Episodes

Who Invented VoiceOver?

13 Letters
February 20, 2020

PART ONE: Mike Shebanek made Apple products work for everyone. He wasn’t always an accessibility maven, though. Mike worked his way up to become the product manager for some of Apple’s most famous and influential products – from the original iMac to the first-ever iPad. And when he found himself pushing for the failing consumer electronics company to develop and deploy a free, built-in screen reader for what was then considered a niche community of blind students, many might have called him crazy. What followed was not only Apple’s rise as both a mainstream company and an accessibility leader, but a ripple effect which changed the whole industry and motivated our world’s largest companies to show that they, too, could develop technology that works for everyone. Part 1 includes discussion of Mike’s early days at Apple, and the events leading up to the creation of VoiceOver. Part 2 includes discussion of Apple from 2004-2013 and Mike’s ensuing work at Yahoo/Verizon, where he created a model for accessibility departments that has been recreated all over Silicon Valley.

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Episode Transcript

Cordelia:
Hey everyone.

Will:
Welcome to 13 Letters. This is episode number one. I'm Will Butler.

Cordelia:
I'm Cordelia Mcgee-Tubb.

Will:
And we are the hosts of your podcast that you're listening to now.

Cordelia:
Yes, we are.

Will:
This is the first episode and I'm excited to be launching it, with the support of Be My Eyes. I dragged Cordelia into this ordealia, and we are really excited to be exploring accessibility as it's coming into mainstream consciousness. Cordelia, what are you interested in exploring as we talk to all these great different guests over the course of the next several weeks?

Cordelia:
Yeah. So, working in the digital accessibility space, I'm just really curious to hear the stories of other people who are also in this space. Hear about their successes, and if they want to tell us about them, their failures.

Will:
Totally.

Cordelia:
And really just, like you were saying, explore how accessibility is creeping more and more into mainstream tech.

Will:
You're an engineer, right?

Cordelia:
Yeah, I'm an engineer. I'm an accessibility engineer, which is half engineer, half consultant. Yeah.

Will:
Well, I'll have to pick your brain about that later, in future episodes, because I think people will... There's just a lot of mystique around titles, and what do people do in their jobs? And whatnot.

Cordelia:
That is a good topic.

Will:
Yeah.

Cordelia:
How do people get their titles? We have another episode coming up where we will talk a little bit about whether or not to get certified as an accessibility specialist.

Will:
Oh, yeah.

Cordelia:
Or accessibility professional.

Will:
Yeah.

Cordelia:
Yeah. I'm really looking forward to all these interviews, so thanks for dragging me into it, Will.

Will:
Of course. I'm very non technical so I'm just relieved to have someone here who understands all the different acronyms and things that are going to be lobbed our way, because I think much more in terms of stories and the way that people perceive things, and that sort of thing. It's going to be a fun season.

Cordelia:
Absolutely.

Will:
Do you want to talk about our first guest?

Cordelia:
Yes.

Will:
What did you know about Mike before we had him on the podcast?

Cordelia:
I knew that he was a legend. I honestly really didn't know very much about Mikes work, so I'm super excited that he could join us on this podcast, and reveal so much more than I ever possibly could have imagined about the history of voiceover, and assistive tech in general.

Will:
Yeah. We expected to talk to Mike for about an hour maybe, and his story... I mean, this podcast was brought to you by... What did we say?

Cordelia:
By the word, wow.

Will:
Because we just sat there with our mouths open the whole time.

Cordelia:
Wow.

Will:
Some really cool stories about Steve Jobs and the time at Apple without Steve Jobs which is interesting. You don't hear about as much.

Cordelia:
Yeah. So I guess we should just stop rambling about it and let people hear it themselves, yeah?

Will:
Let's do it.

Cordelia:
All right.

Will:
Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Shebanek. I don't want to say ladies and gentlemen, that's stupid.

Cordelia:
Because there are people who are not ladies or gentlemen.

Will:
Yeah. Okay. I don't want to say stupid either. Oh God.

Cordelia:
I like the word folks. All right folks.

Will:
All right folks. Without further ado...

Cordelia:
I could only think of cliché as, sit back and enjoy.


Will:

Enjoy. Sit back, relax...


Cordelia:

Hold on to your seats.


Will:

Mike shebanek. The great. The mighty.


Cordelia:

I do really want to do... I just hit my head on the sink. I do really want to say, and now we will kick this podcast off the way that voiceover was [inaudible 00:03:54].


Will:

With Mike Shebanek. Where did you grow up?


Mike:

Well, I grew up in southern California. So, I grew up in a little city called Orange, named after all the orange groves that used to be there. When I was a kid it was still pretty undeveloped and there were orange groves you could ride your bike through and things. It's about 15 miles away from Disneyland.


Cordelia:

Were you always into computers and technology as a kid?


Mike:

I think... I would say yes. But tech wasn't tech back then. I'm pretty old. I grew up in the late 60s, early 70s, and so tech at the time would be like a cassette recorder or an eight track tape. I remember my dad had gotten a reel to reel portable recorder. Nobody probably remembers this, but Mission Impossible was a cool show at the time, and they had the famous tape recorder that would self destruct, and so it was a gimmicky thing for this company to get something like that and send to their teams, he was a sales guy. But he gave it to me and I just remember playing with that reel to reel all the time. Pushing the buttons, recording things, playing it backwards, trying just everything I could. And so I think, yeah. I must have just loved tech even before maybe tech was cool or happening.


Cordelia:

You're a tech hipster.


Mike:

I'm a tech hipster. Yeah.


Will:

Original.


