A Brief Look at Apple's First WWDC in 1983: An Event With Many Questions About How to Use a Mouse and the User Interface Revolution

A Brief Look at Apple's First WWDC in 1983: An Event With Many Questions About How to Use a Mouse and the User Interface Revolution

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One of the most picturesque places in the U.S. is Monterey County. It’s located in the central and temperate zone of California, very close to San Francisco International Airport and San Jose International Airport, and considered today to be Apple's “home” on the West Coast. Among its most famous cities are Monterey itself, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach… and Big Sur. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

It's all interconnected. Monterey was the site of what is considered the first Apple developers’ conference in history, which took place in 1983. Back then, the event’s official name wasn’t the one that we all know today. It was called the “Apple Independent Software Developers Conference.” The “Worldwide” term it includes now was an impossible dream at that time when only a few explorers of the world of technology spent days together to talk about their passion: those increasingly small machines called computers and the programs they could create with them.


The term “Independent” referred to the fact that those programmers didn’t work for Apple. Rather, they were enthusiastic about the Apple II and Apple III computers. This change drove the technology of the time, starting with the Apple I: It was the first computer to be sold “assembled” and to have an interface that appeared on a monitor, unlike the old computers that had only lights as the means of communication with the user.

A Valley Full of Hackers (and Pirates)

WWDC Pirates were featured in magazines as a way to revolutionize technology. This is why it was always “better to be a pirate than join the navy,” as Steve Jobs put it.

Computer fairs or clubs were the only way to meet programmers, but the companies and their technical help were also needed in order to advance.

Contrary to what you might think, many people were interested in the emerging world of computing, even though it wasn’t widely understood at the time. New possibilities emerged every day. Apple Computer’s products showed promise, but there was still much work to be done. However, communication between programmers was difficult–there was no Internet at the time, and postal correspondence took too long. As a result, computer fairs became a crucial way for them to connect and share ideas, particularly in Silicon Valley.

Wwdc 3

Computer fairs were so common that the attendees themselves joined “clubs.” One of the most famous, and one that changed the history of the world of technology, was undoubtedly the Homebrew Computer Club. It was there that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak presented their first computer, the Apple I. Those meetings were necessary for the newly discovered world of technology to move forward. It’s interesting to note that practically everyone at that time was called a “hacker.” That’s exactly what they did: They modified those new machines and pushed them to the limits of what they were originally designed for. They were also called “pirates” (hence the name of the famous 1999 movie about Apple, Pirates of Silicon Valley), a term that Jobs himself would also refer to in the creation of the Macintosh.

The small meetings, although frequent, weren’t sufficient. Holding numerous annual meetings throughout the Valley wasn't enough because the crucial element was missing: The programmers needed to communicate with the creators of the computers. They required new information that couldn’t be obtained in any other way, and the creators also needed the programmers’ feedback to be able to enhance their products.

Wwdc 4 Another major fair at the time was the Apple Fest in San Francisco, held at the Moscone Center, which would later host Apple's WWDC.

Jobs and Wozniak recognized the importance of this interaction at the Homebrew Club. Apple's newly appointed CEO, John Sculley, who shifted from selling sugar water to attempting to change the world, also understood the significance of this at a marketing level. He wanted to position the company at the forefront, alongside all those developers.

That’s how it all began.

Monterey, California: Here’s to the Crazy Ones. The Misfits. The Rebels


It was necessary to find a convenient and accessible location in California that would be easily reachable for all residents. San Jose was initially considered, but it was already an expensive city for a company with limited resources. The company then looked at Monterey, a famous and popular location that connects Los Angeles with San Francisco. Monterey, situated at a good intermediate point within California, offered good dining options and places for rest. Plus, it was renowned for its beautiful coastline.

Wwdc 6 A perfect location for a convention: Close to the San Francisco and San Jose airports in the heart of the state of California and with the beauty of the coast and the Pacific. Monterey had it all.

