Guerrilla Programming / Life below the Thermocline

| August 9, 2006

UPDATED (8/11/06): Here’s a story at Slashdot linking to an analysis by Paul Thurrott who feels that Apple is copying from Microsoft, rather than the other way around. The comments section at Slashdot quickly devolves into a techie equivalent of a junior high food fight.

In the meantime, Danial Eran slaps back at Paul Thurott.

ORIGINAL: I know (or knew) Ron Avizur, slightly. Back in the early 1990s, when we were trying to get Pages out to the door for NeXT systems, we talked with Ron about licensing some of his very nifty typographic/rendering technology. However, those features were pushed to later planned versions that never saw the light of day.

Also, a few years before that (1988-89), I worked at Apple as a contractor. Specifically, I was hired to fix bugs and add features to a version of MacroMind software that Apple had licensed in order to create self-running demos (for dealers) and guided tours (for users) for the Macintosh SE/30.

So imagine my delight to find (via Digg) a link to Ron’s story about how he worked for months at Apple in the 1993-94 timeframe — with no badge, no pay, no manager, and certainly no authorization — to get his Graphing Calculator software bundled with Mac OS 9, and in roughly the same time period when we had contact. Here’s a sample quote:

I asked my friend Greg Robbins to help me. His contract in another division at Apple had just ended, so he told his manager that he would start reporting to me. She didn’t ask who I was and let him keep his office and badge. In turn, I told people that I was reporting to him. Since that left no managers in the loop, we had no meetings and could be extremely productive. We worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Greg had unlimited energy and a perfectionist’s attention to detail. He usually stayed behind closed doors programming all day, while I spent much of my time talking with other engineers. Since I had asked him to help as a personal favor, I had to keep pace with him. Thanks to an uncurtained east-facing window in my bedroom, I woke with the dawn and usually arrived ten minutes before Greg did. He would think I had been working for hours and feel obliged to work late to stay on par. I in turn felt obliged to stay as late as he did. This feedback loop created an ever-increasing spiral of productivity.

His descriptions of Apple bureaucracy bring back many memories of my own time at Apple as a contractor. In the last column I wrote for Macworld (May 1991 issue), I briefly discussed my own experiences. I’ll repeat it here, not because I think it reflects conditions at Apple nearly two decades later (can it be that long?), but because I doubt the phenomenon was or is unique to Apple at that particular period of time. Indeed, I wonder if this describes Microsoft today, given its increasing inability to get new products out, to sustain quality, or to innovate rather than imitate:

Life below the Thermocline

In large bodies of water, temperature-based layers can form. For example, a warm layer of surface water often rests atop a much colder layer, each with its own circulation pattern. The boundary between two such layers is called a thermocline, and it’s very real, if invisible, with the temperature dropping several degrees in the space of a few feet. There is relatively little mixing between the layers, except for debris, fish droppings, and dead (or dying) creatures drifting down from above. Even nonmicroscopic creatures tend to stay in one layer or the other.

This image comes to mind because of the experience I had working at Apple a few years ago. I was there as a contractor to a third-party consulting firm, brought in for a couple of months to assit a small (three-person) team that was modifying a licensed commercial product for use in some dealer-demonstration and guided-tour disks. The exposure to Apple’s innards was indeed enlightening, though not at all encouraging. I did very much enjoy working with the team. We managed to get everthing done in time, I acquitted myself well, and when the contract ended, I was asked to consider a full-time position at Apple. I turned it down without a second thought.

That was no reflection on the people there; on the contrary, I found the majority of the people I came in contact with to be bright, talented, and committed. But the image of the thermocline came to mind again and again. There was upper Apple management, basking in the sun; the great mass of Apple employees below; and between the two, a constantly shifting layer of middle managers whose function appeared to be to keep the two groups from mixing. Stuff came drifting down from above, but little seemed to make its way up from below.

Not only did reporting assignments constantly change, but so did cubicle assignments, often on very short notice. One Monday morning, I arrived at what I thought were the team’s cubicles to discover an entirely different group of people in them, looking as though they had been occupying them for months. The sense of disorientation was unnerving; I felt as though I had dropped into some alternate universe. It turned out that the team had relocated over the weekend, though it took me the better part of an hour to find where they had relocated to.