Mike:

But I loved science fiction and things. I was thinking back, I loved watching Star Trek before there was a Comic Con, before Star Trek was cool. It had been off the air by the time I was a kid but I just loved the whole, what could the future bring, what could life be like? And just loved things that I read, like lots of science fiction novels like Heinlein, Starship Troopers and Asimov's I, Robot, so I was... It was a weird thing because I was into sports. I played tennis and hockey but I loved technology and nerdy things and so I don't know how that happened.


Will:

It's amazing how much of the future all of those sci-fi guys predicted. It's just like, some of those books from-


Mike:

Yeah. It's funny you say that because I wonder how much of that was a prediction of the future that was inevitable. And how much of those things that they wrote and talked about became our subconscious marching orders. When you're growing up as a kid you think, why isn't it like 2001? Why don't we have flying cars and jet packs? And all these other crazy things. And so it's funny, I don't know. Maybe it was just meant to be but those are always in the subconscious of at least my generation growing up, the world could be like that, why aren't we making that?


Cordelia:

Yeah. In my living I have a little Spock Barbie doll, or Spock Ken doll, just holding his little communicator-


Mike:

It's an iPhone basically, right?


Cordelia:

Yeah, yeah. It's just a very thick iPhone.


Will:

You worked with guys like Steve Jobs and people who shaped our futures in big ways. Do you think they were inspired by sci-fi and reading those things and taking them to heart, or putting them into practice?


Mike:

I can't speak to Steve, and I've worked a lot with other people when I was at Apple, but I do remember having a conversation with Jony and it was just a quick little-


Will:

That'll be Jony Ives?


Mike:

Jony Ives, right. The lead designer for iPods and iPhones and Macs and all the stuff you know as Apples design language. And I remember talking to him way back in, I think it was '99 or something, and when we were in the design lab there. And he did bring up the idea of 2001 A Space Odyssey and talked about the sleek minimalist... They had the scenes where everything was white, and it was all hard edges and glossy, and so he didn't say too much more than that but it was certainly on his mind. And then I remember we switched design languages from the five fruit flavors of the iMac into that crystal white and silver iPod, and you could get the feel that, that may be what he's thinking about, and I'll leave it to him to tell whether that was truly an inspiration or not, but I know it was certainly on his mind, at least a little bit.


Will:

I guess you don't... No respectable professional is going to admit that they're just cribbing technology ideas from sci-fi, but you just have to imagine that these literary visions of the future were on peoples minds when they were building. Right?


Mike:

I think so. I don't think you can get away from it. It's part of the culture growing up. We have these great television shows and movies and books, and thinkers and opinion people and all of that factors into what we make and who we are. And I think at the time as we were building these things and thinking about these things, we don't think about any of that. We just thought, what's the best thing we can make, what would be cool to have, how can we solve a problem, what would people love? And I think the rest of it was just osmosis. It just worked its way in, it was there latently perhaps. But nobody ever said, "Hey, they did this in the TV show. That's what we are going to build." That's crazy. We were just trying to build and make the best cool thing we could, but I think all of those things influenced us. And hopefully the things we made are influencing future generations.


Will:

How did you get to Apple? Did you go to college?


Mike:

I did go to college. I went to... We call it Cal State Disneyland. Cal State Fullerton, which is down the street. It's our euphemism. Go Titans. And so I studied... Originally I was going to study engineering, mechanical engineering. When I was in high school we had really great draughting instructor. I loved it and I thought, I'll either be a mechanical engineer or an architect. Loved drawing. And then through a whole bunch of circumstances I ended up changing my senior year in high school to a new school. Which I would not recommend to anyone. New friends, new... It was pretty tough. But got through that. Interestingly enough they had a course in computer programming, and they had one old terminal that was a time share system connected to a local college that was 30 miles away. And so you could register to have 30 minutes on this, once a day, and you'd basically get a time slice of what the main computer was doing, back in the minis and mainframe days.


Mike:

And so I learned basic programming and realized, hey, I'm actually... This is pretty good. I get this. I'm doing really well in this class. And it changed my thinking of, maybe this is a career that I could have. So, when I went to college I took my first semester and thought, I think this computer thing might be a big deal. It may have a future. So I quickly, smartly, thank goodness, changed my major to computer science, and ended up graduating with a computer science degree. But amazingly I didn't go into programming. At the time, desktop publishing was a really big deal. I had worked at the computer center through my time at school there, had run a computer lab, had taught in... Actually running a lot of the computer cabling on the campus. I made data cables and ran cables back for all the different offices there.


Mike:

I got to be a computer operator on the mainframe, ran the punch cards, did all these kinds of crazy things. I had a really diverse background in technology before I even got to my first job. I can remember at the time, this is probably '87 I think, somewhere around there, thinking... I was sitting in my office in the computer lab and I just remember thinking, I really missed the moment. Steve had come and gone at Apple and I thought that was going to be the coolest place to be, making a Mac, who wouldn't want to do that? But he came and he was gone. It was like, oh man, if I had... And I really remember thinking, just sad, I'd missed it. If I had just been born five years earlier I could have graduated, maybe had a chance, gotten there to work. And it would have been cool to even work there a year, that would have just been incredible. And I thought, man, I just can't believe it. It's never going to be like that again.


Will:

Spoiler alert.


Mike:

Mike had missed the moment.


Will:

Mike had missed the moment.


Mike:

But it's an interesting lesson because you never know when your moments going to come. And if you just look at things and you look back, you think, oh, if only this or only that. But you're in a new spot and new things are happening every day, and you never know what the future is going to bring. When you say how did I get to Apple... So, originally I wanted to go to Apple and I think I applied for some crazy position and they laughed me out of the place. They were like, "You have no experience. You don't have a doctorate. You're not going to work here. Give me a break. Why did you even apply?" It was just that bad. I was like, oh. Just kicked in the gut.


