By Sarah Lacy Jef Raskin wasn't the typical tech industry power broker. He was never a celebrity CEO, never a Midas-touch venture capitalist, and never conspicuously wealthy (although he was wealthy). Yet until his Feb. 26 death at 61, the creator of the Macintosh led the rallying cry for easy-to-use computers, leaving an indelible mark on Silicon Valley and helping to revolutionize the computer industry.
The tech world won't know the final impact of Raskin's work until several more months, perhaps years. At the time of his death, he was working on what he hoped would be his biggest mark yet: a new type of operating system called Archy. Friends and co-workers describe it as his longtime vision of easy-to-use computing brought to life.
Last December, funding from an unnamed international company came through at almost the same time his pancreatic cancer was discovered, and Raskin threw himself into completing the framework of the system in his final months, says David Burstein, who's making a film about Raskin's life and did dozens of interviews with him late last year and early this year.
BITTERSWEET SUCCESSES. Raskin was programming up until he could no longer type, about a week ago, says his 21-year-old son, Aza Raskin, who worked with him on Archy for six years. "Jef largely ignored being sick," he says. "He thought it was more important to keep his work going. The only thing that happened was he worked harder if that's possible."
Raskin's death came as the last in a series of untimely exits that circumstances forced Raskin to make just as he was hitting his stride on a project. He had several bittersweet successes. The first, and most famous, was his role in developing the Macintosh. Raskin was employee No. 31 at Apple (AAPL) before the launch of the Macintosh, iMac, iPod, or any of the other ubiquitous brands that have made the company famous. He headed the Macintosh project back when it consisted of just four or five people, says former co-worker Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, who was employee No. 66 at Apple and hired by Raskin.
Raskin's vision: to build an affordable computer designed for nontechy consumers -- a radical idea at a time when using a computer required memorizing complex codes and commands. Raskin's credits include "drag and drop" capability and introducing Apple's founders to much of the work at Xerox's XRX) Palo Alto Research Center, which made such innovations as the the mouse and the basic structure for the windows and folders still prevalent on operating systems today. And Raskin bestowed the project with the name Macintosh, after his favorite kind of apple.
BRILLIANT YET UNSUNG. But two years before commercializing the Macintosh, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took over the project, and Raskin left the company. It was a hard time for him and many of those who worked closely with him, Tognazzini says. The product had veered from his vision: For one thing, the $2,495 price tag hardly made it affordable for the mass market at the time. "Mac was his brainchild," Tognazzini says. "The interface in the early days wasn't what ended up shipping, but the philosophy behind it was his."
The next attempt at easy, affordable computing was all his, but less successful. Called the Canon Cat, it resulted from Raskin's own company, Information Appliance, and Canon, the printer company. A small computer made especially for writers, it lacked separate applications like word processing or spreadsheets but had many innovative features -- like a "leap" capability that allowed users to search a document faster than they can today on Microsoft (MSFT) Word, Aza says.
It wasn't a commercial success, which Raskin's family and friends blame on Canon's marketing, which pitched the product to secretaries, a niche for which he hadn't intended it. The Canon Cat sold fewer than 20,000 units and was then abandoned. "Jef was a true genius at many things, but not at promotion," says Burstein.
SELFLESS CONCERNS. Raskin then took time to do what he loved most: teaching and thinking. He studied how people used computers for 10 years, writing the book The Humane Interface. About four years ago, still disgusted by the difficulty of computer use, he decided to give his vision another try. He founded the Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces, a nonprofit that's developing Archy. He had already been working on the concept for two years with Aza, a math whiz who published his first writings on physics at the age of 19.
Raskin had many passions: his family, music, art, and archery among them. But making computers simpler to use dominated his creative time. Friends quote words of wisdom he would use over and over again. He liked to say, "How much work does a user get done on a desktop?" The answer is none, that it's wasted time trying to find an application or file -- a problem he was trying to solve with Archy.
Aza says Raskin thought of this as a calling. "He believed this was a moral obligation," he says. "Computers are literally causing millions of people great pains and frustration. That's why he went the nonprofit route." It was a quaint notion in a Silicon Valley dominated in so many parts by greed and stock-option pay packages.
Raskin is survived by his children, Aza, Aviva, Aenea, and Rebecca, and his wife of 23 years, Linda Blum. The family hasn't announced a memorial service yet. No doubt he'll be missed, but his contributions to the Information Age will not be forgotten. Lacy is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in the Silicon Valley bureau