February 27, 2005
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Passings: Jeff Raskin

Word arrives, via Winer and Kottke, that Jef Raskin died yesterday (Wikipedia) (Guardian interview)

Raskin's chief intersection with hypertext research was his Hypertext '87 paper, "The Hype in Hypertext: A Critique". I haven't read this in years, and I never thought much of it as a paper. But he was there first with that particular bit of wordplay, which any number of pundits have subsequently believed to be a sign of their own special cleverness. At the time, I thought it a cheap shot, a mixture of stock academic revisionism with a strangely ad hominem attack on Ted Nelson. But, looking back, it took some guts and some skill to deliver to an audience that was obviously inclined to be hostile, and which had given Ted a standing ovation just hours before.

In 1977, Nelson's Computer Lib resonated brilliantly with the spirit of the time. In 1987, Reagan was president and Nelson's liberation was a decade out of fashion and way too far left. The search for a more respectable foundation made sense at the time.

Raskin clamored to be recognized as the true father of the Macintosh, a claim that never was terribly interesting and which Steve Jobs has since rendered irrelevant. Raskin suggested that he had the ideas, while Jobs got the credit. I think it's safe now to say that the core ideas were very much in the air, that Jobs' triumphant return to Apple has amply demonstrated that Jobs is not an empty suit. A lot of the credit belongs to the people who wrote the code and designed the icons and the documentation and the marketing.

The point was not the credit, anyway, or should not have been. Raskin had a personal vision of an new, integrated user interface. For decades, there he was -- the Canon Cat, the Information Appliance, the humane interface. All his work was clearly aspiring to go somewhere new, but they never quite managed to make clear where they wanted to go or what we needed to get them there. He was never quite able to explain what he wanted.

I wish we'd all figured it out.