Will:

How many people do you think worked at Apple at that time?


Mike:

It was pretty big back then. This is when it was doing really, really well. And taking off, right? There was Apple Two Mac and all these things were going on. And I thought, well, if I've got to get experience maybe I'll just keep working at the university. And I ended up working at the Cal State for a couple of years in administrative computing, or academic computing support, and then I went to University of California Riverside, and worked about five years there, and became, as it turned out, the Mac person there. And so I handled all the network design for Apple Talk. People might not remember what Apple Talk was but it was the first data network to connect computers together. It was built into the Macs. And connected them to the computer workstations running UNIX.


Mike:

Did run a random Mac user group out there. And got to be pretty well known. They had a brand new engineering department at the College of Engineering and they were going all Mac, which was really unusual. They needed a Mac expert so they brought me in to do that. And through that I ended up meeting the Apple rep on campus who realized, hey. Everybody is going to this guy to find out what to get. What to buy. How to put it together. What is recommended. And pretty soon he realized, this could be a really useful guy to come to Apple. So he kept asking me, "Hey, would you want to come and be a systems engineer, a technical resource?" No. I said no. [crosstalk 00:13:15] go to Los Angeles and do that? That's way too far away. The traffic is a killer.


Cordelia:

They laughed you out of the place, it sounds like, the first time.


Mike:

Yeah. I know, right? And so then a couple of months went by, or six months or so, and they said, "Hey, we have got another opening. Do you want to do this again?" This is in San Diego. And I thought, well, San Diego is pretty beautiful. Have you ever been to San Diego? It's gorgeous. But I asked a couple of friends of mine who worked at the company, and they said, "Oh, man. You probably don't want to do that. The office might not be long for this world." And sure enough, the office closed down and so it was like, oh okay. And I kept spinning and getting some more experience and trying things out. And then eventually they said, "Oh, we have one that's in Orange County." So I could come back home from Riverside and become a systems engineer. And so I thought, that's the one. And so it took... And even after I had interviewed, it took about six months. And even my old manager said, "I think you just need to let it go. They're probably not going to hire you if it's been six months. You just want to get back into it."


Mike:

But eventually it just clicked in. I just stuck with it. Yeah. My first day [inaudible 00:14:16] my first day on the job I went from working for the state of California, right? Where it was hard and fast, eight to five, breaks for 15 minutes at 10:00 in the morning and 02:00 in the afternoon. Only get what you need. Lowest cost thing. My first day at Apple we were having a retreat. I was like, "What do you mean retreat?" They were, "Well, we are going to a retreat." And I went to a retreat in the Palm Springs area, I'm trying to remember the name of the place, La Quinta, which is a really famous resort. I didn't know anything about it at the time. And we walked in and there was chairs, and there were little gift boxes on every chair. And I said, "Whose getting those?" They said, "Well, everybody gets one." I'm like, "What do you mean? You're just giving these away?" They were, "Yeah." And you opened up the box and it was either a Newton MessagePad, which was the coolest PDA personal digital system at the time. Or a QuickTake camera, which was the first time there was a digital camera.


Will:

Wow.


Mike:

And that's what I said. "Wow. What have I just done? This is great. I'm in La Quinta and we're getting gifts. This is going to be terrific." Little did I realize the company was going out of business very, very fast. And so a lot of people had told me, "Why are you going to this company? They're going to be out of business really, really fast." And I thought, well, if they are, they are, I don't care. I need the experience, I'm all in, I'm just going to go for it and see what happens. And so, I became a technical resource for sales, back to universities in southern California for two years. But I had... As part of that and part of my work at the university I had gone to these really big product launches and they were huge events. This is before there was conferences and [inaudible 00:15:44] and streaming, and so the only way to get to one of these things was to be invited, and I happened to get invited to one. When they were launching the Mac 2FX, and it was called the wicked fast Mac. It was really cool. But I remember it was at Universal Studios and there were... It was like a rock concert. There were light shows and music and things flying on the stage, and all kinds of crazy stuff.


Will:

Was this early 80s?


Mike:

This would be late 80s, I guess.


Will:

Late 80s?


Mike:

88 maybe, something like that. We would have to go back and look and see when the Max FX-


Will:

Post Steve Jobs? Version one.


Mike:

Steve Jobs wasn't there at the time. I think it was Jean-Louis Gassee was running Apple at the time.


Will:

Okay. Wow.


Mike:

Another funny character. But I just remember looking at the guy on stage, his name was Frank Casanova, and he was introducing this thing. He said, "Hi, I'm the product manager for this new cool Mac." And all I could think of that whole time was, I want to do that. That's what I want to do. I don't know what it is, but I want to do that. And I had the chance to work with Frank ultimately, which was really cool and become really good friends with him. So I always told him the story. I'm like, "You inspired me to want to come and do that job." And so, being a product manager for Apple was like at the top of the heap, because you were in charge of everything about that product.


Mike:

Making sure it was a success, no failure, had the right features, price, all those things. And so I had the opportunity to move to Cupertino two years later, and become a product manager for the first time. And I was a product manager for Servers, for education. So was a low ranking thing but it got me in the door. And that really put me in the right place ultimately, to do the work I did on accessibility later, because I needed this foundation to understand how things got made. I moved up in '96 to work in Cupertino to work with the research and development side, R and D we called it. On Infinite Loop, the famous old Apple building. Now they're in the new cool UFO big space ring, right?


Cordelia:

Which again is like a sci-fi throwback, right?


