issues database at and I document parts of the source code for Archy.

My life has been magnificently enriched by knowing and working with Jef and his family and his life's work. I wake up each day with a smile on my face and a spring in my step because I know I will have additional opportunities to contribute to the advancement of computing in the service of people. I knew 30 years ago that I had already lived a rich and fulfilling life but the last few years have been nothing less than wonderful for me. Jef had that effect on many of us.

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About the Author:

Richard Karpinski worked with Jef Raskin, most recently at the Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces.

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0500  $5.00

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