That’s why Apple transformed those initial meetings into a central event that combined multiple meetings in one location: Four themed days where programmers, computer companies, and Apple came together to showcase their work and discuss future plans. This marked the beginning of what we now know as Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC).

Apple’s first developer conference established a foundation for collaboration between the two worlds: It was no longer just a gathering of enthusiasts, but rather a forum for working groups to achieve even greater progress.

Finding out what happened during those four days is a tremendously complicated task. The absence of the Internet at the time means that there isn’t much of a digital trail, but there’s one point of reference: the magazines of that time. I’ve always considered them to be authentic gems, like an insect frozen in amber, preserving snapshots of the past just as they were experienced and recorded. In my opinion, these magazines provide more information about the company’s activities in the ‘70s and ‘80s than almost any book, as the company was very active during that period.

WWDC Magazines were a key inside what was going on at Apple in the '80s: a real-time machine where we can examine everything that happened at that time.

Today, I want to recommend a lesser-known magazine called Apple Orchard. We could go on and on, but I’d like to focus on one of the articles from its October 1983 issue written by Don Norris, a Sunnyvale programmer with extensive experience with the Apple II. In this article, Norris provides an analysis of the first conference, offering valuable insights into the events of those days. You can find these issues published online at the Internet Archive, which is accessible from any browser. It’s a real treasure for enthusiasts like us, so I highly recommend checking it out.

A Look at the Future in 1983, the First WWDC as We Know It

Norris, the reporter who attended the event, wrote that the amount of information in those four days exceeded his expectations.

“A Look at the Future…” That was Norris’ title for his article. An accurate one, in fact. At the time, he considered this conference just one more in the regular cycle of Apple’s mini-conferences, but upon attending, he realized that there was a huge amount of information being disseminated. “A stack overflow… is exactly how I felt after attending the sessions,” Norris wrote. “How do you handle a 2 to 3-inch high (paper) stack of information from a four-day conference; a stack which could have been even higher if I had picked up everything available and been able to attend every workshop,” he added.

Apple’s new CEO, Sculley, was there. Norris mentioned him with some skepticism: “[He] sounded the general theme. His comments in general: Apple’s market positioning is to be the best, not the biggest. Apple would be marketing on a performance basis and not on price.” Norris even predicted what would happen years later: “[This] strategy has been pursued by a couple of other computer companies with some disastrous financial results.”

WWDC John Scully, Apple CEO in 1983.

The focus of the first day of the 1983 conference was on how to integrate data sharing between applications in a simple way. It seems trivial to us today, doesn’t it? However, there was no standard for transferring data between apps at that time. “The only thing close to a standard means of file transfer and format is an ASCII text file. Everyone generally agreed that while it was not perfect it represented a starting point,” Norris noted.


During this time, tech companies were developing tools to make software creators' jobs easier. It’s important to note that there were no development environments back then, and graphical user interfaces (GUIs) were still a distant dream. “An example is a new language called Classcal, which has evolved as a result of the Lisa technology. It is a marriage of Simula and/or Smalltalk (plus some other languages) and Pascal, and is designed to support object-oriented programming.” This was considered revolutionary at that time.

Believe it or not, it was revolutionary because these programming languages were loaded directly into the computer’s memory rather than being stored in the ROM of the machines at the time. “This gives greater latitude to the programmer; you do not have to make a hardware change when a bug has been cured” or when a new version was launched. If the language had been in the ROM, it would’ve required physically changing the chip.

Wwdc 11 The object of desire at the time: The tool to enter the new generation of computers that went beyond the command line.

According to Norris, everybody was buzzing about the mouse, which very few computers actually used in 1983. He wrote: “Several developers started asking specific questions about the device of Bruce Tognazzini, who was trying valiantly to maintain data security about the new concept. Bruce was unaware that El Presidente had let the mouse out of the bag, so to speak.”

Sculley didn’t want a mouse on the Apple II. He knew Jobs and his Macintosh would make a fool of him, and it was only a few months before its release.