Mike:

Oh my gosh, yeah. All glass. So I started working on servers and things and at that point, the company was getting really, really in bad shape. And we were losing money and people weren't buying our product, and Windows '95 was coming out shortly, or just about then and things were looking really, really grim.


Will:

Remind me again, what year Steve Jobs returned to Apple.


Mike:

97 I think.


Will:

So you worked there in that gap before he came back.


Mike:

I did. And I got to see-


Will:

What was it like?


Mike:

It was... It's interesting you asked that because as a kid who just wanted a chance, just get me in the door and let me have a chance, and let me see what this is like, coming all the way in from southern California, not a real technical place in terms of technology jobs and things. And the consumer space. Most of it is aerospace and defense and things like that. Which wasn't interesting to me. I was thrilled out of my mind. I didn't care what was going on around me. I'm like, I'm meeting amazing people, I'm getting to be part of this legacy of this company, I'm getting a feel for what Silicon Valley is like. It was still...


Mike:

Even in the midst of Apple having so many difficulties the field was burgeoning. Every day there was new product announcement, somebody was coming up with their cool new idea. And so, it was just really invigorating. Now, looking back on it, now that I'm older, its been 20 something years, I think, oh my God. That was crazy. I look back and I think, they were running out of money, they were running out of customers, their technology base was terrible. Everybody was leaving the company. It was a disaster. Thankfully I was completely naive to all of that, and just worked away.


Mike:

There was a bit of the story I didn't add in there, which was interesting which is, when I worked at the University of California Riverside, a new computer had come out. Unlike anything else. It was called a NeXT computer. And it was the company Steve had started leaving Apple to go start this new company. And to this day, my favorite computer I've ever worked on is a NeXT station. The thing was absolutely incredible. Mega pixel display, UNIX base, workstation performance, ethernet built in. The game Doom was invented on this system, so I was playing Doom before anybody knew what it was. The World Wide Web eventually was developed on this computer system. It had real chops. It was great but nobody knew anything about it. And they would only sell it to universities. And I thought, people need to know about this. This is really cool.


Mike:

I wrote a book. And so I wrote a book called The Complete Guide to the User Experience of NeXTSTEP. I forgot the exact title but it's something like that. It's been a long time. And just really poured through it to think, how can I help people who don't have access to this know what is going on? Because this is truly state of the art. It was the first [inaudible 00:20:13] programming system. So a lot of things we take for granted today about how you build software and build computers, was all in this machine. And it was a dismal failure, it turns out. And so I wrote my book just when that company was going under. And so they didn't really get a lot of traction, but when I came to Apple and through a whole series of events they were thinking about, we need to get some technology, who do we buy this from?


Mike:

NeXT was one of the contenders. And it turned out I knew a lot about that contender, and they won. And so, it kept me in the game at Apple, and allowed me to stay and help people understand like, what does it do? How does it work? It became OS10. The software that ran that computer is OS10. And so all of those things that I had learned about and worked on, turned out to be the future of the company. And with that acquisition of the NeXT company came a bunch of really amazing employees, including Steve. And here I am, working with Steve. That's a miracle, right? It's unbelievable. I thought there was no way this company is going to bring Steve back as part of the acquisition.


Cordelia:

He was an acqua-hire?


Mike:

He was an acqua-hire.


Cordelia:

That's wild. I did not know that.


Mike:

When they brought in the NeXT company, yeah. They needed the new system software to replace Mac OS because it was built so long ago it just couldn't get to the future and they had to start over. It's crazy. Absolutely crazy isn't it?


Cordelia:

Buy that company, we also call that a boomerang. It's there then you come back again.


Mike:

And of course he looked around and went, "This place is a complete wreck. It's not going to make it until tomorrow." Long and short of it they reorganized the company, they chopped it down to the bare minimum, and Steve basically said, "Look, we've got to really simplify. We can't be doing a thousand different things, we've got to do one thing really, really well." And my manager came in and said, "We're going to move you, they're reorganizing. I'm leaving the company." He eventually came back and is still there, which is terrific. But he was just incredible. And he said, "I'm putting in this new group. It's product management for consumer and educational computers." I said, "Okay. I get the education piece but I don't know the consumer space." He goes, "You're going to be fine." "Are you sure?" I was really anxious. I'm like, "I don't know how to do hardware. This is a whole different thing."


Mike:

He goes, "You're going to be great. Go over there. There's a new guy you'll work for. He's going to be terrific." So I show up in the new office and it was Worldwide Product Marketing for Consumer and Educational Hardware. And the long and short of the story is, the first thing we are working on is called the iMac. The very first one. The bondi blue original one. And it was famous for so many different reasons, because it was a blue-ish gumball rounded, plastic device. It was all in one. It was the first computer that had actually from start to finish been conceived of as, how do you get on the internet? Up until then everybody had to patch and put together things, and getting on the internet was really hard. It was complicated. You had to get a bunch of companies, you had to install a lot of software, drivers-


Will:

You basically had to have a modem or you had to be sure that the unit you were buying is installed with a modem.


Mike:

Yes. And so in the modems of course, is a modulator demodulator, which basically means you have to hook your computer to the telephone line, the land line, not even cellular back then really. Although we had cellular it wasn't fast enough. And then you had to set up a bunch of settings and then you call a service. And the service at the time, it's funny to think that... I don't even think anyone knows the name anymore but it was EarthLink. It was one of the biggest companies in the US to connect people to the internet.


Mike:

And AOL of course was doing their famous disk CD giveaways, trying to get people online there. So those two companies were competing. So, we designed this thing so that you would turn it on and the famous commercial at the time was there are three steps to the internet, with the new iMac. You plug it in, you turn it on and then of course, there's no step three. It just got on the internet. Which was pretty cool. So here I am, at this company, and I'm working on the coolest new product and it's a fashion statement, and it's the coolest technology. It was insane.


