History: MacWrite and MacPaint, a coral reef.

A picture named macwrite.gifI was talking yesterday with a programmer friend who is 28. I wanted to use an example, but first wanted to be sure he knew about it. I asked if he knew what MacWrite and MacPaint was. He said no.

Now this is very smart, well-educated guy. He has a computer science degree. Asking whether he knew about MacWrite and MacPaint, imho, is like asking a person with an English lit degree if he’s heard of Shakespeare. In other words, we have to work on this. 🙂

Anyway, I figure a fair number of people who read this blog are like my friend. You might not know about these two seminal products, and you should.

MacWrite and MacPaint were the only two apps that shipped on the original Mac when it was released on January 24, 1984.

The Mac was a new platform. It didn’t run Apple II software or IBM PC software, or even software from its cousin, the Lisa, which shipped from Apple a year earlier. The Mac platform was a completely clean slate. So if you bought a Mac in January or February, or even March or April — all you could do with it was write with MacWrite and paint with MacPaint.

They were not very powerful. Each could only open one document at a time. The menus were short. They were limited but they were also something of a miracle, because very few people had ever used a graphic app before. They had graphic menus, worked with a mouse, and they used a lot of pixels, for the day at least. It felt amazing to use these apps. Like driving a very sleek and fancy car. That is, compared to the tools that we were using before.

  • A picture named macPaintLarge.gif

More important, they served as example-ware for the developers of the day. If you were working on Mac apps, as we were at Living Videotext, if you wanted to see how to do something, you could always look at one of these two apps for an idea.

Had the Mac shipped without MacWrite and MacPaint, it’s kind of doubtful that there would be a Mac today. Or it might exist but there would be little consistency among the apps. The window I’m typing this blog post into now looks an awful lot like the window we typed into in MacWrite, 29 years ago.

Software evolves like a coral reef. I’ve written about this many times. Something happens, a ship sinks, some fish live in the wreck. Their predators come there too, because there’s food to eat. Then they die and their skeletons form a new structure for life to cling to. Eventually you have a thriving ecosystem. No one uses MacWrite or MacPaint today, but in a sense we all do, all the time.

Someone who is planning on spending a career making software should know all they can about these two very important apps.

PS: When I write these pieces I feel like Tom Hanks in the final scene of Cloud Atlas. No spoilers. 🙂


About Dave Winer

Dave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.
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