Skunkworks At Apple
December 22, 2004 9:22 AM   Subscribe

The Graphing Calculator Story. Amazing and very amusing article about the conception of a piece of software included with every Macintosh. Made at Apple... by volunteers.
Q: Do you work here? A: No.
Q: You mean you're a contractor? A: Actually, no..
Q: But then who's paying you? A: No one..
Q: How do you live? A: I live simply..
Q: (Incredulously) What are you doing here?!

posted by kika (34 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
well! there you go then.
posted by jimmy at 9:33 AM on December 22, 2004

I enjoyed reading this. The punchline in the end made me smile.
posted by linux at 9:48 AM on December 22, 2004

/.filter! w00t!

This is a bizarre story. As a former corporate drone, the mere concept that two people could infiltrate the corporation long enough to develop software that ends up included with EVERY Mac gives me the shudders.
posted by socratic at 9:54 AM on December 22, 2004

Very good reading for anybody who ever (a) thought that graphing calculator was the coolest thing Apple had done in years and (b) has actively been prevented from getting good things done by management in a company.
posted by weston at 10:03 AM on December 22, 2004

neat story. thanks for the link.
posted by glenwood at 10:04 AM on December 22, 2004

Excellent story. A good example of volunteers outstripping the power of labor.
posted by derangedlarid at 10:04 AM on December 22, 2004

This is very cool. I don't think I would have the motivation to ever do something like this, though, especially for a company that laid me off or terminated my contract.
posted by CMcKinnon at 10:15 AM on December 22, 2004

I enjoyed this. There's a team right now in my company working on a project because they believe in it. It has no backing or support, does not exist as a product, but the team managed to sell one and are trying to prove it's viable.

Why do people have to circumvent management to help it? Sad....
posted by TeamBilly at 10:18 AM on December 22, 2004

I never used GC after a few fun test runs when my 7100/66 was brand new.

But damn, that's a fun story. Great post.
posted by Epenthesis at 10:18 AM on December 22, 2004

Wowee wow wow. Awesome story! Now this man is a true hacker.

Graphing Calculator was the best toy to ever come with a Mac. Except for maybe that thing on the SE where you got pigeons to get off a building.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:19 AM on December 22, 2004

As socratic noted this was on Slashdot yesterday. In this thread the story is posted in plain text.
posted by hendrixson at 10:29 AM on December 22, 2004

As socratic noted this was on Slashdot yesterday.

And, of course, everyone here reads Slashdot every morning, as well as Fark, Something Awful, DailyKos, Little Gr**n F**tb*lls, and every single other news site and blog on the Internet. I thought it was a good article, and I never would have seen it if it hadn't shown up here. Thanks, kika.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:41 AM on December 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

This is very cool. I don't think I would have the motivation to ever do something like this, though, especially for a company that laid me off or terminated my contract.

As the author explains, he wasn't working for Apple. He was only working at Apple so he could get the software finished.
posted by Evstar at 10:42 AM on December 22, 2004

The Tiger "graphing calculator" Apple has shown is not based on Pacific Tech's, unfortunately. However, Pacific Tech does finally have a Mac OS X version.
posted by kindall at 10:45 AM on December 22, 2004

I can't decide how I feel about this story.

As a long-time programmer, I always have at least one personal project going at any time. I put in long hours on these projects after I come home from the office. Maybe someday one of these things will make a buck for me, but probably not. The important thing is to see a cool idea work. I understand why this guy would want something similar.

On the other hand, why would you want to contribute to a for-profit corporation without being paid? You have only so many hours in your life, and even the highest salary can't really compensate you for that time. (When the Reaper comes calling, the richest person in the world can't buy even one more hour.) Donating a piece of your life to a company seems uncomfortably like the sort of voluntary slave relationship you see among sexual fetishists.
posted by bshock at 10:50 AM on December 22, 2004

Please note that I was not deriding the poster for putting the link on metafilter, but instead was making an observation about the cultural filtration that would result in this link appearing both on /. and metafilter. I would hold any metafilterer (mefite, whatever) responsible for noting "via slashdot" if slashdot were, in fact, the source. So, in less grave language, good post, thanks, and kudos to all of you blessed souls who do not frequent /. :)
posted by socratic at 11:05 AM on December 22, 2004

On the other hand, why would you want to contribute to a for-profit corporation without being paid?