Cordelia:

It's wild.


Will:

I remember the internet, the modem, the phone jack.


Mike:

Right.


Will:

Was built into the chasse of that iMac.


Mike:

Just plug the cable in.


Will:

It was clear that the internet was... Even if you... To a kid of... What? I was 10 years old at the time. It was clear that this was for the internet.


Mike:

Yeah. We had a welcome experience when the machine first ran. Computers just stared at you. They just sat there. And so our computer, when we first turned it on would actually run a little welcome and say, welcome to the Mac, let's get started, how would you like to connect? Here's what you need to do. Type in the following and then bam, you're on the internet, and off you went with your web browser and email and you're off your races. So that whole experience... And the other thing that was fun about the iMac that people forget now, you used to be able to tell how good a computer was by how heavy the manuals were. The thicker, the heavier the manual, the more that computer could do. And so you would unwrap your computer, you'd put all the parts together because it was a PC, and hopefully it worked and then you would go and get the manuals and it would be like an encyclopedic set. And you're like, "I don't know how to do any of this but look at all this stuff it can do."


Will:

Wow.


Mike:

And we threw all that away and said, "No way." And we had a poster. And it was just fold the poster out and it had four pictures on it, and that was it. And people thought we were crazy. Like, how are they going to know what to do? There're no instructions. That's impossible. But this out of the box experience, the whole concept of lets see what it looks like out of the box. That started with the iMac. Where people were taking them out of the box going, "Wow. This is amazing. It's packaged beautifully and it's got just a poster. There're no manuals, you don't need to know anything to use it." It was really inviting. For a lot of people their first experience in school or at home was on an iMac, getting on the internet and making it easy. That was a really important lesson for me, because when we come later to accessibility and making mainstream things easy and intuitive, and logical, and consistent, a lot of those lessons for me were learned back in that iMac experience.


Cordelia:

Did you know at the time that this was going to be such an iconic computer?


Mike:

That's a great question. We had no idea. We thought it was cool, but it was so wild and different that we didn't know if anybody else would think so too, or if they would just laugh. And initially I think some people did laugh. They were like, "What is that gumball thing. That can't be a serious computer?" But it was really obvious once you started using it, and this was another really great lesson I learned. We talked a lot about how fun it was and how easy it was, and how great it was, but when you actually got one, which was really rare, it was better than we said. People would get one home and go, "Oh it does this, this and this too. They didn't even talk about that." And that was a really staunch lesson that Steve drilled into us, but also the culture of our company was to over deliver. Make it better than you say, make sure it does what you say it does but have it be more enticing after the fact. And so again when I come back and we talk a little bit more about accessibility and work I did on voiceover, that was a really significant bit in the back of my head, is how do make this even better than we say it's going to be when people finally get it in front of them?


Will:

I was obsessed. I was 10 years old when we got the bondi iMac, and... Was it 98 or 99?


Mike:

I think it was 98.


Will:

Yeah. Maybe I was nine. That thing was like a third parent. That thing raised me. I learned to edit movies on it, I did some of my first making music on it. I did some of my most creative, early creative writing on it. I was communicating on Instant Messenger for the first time on it. I learned how to type. I had the Performer before but that gumball changed my life and so many peoples lives. You really can't overstate, I think, the impact that it had. It's really interesting. And the impact that it had on user experience as a whole new direction to a user experience.


Mike:

Yeah.


Cordelia:

And I just found out right before taping this, that Will and I are almost exactly the same age. So I didn't have one, we were a PC household so I didn't have-


Mike:

Like everybody, right? That was what you had.


Cordelia:

Exactly. But at school it was just a line of these beautiful, colorful computers, where we did a lot of typing games, and got introduced to the giant black hole that is computer gaming in general.


Mike:

Right. You fell in and never got out.


Cordelia:

Yeah.


Mike:

Well that's cool. I'm glad that it had that impact on you. And of course that's what we were hoping for, and wishing for and everybody on the team worked... It's hard to even describe how hard everyone worked. And you asked did we know it was a success? There was a meeting where Steve said, "Look. Here's the deal." He said, "We basically have 90 days left and then we are out of business." And you could hear a pin drop. Because we knew it but when you say it, it's different. And when your CEO says it, it's really different. And he said, "So, this can't just be a good computer. It can't just be one of our better models. This thing has to be unbelievable. It has to be the greatest thing we've ever made. Because if it's not, just turn off the lights." And so, the pressure of making it the absolute best it could be, was huge.


Cordelia:

But then to your earlier point of, it wasn't even... The fact that you all thought it was very good, but then once it gets in the hands of consumers it's even better than what they expected. That's so rare when a company is in that trouble. Usually they just ship something, and they're like, MVP, let's get it out. And this is a polished thing that's just going to be better than you could ever imagine.


Mike:

I got that lesson. I remember I walked into my managers office one time. I said, "How's it going?" He goes, "Okay. Well, we are on track but we've got a lot to do." And I said, "What do you need from me?" And he said, "I need you to go through every folder on the computer and on the software in the system software. I want you to go through every picture, every file, every name, every folder, every icon, everything. And I want you to figure out what needs to be there and what doesn't need to be there. And if we get asked why is it there? We need to an answer." So I spent weeks looking through every pixel. Going to every file, to every folder, renaming things that had weird computery names to have simple people names, that we could all understand. And I got a really great lesson there about the level of detail it takes to do things like that. And I thought, there's nobody in their right mind that's going to spend a person...