Employee reaction to this whole environment ranged from good-natured humor to cynicism to a sense of betrayal and bitterness. It was obvious that many of these people really did want to change the world; they found that mostly they changed managers, departments, and cubicles. And while I can’t claim that what I saw was reflective of the entire Apple organization, either then or now, it does give a clue as to why Apple, with all its resources, has been less than effective in bringing signficant, reliable technology to the world for the past few years. (from “State of the Mac”, Macworld, May 1991, p. 69 ff.)

Ron’s story shows that little had changed five years later.

I have certainly made my own criticisms of Steve Jobs, and in print as well; this article (BYTE, November 1994) resulted in a phone call to me from Steve himself, in the back of a car somewhere, asking me just what the #$%#@ I was doing. But I have no doubt that Steve’s “reverse buyout” of Apple — that is, getting Apple to buy NeXT back in 1997 for $400M, then taking over as CEO — is the only reason why Apple is still around today. Here’s how I ended that same 1991 column:

Is Small Beautiful?

One last thought to ponder: Is the size of those resources, the sheer number of Apple employees, a liability more than an asset? In the August 1984 issue of BYTE magazine, there was an interview with three of the original Macintosh project designers –Jef Raskin, Brian Howard, and Bud Tribble–who ahd left (or been forced out of) the project before its completion, and who therefore received little recognition when the Mac shipped. The interview’s last question was, could something like the Mac be done again in 1984(!); Howard’s answer was telling: “I think it could, but only by a similar process, a little group splintering off, working separately from the big group. I don’t think it could be done on purpose, as Macintosh was not done on purpose.”

When I look back at the last seven years [i.e., 1984-1991], I realize how few major changes or improvements there have been in the Mac design over that period. There’s been the Hierarchical File System (which should have been there in the first place), slots, color, varying screen sizes, the virtual desktop, and some limited I/O processing in the IIfx (currnetly unusable under the Mac OS). That’s about it.

This suggests that Apple is either heading down a blind alley or that Apple’s best resources are going into a new generation of machines design to supercede the Mac, as the Mac did the Apple II. Either case suggests that the Macintosh design has peaked and headed down the long slope towards death. The Macintosh project started ten years ago; in another ten years, I doubt Apple will be selling Macintosh systems, though there will still be millions around in in use well into the next century.

The Mac is dead. Long live the Mac.

Of course, Apple is still around and still selling computers — though not one of them is actually called a “Macintosh”. And beyond that, my prediction wasn’t that far off. Once Jobs took over at Apple, he jettisoned most of the increasingly-splintered Mac product line, introduced the iMac and other new Mac models, and in 2001 — ten years after my column — released Mac OS X (derived from NeXTstep, not from the existing Mac OS). He also introduced the iPod (and iTunes) that same year. Apple, in 2001, was no longer the same company that it was in 1991, nor was it selling the same hardware and operating system that it was selling in 1991.

On the other hand, my November 1994 opinion piece in BYTE was, in its essence, dead wrong (though OpenStep is still around). The Taligent initiative imploded after spending vast sums of money (I still have my Taligent developer manuals), while Microsoft’s promised Cairo technology turned out to be more a case of underwhelming FUD. Meanwhile, NeXTstep went on to become Mac OS X, possibly the most admired OS out there — and it’s Microsoft that’s chasing Apple and that finds itself going increasingly long periods of time between OS releases.

Maybe Steve was right to yell at me. ..bruce..

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Category: Information Technology, Main

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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  1. Evil Bruce says:

    Wow, crossing paths with Steve Jobs where he is less than diplomatic? Oddly enough I am a forgiving soul, I hold little or no long term malice save against a small handful of elites who have earned it. Oddly enough my brief time at NeXT convinced me to put Mr Jobs on this list, and there he has stayed.

    I will confess he really turned Apple around, and the company is much the better for it. The total, driven focus on the product is the key. His inter-personal skills border on abusive at times, and after about a year of it, I had no further interest in additional helpings.

    I wish Apple all the best, especially because I keep buying Macs.

    Nice flashback material there Webster!

    Evil Bruce