The author discusses this at the end. One of the reasons is the opportunity to have millions of people use his program. If he tried to distribute it himself without putting it on the Apple machines, his software would probably not have had the impact that it did.
posted by jsonic at 11:15 AM on December 22, 2004

I remember very clearly when my school got a batch of new Apple computers in the lab. I immediately told my friends that there was this totally cool new software that would let you fool around by making crazy graphs, and the best part was that the teachers would never notice because it looked like you were doing something math-ish.
We wasted a countless number of class periods doing this. Of course, I'm sure the teachers knew all along and let it slide since we were doing some sort of learning with Graphing Calculator anyway. Those teachers, they're a tricky bunch.
Anyway, awesome story. I never realized how close I almost came to not being able to screw around in the computer lab.
posted by Hadroed at 11:15 AM on December 22, 2004

Great stuff. If you liked this, you might also want to check out "The True Story of Audion".
posted by gwint at 11:19 AM on December 22, 2004

Not that there weren't 10^42 other ways to fool around in the computer lab. But GC was my favorite. I'm a geek.
posted by Hadroed at 11:23 AM on December 22, 2004

I got the link via email, I don't read /..
(The last dot is punctuation, not a UNIX command line thingy. I'm not that geeky. Or am I?)

Of course I should have checked if it wasn't posted on /., BoingBoing, MonkeyFilter before.
posted by kika at 11:33 AM on December 22, 2004

Anotehr reason why he did it: I'd imagine it looked damn good on his resume. Position: Hero Salary: None
posted by fshgrl at 11:37 AM on December 22, 2004

If you like Apple caculator stories you might also like this one.

As for the graphing calculator, it's wonderful and I particularly like the fact that they want to give it away so that it reaches more kids (there is now a free beta of the new OS X version). There is a standing offer on their web site for a free Windows version if only it is included with the standard distribution of the OS -- which they have never been taken up on.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:45 AM on December 22, 2004

Graphing Calculator was the only reason I kept around "Classic" on my Mac. I'm glad there's finally an OS X beta.
posted by tss at 12:37 PM on December 22, 2004

That was an awesome story. Thanks, kika!
posted by Lynsey at 1:11 PM on December 22, 2004

I now have endless praise for a piece of software that I've never used in a meaningful way (beyond ahhhh pretty geometry!) and don't think that I'll ever use... odd.

but a great story.
posted by blindsam at 2:11 PM on December 22, 2004

Excellent. My fave link of the day. An an escaped (and never to return) cube-prisoner, this sort of story is both inspiring and hi-larious. Especially when you know first-hand just how pathetic most corporate 'security' really is.

And bshock - While I see your point, I would wager that these folks wound up with a much more memorable experience than they ever would have had had they done this while having been normal, paid employees. Personally, all of the dumbest, most transformative, most random, and utterly challenging things I've ever done with my life have been wholly free from (financial) compensation. Does that necessarily make them exploitative exchanges?

True, our time is short, but our spirit is boundless. And money? Well, money is merely a tool. Hardly a hammer even. More like nails.
posted by sfslim at 2:29 PM on December 22, 2004

This makes perfect sense. When I worked for a very, very large multi-national subcontracted to an even bigger multi-national, I actually got a written reprimand for fixing a mission critical server that my team wasn't responsible for. Never mind that no one knew who was responsible for that server, that I was there and that I had the expertise to do it.

If you want to get anything done in a large company, you have to do it without the knowledge of said company. This will not change, no matter how many TPS reports you fill out.
posted by QIbHom at 2:55 PM on December 22, 2004

I loved the article... it made me feel a moment of joy quickly followed by a dark cloud of realization: People just don't ever feel this way about databases.

I've got some wicked Access relationships, seriously.
posted by dismitree at 2:59 PM on December 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

Genius story, great post. Thanks.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:17 PM on December 22, 2004

PS: I looked up his news story on LexisNexis, the story with the photo. It's there, just as he said. I felt compelled to look because the story was so good it was almost too good. I was wrong: it's provably true.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:36 PM on December 22, 2004

I knew I should have been a programmer. Somehow doing skunkworks articles at a newspaper just isn't as appealing.
posted by bugmuncher at 8:42 PM on December 22, 2004

This post is a great example of why I spend my time reading Metafilter, not Slashdot. My RSS feed picked up the /. article about this and I read through it a bit after I read through the hilarious antics at Apple.

I'm probably remembering wrong, but I don't recall seeing anyone doing anything except bashing this guy and calling him a moron. I happened to think this was absolutely great. I'm glad that other people seem to think so as well.

This had a friend and me laughing out loud most of the way through it. Good story, and that man certainly had dedication.

Upon spell checking it came to my attention that "Metafilter" isn't in the dictionary it uses. That rather tickled me.
posted by Stunt at 2:20 AM on December 23, 2004

Fantastic story, fantastic work.

I can understand skunkworks projects, though I've never done anything like what they did. A project I did after-hours w/o permission turned out to launch a new division of one of my previous employers, and was the only one turning a profit at the time.

I didn't feel like a sucker for making somebody else money. I just felt glad that I finally made something other than shelfware.
posted by mosch at 7:25 AM on December 23, 2004

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