Mike:

There was only two of us as project managers. My manager and me and he thought this was so important I was going to dedicate a couple of weeks of my time to making sure that was perfect. So that anybody, anywhere that would open any folder, anything on that computer, it would make sense, it would be logical, and if didn't need to be there, it wouldn't be there. So, minimal, simple. And that was the kind of detail. I had a Superman Clark Kent existence at the time because we couldn't tell people what we were working on, right? It was super secret. So my public persona was product manager for USB. And so I helped introduce... And this computer was going to be USB only, which was the first computer in history to do that. There was no going back. You couldn't take an old thing and plug it in. It's like, it was USB. But at the time it was so new that many people didn't even know what it was.


Will:

I can't remember. What came before USB?


Mike:

Well, on the Apple World it was a whole collection of crazy technology. It was Apple Desktop BUS for the keyboard. And it was Apple Serial for connecting modems. And it was SCSI, Small Computer System Interface, remember those? With terminators and SCSI startup numbers, and you had to restart the thing to get it to configure for hard drives and optical drives and things like that. And we threw all of that away. And of course, every time you made a change you had to turn the computer off, make the change, turn it back on, have to reset itself and learn what was connected. USB you could just plug things in any which way you wanted to. And you couldn't make a mistake with the cables and it was fast. And you could power things from it and so it was really cool to introduce that technology. And to my complete amazement we are still using USB today. I mean, no technology lasts two decades and yet we're still... In fact there's more USB now than I could ever even imagine. So it was interesting.


Will:

The thing you said about redesigning the whole folder, going through the folders. That, what you were doing, was what became the buzz word of that era which, when it came to Apple which was user friendly, right? Making it user friendly. And I was young but that was the first time I had heard that term and I think maybe a lot of people had heard that term. Like, personal computers should be user friendly because that's not what defined PC at the time.


Mike:

That's right. PCs really came out of the hobbyist mentality of, hey, we can give you a bunch of parts and you're smart, and if you care you'll put them all together and figure out how to make them work. And Apple and Steve and the design team really were about something completely different. Like you were talking about, it's not really minimum viable product but what's the most polished thing we could deliver? So it was very different, you're right. And users were certainly central to everything we did. If it was complicated or hard they didn't understand it, it was out. We did something else.


Will:

So, when did you start thinking about accessibility...


Cordelia:

I was going to ask the same question.


Will:

We are going to take a quick break.


Mike:

Okay.


Will:

But when we come back we are going to talk about how we made all this user friendly software, user friendly people who can't see it all.


Mike:

Cool.


Will:

Hey everybody. Will here to read the ads. Sort of. 13 Letters was created by Be My Eyes, but it's a collaboration of the whole accessibility community. That's why to keep the show strong for seasons to come, we are inviting companies to come on to sponsor. Whether you're new to your accessibility journey, or you have an accessibility related product or service that you want to share with the world, email us at 13letters@bemyeyes.com. That's 13letters to inquire about sponsorship. And now back to our interview with Mike Shebanek. Do you ever think about writing a book?


Mike:

Absolutely. That's why I was going to retire and write books, but now I don't have any time.


Will:

Okay. We will talk about that later. I'm going to be honest, I have not read Walter Isaacson or watched the Jobs movie. And it's not for lack of caring about all this stuff because I bought Apple stock when I was ten years old. That iMac inspired me to buy Apple stock. But if I had of held on to it I'd be a millionaire today. But I sold it after the iPod came out and I was like, "Oh, it can't get any better than this."


Mike:

A lot of people thought that, yeah.


Will:

Then a year later the phone came out. But I'm not steeped in the legend of Steve Jobs. And there's not reason to go into why I don't particularly dabble in it but how much of this stuff is written down? How much of this history is from your point of view, and how much of it do you think is synthesized from the lore around the company?


Mike:

Well I think there are a lot of myths and legends and there's a lot of truth in the myths and legends, but there's also a lot of untruth there too, like you would expect. I think there's a lot more to be said about those times. Apple at the time was very secretive because it was very common for another company, based north of Apple, to take everything they did and make it for themselves. And so it was very clear that we needed to keep things quiet until they were shipping. That began a culture of keeping it under the vest, right? Keeping it close to the vest. I don't know that much about those times has been told as probably ought to be. It's fun for me to share some of this, which I haven't really ever shared publicly before, so thanks for inviting me to your podcast. [crosstalk 00:35:58]


Will:

-gracing us with your presence.


Mike:

No, it's fun.


Will:

So turning to accessibility. When did you even learn that word? When did you start to think about accessibility in any sort of prototype of way?


Mike:

Well, I think probably in 2004, I would say is when it came to the forefront for me. You're right. It was learning about what the word accessibility is and what it means, what it stands for. I have to fast forward a little bit from what we were talking about earlier. I spent 19 years at Apple ultimately, and so there is a lot of history and I did a lot of product work from the beginning at iMac to the end. But to help us get to this place, I ended up becoming the product line manager for all the models of Mac computers, iMac, eMac, iMac Flat Panel for a couple of years. And eventually there was a move to change to the Intel processor from what we had used to be using which was Power PC. I won't go into all the technical details, but basically it's a brain transplant. And it waffled between whether we should make a new computer that did that or tell other people how to make that computer. And the long and short of it is, I ended up moving with this project to the OS product marketing team. And that turned out to be a really credit goal thing. Because I had already done five years of work on the hardware and how we made hardware products. Now I was learning how we wrote software and did the OS and applications.


Mike:

And so, I worked in that space and helped make that transition successful, so that we could sell the new computers and Apple could take off and do really well. Now all the computers you buy from Apple have Intel processors in them, which is really nice. But along the way, there was a moment where I was like, okay. You've done that, now what do you work on? And so, I was doing odd jobs. I worked on software update, I worked on this thing called Dashboard. I worked on a bunch of things. One day my manager walked... My new manager walks in the office and says, "Hey. We have an interesting problem." I said, "Well, what's up?" He goes, "Well..." This is my favorite part. He goes, "It'll probably only take you two weeks." I'm still doing this as my career.


