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When he was a boy growing up in the ’70s, Michael Dhuey had an idea that computers could be used for more than crunching numbers and playing games.
Little did he know that he would help create tools that would change the way people live.
Dhuey has been at the forefront of several computer breakthroughs. During his 25 years at Apple Computing, he worked on the Lisa Project, which laid the foundation for the Macintosh. He also developed hardware for the little tool that’s become omnipresent: the iPod.
Now a technical lead at Cisco Systems, he’s a big part of the team that has produced TelePresence, a videoconferencing system that’s like a sci-fi dream from the ’60s. He was a finalist for Design News magazine’s Engineer of the Year in 2006 and 2007.
“I knew when I was a kid that I wanted to be involved in Silicon Valley,” Dhuey says from his California home. “I remember reading about it and saying, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’”
When he was 14 and about to enter high school in Milwaukee, Dhuey’s mother signed him up for a one-week science and math course that included three days of computer science. He loved it, especially the computer portion, and asked for computer access, which at the time meant a remote terminal linking to a mini-computer. He spent his summer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee working on programming and taught himself the language Basic. One day he visited the local Digital Equipment office, where he was allowed to take “some books from the back.”
“It turned out that was the documentation for all the computers, so I was able to figure out exactly how they worked,” he said. He was exposed to computers again as part of an explorer club and a visit to life-insurance giant Northwestern Mutual. He immediately thought, “How can I get a job doing this?”
The firm had a six-week course that covered computer programming for college graduates entering the firm. When Dhuey did three weeks’ worth of work in three days, they put him to work—even though he was just 15.
“My idols were people like Gene Amdahl, Seymour Cray, Steve Wozniak, who could do it all and were changing the face of computer science,” Dhuey says. “I already could program, so I thought if I could learn the hardware end of things, I would be able to design a whole computer. That’s how I wound up coming to UW-Madison and earning my degree in ECE.”
At the College of Engineering in the ’70s, Dhuey helped found the Adam and Eve computer group, a collection of people who loved and used the Apple II computer. At the time, the Apple and Tandy TRS 80 were the two main competitors, with the IBM desktop design still in the future.
“We were a small group, because not many people were involved with personal computers then,” Dhuey says. “There were a few people like me, and then some parents who brought their kids to learn about computers, and some small business owners.”
At the time, Apple was the only computer supporting spreadsheets with VisiCalc. “The business people saw that as something of value, something they could use,” he says.
The Apple II also had a 5 MB hard disk. It was the size of a breadbox and cost thousands of dollars. “Back then, floppy disks were the main medium, and they held mere kilobytes of data,” Dhuey says. “We were all in uncharted territory, and it was an exciting time.”
One of the Adam and Eve regulars was Rick Reuhl, who sold the Apple brand through his company Blue Lakes Computer. “Thanks to Rick and the group, I got to know the Apple system and how they operated through the supply chain,” Dhuey says.
While in California for an interview with Hewlett Packard, Dhuey dropped in on Apple. He had written a database program for the Apple II. At the time, Apple was small and privately held but it was interested enough to grant Dhuey an interview. Soon after, Apple hired him, and he headed off to Silicon Valley.
“Working for Apple was my dream job,” he says. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
He started out working on the Apple III and eventually switched to the Lisa Project, which produced what Dhuey calls a wonderfully elegant machine that cost thousands of dollars. It was a flop in the marketplace, but many of the Lisa advancements made their way into the Macintosh.
“That’s one thing I always loved about Apple,” Dhuey says. “The company is willing to spend more on research and development than many places are. A lot of the projects fail, but there is always something of value that comes out of them.
“And in many ways, the Apple of that time was the last refuge of the true computer designer. Hardware and software—we invented it all.”
Dhuey was finishing up one project when he was approached to be part of an Apple team working on a super-secret device. “We had a meeting, and I was a little puzzled. No one would say what the thing was,” he says. “I kept asking, ‘What are we making?’”
That secret project changed popular culture. He was helping to invent the iPod. “I was the hardware guy, and we only had about nine months to get it done and out for the holiday season,” he says. “I jumped in with both feet. I spent a lot of nights and weekends on it, and I traveled many times to Taiwan to meet with the manufacturer.”
Dhuey says he didn’t expect the iPod to have the effect it has.
“At first, it only ran with a Mac and only through a Firewire connection, so I wasn’t sure how popular it would be. Would this be another Newton?” he says, referring to a device that was envisioned as a reinvention of personal computing but wound up as a relatively unpopular personal digital assistant.
“MP3 players weren’t new,” he says, “but at the time they had little internal memory, unless one wanted a huge device, and a person had to be somewhat of a techie to rip CDs to them.”
The iPod’s big advantage was its proprietary 1.8-inch Toshiba hard drive, Dhuey says. “The battery was the same size, with a circuit board just behind it.”
Boosting the device over the top was its new user interface—the scroll wheel—and library system adapted from cell phone software. “All of a sudden, people could load their whole music collections onto one device,” he says. “As Americans, we like to be spontaneous. The iPod matched up with people’s desire for what they want when they want it. That—and the fact that it fit into a shirt pocket—really made the difference.”
Dhuey isn’t one to do the same thing twice, and his restless spirit took him to Cisco after he saw an opening on the firm’s website. Once there, he went to work on TelePresence, which he describes as kind of a small startup within Cisco.
Through the videoconferencing system, which employs fiber optics to connect sites through the Internet, people in one location are seen sitting around half of an 8-foot oval table. Through a 65-inch plasma screen, the folks on the other end appear to be sitting at the other half of the table.
“People look like they do in real life,” Dhuey says. “I have a persistent interest in photography and video production, so I had lots of ideas of how people should appear, with color balances and such, to get that human factor in there. So when you see someone, you see the expressions on the face, eye color, everything, as if you’re sitting across the table,” he says. “You can see if someone’s not paying attention, as opposed to a phone teleconference.”
Because it works over the Internet, the system avoids the lag apparent in satellite videoconferencing. “Light moves pretty well all over the world, so with these fiber-optic cables, you get the same level of performance everywhere,” he says. When told it resembles something from a science-fiction view of the future, Dhuey laughs. “Well, it is a little like ‘The Jetsons,’” he says. “We dont have the flying cars, but we’re making a lot of the other ideas that seemed so fantastically futuristic a reality.”
Dhuey says designers like him all know these far-out technologies will end up on our desks. “So we’re always thinking, ‘How can I make it better?’ It’s somewhat selfish, but thinking of how that machine will work for you, you do make improvements,” he says.
As for the next wave of computer engineers looking to make their way into the industry, Dhuey says: “You have to get lucky, for one thing. I found what I wanted to do, and I’m fortunate someone has paid me to do it. To break in, you have to go out there and do some things that might seem crazy. If they don’t work, try something else!”