Apple Mac’s Bill Atkinson still at work on iPhone and iPad photo app

It’s nice to see Macintosh pioneer Bill Atkinson get another boost of buzz on CNET for what the programming virtuoso calls his best work.

PhotoCard is Atkinson’s effort to save the tangible postcard from extinction. But as I wrote in 2010, it’s a lot more than that.

Atkinson, who designed the put-a-dent-in-the-world Mac programs MacPaint, QuickDraw and HyperCard, doesn’t do things half way. He is a brilliant thinker and a perfectionist, two characteristics that can lead to some fairly phenomenal products.

PhotoCard hardly seems in the league of Atkinson’s early Mac work, but his passion for the iOs app is unmistakable. The app let’s you send a hold-in-your-hand lamintated post card (featuring a photo you took) from your mobile device to your loved one’s mailbox.

Atkinson watches over users’ postcards almost every step of the way. From his home office high on a hill in Portola Valley, he reviews the cards customers have submitted. He puts them in a PDF form and ships them to a high-end printer in Santa Clara. The cards are printed there and sent off to the post office. (Remember the post office?)

 “I am now a digital postal worker — I shepherd along these little packets of love,” Atkins told CNET writer Dan Farber. “Nobody sends hate mail on a postcard. I want it to be beautiful, not like junk mail.”

Farber does a nice job of providing Atkinson’s biography, touching on his early work in neuroscience, which fascinates him still; his interview with a 23-year-0ld Steve Jobs; his days at Silicon Valley legend General Magic; and his rich photography career. The photos with the piece are pretty cool, too.

I was lucky enough to spend several hours — and share a couple of lunches — with Atkinson as we talked about PhotoCard. We talked about everything from mapping the human brain (much of which was beyond my human brain’s capacity to absorb), his on-again-off-again friendship with Steve Jobs (which seems like the only kind of friendship there was with Steve Jobs); the importance of getting color just right when printing anything worthwhile; and his love for his wife, Sioux.

The guy is a Renaissance man who sweats every detail. When it came to PhotoCard, he even convinced the U.S. Postal Service to allow him to affix his own digital stamps to the cards, so that they wouldn’t get mangled while running though the PO’s elaborate postage machinery.

He worked that system out with Endica, a Palo Alto company that has an interesting story of its own. 

I’ve been a PhotoCard user and fan for the past few years. And I’ve got to admit that it’s a special kick to be able to send a picture postcard from the Grand Canyon to grandma and grandpa that features the grandkids in the foreground.

We’ve got Bill Atkinson to thank for that.

(Bill Atkinson talks about the original Mac he worked on at the Computer History Museum in September 2010, by Mercury News photographer Karen T. Borchers.)


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