Mike:

He says, "It turns out there are some students in the state of Maine, that have vision loss, vision disabilities, vision blindness," whatever the thing happened to be. "And they need to use a Mac." I said, "Well, why use a Mac?" And he said, "Because it's one of the few states where they have mandated every seventh and eighth grader in the state as required to use a Mac computer. And it's provided to them by the state." Which was great, because they were really upping their game in terms of teaching kids in a traditionally non technical area, how to work on technology. So it was really cool. But, because these kids were part of the school system and they wanted a Mac like everyone else in their school got a Mac, they needed a solution. And the solution was going to be a screen reader. And so my manager said, "Can you go and figure out what a screen reader is? And can you figure out how we get one on the Mac and make it happen?"


Will:

Load one up.


Mike:

Just simple, right? Just go out and get one and then put it on there and give it to them. Whatever it costs, whatever it takes, lets just solve the problem. Great. That sounds really interesting. Really? People can't use a computer if they have vision loss? Okay. So that got me into my quest which was, lets go figure this out. And I'm naturally curious so I want to go figure out what's the problem. And then I realized I don't know anything about this. I know nothing. Zero. Nada. And I don't know who to ask. And because we are a secretive company I can't just run around and say, "Hi, I'm from Apple. We are talking about a screen reader." That's just not going to happen. So I had to start doing a lot of homework, and I remember I talked to this person at Apple, named Mary Beth Janes who was fantastic, and Travis [inaudible 00:39:27] was another one but Mary Beth really kept the lights burning for accessibility for a lot of years.


Mike:

I guess I should back here for a moment because Apple had been a worldwide leader in this. In the Apple 2 days, in the late 70s, early 80s, they were the worldwide leader. And there was a guy named Alan Brightman who had started the worldwide Disability Solutions Group. He hired a guy named Gary Molten who I ended up working with later. They had this idea that personal computers should be accessible. And I remember him telling me, Alan Brightman telling me this story of going to John Scully, the CEO, and Steve Jobs before Steve was ousted from the company, saying, "If you're going to build a computer for the rest of this, then you should build a computer for all of us." And much to his surprise they said, "Okay, great. Go make it happen." And then of course they were like, "Ah, what do we do?" And they ran off and started inventing the technologies that we now take so for granted, that are built into the system settings of computers and phones and everything else, to make them more accessible to people.


Will:

Those are things like simple text to speech?


Mike:

Yeah. Things like sticky keys, mouse keys, larger text, a lot of those settings you'll find in your Mac. And they're still there to this day. But the idea that they should just be included and the computer should be more adaptable and user friendly, that was really taking it to the right place. But as we mentioned, the company was starting to fade and fade fast after Steve left, and there was a bunch of changes of management, and so accessibility just disappeared. Probably for about 10 years, so it was gone before I got there. And now here's 2004, and my manager is saying, "Hey, what are we doing in this place?" And I was like, "Nothing. We have nothing." Now, it turned out we were actually doing a lot in the system software with these things called the AXAPIs. This is the hooks in software that you write programs to, and if you think of software as a layer cake, the bottom layers were delicious but there was no frosting. There was no top layer to present it and finish it as a cake.


Mike:

So we had these things that were really in good shape but we needed to build something on top. And that could be built by us, at Apple, or could be built with somebody else. And so, it came to me uniquely to go figure out, do we go buy something? Do we go make something? What do we do? And I started looking around the internet and I don't know if YouTube was around, maybe it was but it was really... I can't remember. But I happened to come across the only video I could find. And it was Neil Ewers from the Trace Center, from Wisconsin, who had a little two minute video, that said introduction to screen readers. And he was showing how JAWS worked. And I was glued. I was like, "Wow. Really? This is how it's done? This is the state of the art?" And I would love to say that's amazing, but I was horrified. I was like, "What year is it?" And I had just invented this Mac, well I didn't, but our company did. It's the easiest thing to get out of the box, turn on, get on the internet and it's so simple. And then I was watching poor Neil using JAWS amazingly well. But his fingers were flying like a concert pianist. There was keyboard shortcuts and things are talking-


Will:

It's concert pianist level.


Mike:

Its crazy, right? And so I thought, there's an opportunity here. We have got to fix this. There has got to be... There has to be... And thankfully I was naïve because it's really hard. If I'd have known anything I would have said, "No. That's about as good as it gets." But I didn't. And so I thought, there's got to be a better way. Apple has got to be able to figure out something. We can figure this out. The long and short of the story though is, I remember approaching through our development relations teams, different companies who either had or were currently doing screen readers, either previously on the Mac or Windows or other places. Because I just wanted to make sure that if we moved forward on this that there wouldn't be any complaints later of, "Hey, we had an opportunity and you took it from us," blah, blah, blah. So we did ask, and they all laughed at us and said, "You're out of your mind. Apple is going out of business. Why would I do that small market, that's crazy." Or, "It's not going out of business but it's small enough that it just doesn't matter to us because nobody uses Macs anywhere but education, or home, or publishing." And so they just didn't care.


Mike:

And so, one opportunity came up where we could pay them to do it, and so we could have gone to a third party and said, "We're just going to give you the money. You guys are experts, go build this and we will fund you." And then they could sell it and do whatever they wanted to do. So that was a possibility, but I had it in mind that not only did we need a change of technology, we needed to change the business model. Because when I started to ask people what they loved about the screen reader, obviously they loved the fact that it enabled them. They were able to get jobs, they were able to do things, communicate, et cetera. But I said, "What don't you like?" And then the list started growing really long, and thee words were coming much faster. It's really expensive. It's really hard to learn. It doesn't work with the current computer technology, it's always a couple of years back. It doesn't work with the apps that I want to use. It crashes a lot.