Tog, the nickname Tognazzini was known with at Apple, was a vital employee from 1978. He collaborated with Jeff Raskin on the user interfaces of the first Apple computers. His initial task was to design a smaller, equally functional version of the Lisa GUI not for the Macintosh, but for the Apple II. This request came from Apple’s board of directors, without considering Jobs’ opinion. Instead, Jobs opted for an improved interface for the Macintosh, which was more powerful than the Apple II, instead of a “cut-down” version.

Wwdc 12 Jobs and his own team of hackers were creating the Macintosh, and it was clear at Apple's first developer conference, which was focused on Sculley’s Apple II and Apple III.

Norris’ statement is an attempt to explain the decision not to include a mouse in the Apple II. The board of directors feared that the introduction of a mouse would harm sales of the more advanced Macintosh. In reality, this fear stemmed from their concern about Jobs, who was leading the development of the Macintosh. They thought their own system would fare badly when compared to Jobs’.

In fact, Jobs himself wasn’t present at the developers’ conference, as he was fully immersed in the Macintosh project. At that time, he was also giving lectures at trade fairs, such as the International Design Conference, where he emphasized user experience. The difference in vision between Jobs and Sculley was apparent in a 1983 presentation where Jobs expressed Apple’s goal should be to “put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you that you can learn how to use in 20 minutes.”

Apple’s Destiny Was the Macintosh, But It Didn’t Know It Yet


In his Apple Orchard article, Norris further discusses Sculley’s message at the event, which was in complete contrast to Jobs’: “As to whether the Apple II or Apple III had been eclipsed by other machines, the answer from John Sculley was that we have not seen the last model of the Apple II or III.” Certainly, this highlighted the opposing directions taken by the two leaders. Analysts at the time already recognized the divergence, with one leader focusing on the Macintosh and the other persisting with Apple models that were selling well but had a clear limit to their potential.

The future of Apple for Jobs was the Macintosh. The goal was to “put an incredibly great computer in a book” that you “can learn how to use in 20 minutes.”

On the third day, there were demonstrations, including a new version of Catalyst. This software featured a GUI that, in its next version, would resemble what Lisa was at the time. It was used to move files between floppy disk drivers and launch apps. “This new version… features an inverse cursor over a menu item. The user can then scroll to the program he wants to use, and merely press ‘RETURN’ to run the desired program,” Norris wrote. This was quite advanced at a time when most actions were performed using the keys.

WWDC The version of Catalyst introduced in 1983 was much less advanced than this one. A year later, when the Mac was introduced, Quark mimicked the Finder, but it was too late.

An interesting point in the 1983 Apple Orchard article is when Norris recounts what he asked one of the developers there about why they didn’t create software for “the other horse” (IBM, or Baby Blue in their jargon). “The reply was that Blue provided no developer support, saying only, ‘Here is the gray box, you write your software for it,’” Norris says.

This differential point of accompanying developers and helping them grow at these conferences seemed to be paying off and concentrating them at one point (or several, but not too many) throughout the year. It was a great idea that managed to attract a lot of talent at the time, lost in the lack of resources provided by other companies.

The event’s last day focused on Lisa and its impressive Motorola 68000 processor, with officials urging developers to create software for it. “Developers are being encouraged to write software for Lisa and to take advantage of its powerful integrated software and ease of use for the end user... The Apple folks stressed their commitment to independent developers as being necessary to Apple’s success.”

No doubt: The GUI was going to be revolutionary. It was already captivating at the time, but it was terribly expensive until the introduction of the Macintosh. With a lower price and more power, the Macintosh was an appealing option for the public, and it would require programmers to maximize its capabilities. Apple’s ecosystem goes beyond the products. It also illustrates the importance of the relationship between product creators and software developers in events such as the WWDC, which remains essential today.

And it all began in Monterey...

What a great name for a new operating system, don’t you think?

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