Mike:

There was this whole list of things where it was the best thing available by a long shot, but even the best wasn't as good as even pretty much the most casual type of software you could buy across the counter at the time. That was the problem because companies didn't have a big market to sell to. There wasn't a lot of money to put into it. There wasn't a lot of business opportunity. And for a consumer, like I said, I want to go buy this, where do I get it? They said you just can't go and buy it. What do you mean I can't? You have to go talk to value ed resailer. You've got to go and talk to a consultant. You've got to talk to the department of ed. You've got to have a special in to be able to get this software. I realized, wow, it's expensive and it's hard to get. And then I realized quickly, if you were a developer and you want to write software to work with this, you have to pay for every single engineer, effectively a tax of about a thousand dollars.


Mike:

And I thought to myself, could I even convince Apple to do that, with all the money they have? Not a chance. So it came really quickly to me, we changed the whole thing, not just deliver a screen reader but change the whole idea. And that's when I thought, we need to build this in. We need to make this free. It needs to be everywhere. It needs to be there before you know you need it. That's what I thought. But now I have to go pitch this. I talked to an engineering manager and said, "Here's my idea. What do you think?" And they were like, "Well, we need to talk to some people." And so, that led us to a meeting with our chief technical officer who is just amazing, Bud Tribble. And I remember going with my engineer and me, and this engineering manager and Bud, and we are sitting in this room, and we are talking it through. And I can't remember if [inaudible 00:46:01] was there, he might have been. But it was basically, "Let me explain the possibilities."


Mike:

And so I walked through it, and I said, "We could get a company to build it for us, they could sell it for X dollars. We could build it." And I said, "We could sell it for 700 or 600 or 500 dollars, whatever." And I said, "We will never sell that many. But we could do it." And I said, "I don't know what we could do, we could do a bunch of things." And I remember him looking at me and he had that look on his face like, all right. I guess. But he goes, "I get the feeling there's something else you want to ask." And it was a good lesson in there for me about being more bold when you believe in something. Because he could tell. And I said, "Well, there is another idea but it's completely insane. But if we do it, I think we could own this market. And I think we could change the way that business is done across the industry." And he goes, "Oh, well, what's that?" And I said, "I think we should... I'm just going to go for it." I've had a nice career if he throws me out it's been good. And I said, "I think we build it in anqd make it free and it should be on everything we make."


Mike:

And I said, "There's a laundry list of reasons why. Because then it's built at the same time, it's delivered at the same time as the latest technology. It's there before you need to know it. It's consistent across the entire platform. It's one thing you need to learn. You learn it once, you learn it everywhere. The developers don't have to pay for it. They have a test tool to use with it. It's going to be fast, and it's going to be..." Just a whole host of reasons. And he gave me the nod a little bit, and he goes, "I like that. I can sell that." And he was like, "I'll go talk to Steve." And we took that yes and got the heck out of that room as fast as we could.


Mike:

But I remember thinking, wow. And we walked out of that room and I looked over at my engineer friend whose name is Eric Seymour and he's the guy that's got incredible talent. Engineering talent. He had worked on X Code which was the development tool for Mac, and knew all the APIs and everything. And he had two kids that were severely disabled and so he was passionate about this field and this thing. And technically really incredible, one of the best engineers we had at the company. And we were walking out the door and I said, "Okay. Well I guess we have our marching orders. Do you have nay idea how you want to do this?" He goes, "I don't know what we are going to do, how we are going to build this." And it was like, okay, but we've got what we want.


Will:

Which is?


Mike:

We have the green light to make it free.


Will:

Without having the iPhone screen reader, or any of the readers, the screen reader tools yet, you probably couldn't have really even imagined what an impact... What that meant.


Mike:

No idea. No idea. All we know is we need to know how to solve this problem, not just for the kids in Maine, but because it needed to be solved. And I had known about the history of Apple and the worldwide development or Disability Solutions Group, and I was proud of it. I remember when I was in sales way back in the day, and so I knew about it and was aware of it, but was disappointed it had left and I'd always thought, why aren't we doing more of this? It was because the company was going out of business and didn't have any time or opportunity to take it on.


Mike:

But it suddenly fell to me and I thought, we can do this again. And so suddenly, what became an effort to build a new screen reader, which has its own incredible story, ultimately became an effort to recreate the accessibility program at Apple. And expand it beyond just vision loss but for hearing loss, mobility, all the different disabilities, to try and solve those problems. And that was, for me, probably one of the bigger rewards of the whole project, is that it didn't just close at the end. Because a lot of times at Apple, you build a product, and then it's okay, great. We are moving you on to something else. We've got something else important. But they allowed me to stay working on accessibility.


Cordelia:

For more than two weeks?


Mike:

For more that two weeks. Yeah. Yeah, I worked on it from 2004 until 2013, I think it was when I left. So a long time.


Will:

And that's just chapter one. We split up this long two hour interview with Mike into two parts. So go and tune into the next episode to hear not only about how Mike really cemented the legacy for accessibility at Apple, but then turned around and helped introduce a whole lot of other people in Silicon Valley to accessibility as well. 13 Letters is a production of Be my Eyes. Thanks to my co-host Cordelia McGee-Tubb. Our consulting producer is the one and only Sam Greenspan. Email us at 13letters@bemyeyes.com. Thanks for listening and subscribing. See you soon.