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APPLE II (1977)

Vintage Game Consoles

The Apple II is one of the longest lived computing platforms in history, which, when looking at the list, really says something about its remarkable staying power. Along with the Commodore PET and the TRS-80 Model I, the Apple II was part of the original personal computing trinity of 1977, but unlike them retained its powerhouse reputation well into the 1980s. Even when it was overpowered by the Atari 800 and dramatically underpriced by the Commodore 64, the Apple II platform’s solid foundation, architectural flexibility, and expandability allowed it to remain com- mercially viable until production finally stopped in late 1993. In its more than 15 years on the market—a miracle by technological standards—it witnessed the rise and fall of dozens of deter- mined and worthy competitors. In short, the Apple II’s impact on the computer and videogame industries is difficult to overstate.

The Apple II commanded such loyalty, in fact, that Apple itself seemed reluctant to tam- per much with the formula. The IIGS, for instance, was a more capable, backwards-compatible model introduced in late 1986. Initially a sales success, the IIGS was hamstrung by Apple’s deci- sion to limit its technology—ostensibly to avoid competition with their new line of Macintosh computers. Within a few years, enthusiasm for the IIGS waned from both Apple and consumers, and the company’s focus shifted back to the original core technology found in the Apple IIe Plati- num, the last model off the production line in November 1993. Speaking of the Macintosh, it was the Apple II platform’s remarkable consistency that bought Apple the years it needed to build the Macintosh brand, which was in turn the bridge to unprecedented commercial success with the iPod and iOS platforms. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what the tech industry would look like today if the Apple II had remained a “crazy” dream of its eccentric designers.

The tale of the Apple II begins with two Steves from Sunnyvale, California. The first was Steve “Woz” Wozniak, a talented, socially awkward, but unflappably sincere engineer specializing in calculators at Hewlett-Packard (HP). He couldn’t have been a starker contrast to the other Steve, Jobs, the quintessential free-spirited hippy with remarkable charisma. Woz, five years older than Jobs, had been introduced to him by a mutual acquaintance, when Jobs was still in high school in Cupertino, California. The two computer wizards became fast, if unlikely friends, engaging in constant pranks and making money selling “blue boxes,” illegal devices used by “phreakers”— phone system hackers—to steal free long-distance calls and eavesdrop on private conversations.

Jobs became Atari’s 40th employee in 1974, serving the innovative young company as a will- ful, but unremarkable hourly technician. However, he soon left Atari for a year-long hiatus to India, returning to work with a shaved head and traditional Indian garb. It was the type of wild, ballsy, and utterly unpredictable behavior that would help cement Jobs’ reputation as a true eccentric. Whenever Jobs took into his head to do something, he’d do it—regardless of the conse- quences or what other people thought.

Atari had scored big with its arcade version of Pong, and was soon to repeat its success with its famous play-at-home version. Jobs, hired back on at Atari as a night-shift engineer, was asked to create a prototype for a single-player, vertical Pong variant called Breakout.

The goal of Breakout is to clear rows of blocks at the top of the screen by bouncing a ball off a small, movable paddle at the bottom. It’s a fun game that many people still enjoy in various incar- nations today. However, at the time, the technology required to create a Breakout machine was too costly to make it profitable to manufacture, so Atari needed a seriously streamlined design. Faced with this daunting engineering challenge, Jobs sought the help of his old friend Woz.

Rumor has it that this is exactly what some combination of Nolan Bushnell, Steve Bristow,

and Al Alcorn wanted Jobs to do. The team at Atari had witnessed Woz’s impressive self-built

home Pong clone, but failed to woo him away from HP. Nevertheless, Woz was a fan of both Atari

arcade games and engineering challenges, so he came to his friend’s rescue. He completed the

bulk of the work in only four days, with an efficient design that used far fewer chips than any

other Atari arcade game at the time. Atari’s engineers were pleased and gave Jobs a nice pay-outandbonus—mostofwhichhefamouslykeptforhimself. Breakoutbecomeanothersmash hit for Atari, even though the company had to compromise somewhat on Woz’s design by add- ing more chips (Woz’s design was actually more efficient than the company could successfully manufacture).

other Atari arcade game at the time. Atari’s engineers were pleased and gave Jobs a nice pay-

After years of hardware hacking and his two dalliances in videogames, Woz was inspired by Don Lancaster’s TV Typewriter design and the recent availability of the inexpensive MOS 6502 micro- processor to begin work on a television computer terminal. He realized that one major stumbling block for the nascent home computer industry was the lack of a cheap and effective means of dis- playing output. Computer hobbyists could either content themselves with a row of flashing LEDs or ante up the big bucks for a video or text terminal. Neither solution was particularly desirable.

Woz had been attending regular meetings at the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, where many of the industry’s pioneers shared their ideas and passions. Inspired by this creative and highly motivated group, Woz soon demonstrated a prototype that would ultimately become the Apple

Computer, known later as the Apple I, or Apple-1. Really nothing more than an elegantly-designed circuit board with a low-cost MOS 6502 microprocessor, 4KB RAM, and expansion connectors, the Apple I nevertheless laid the foundation for the juggernaut Apple II. Unfortunately for them, nei- ther Atari, who couldn’t justify the diversion of

funds, nor HP, who didn’t see the value in per- sonal computers, showed any interest in the prototype. Nonplussed by this rejection, the two Steves formed their own company, Apple Computer, on April 1, 1976.

Working out of Woz’s bedroom and Jobs’ garage, the two soon began production of the Apple I. The ever-persuasive Jobs negotiated with a local hobbyist computer store, the Byte Shop, for an order worth $50,000. Credit, time, and supply constraints were tight, but the Byte Shop order was met, and the computer store provided full-stroke keyboards and wooden cases to its customers to complement the circuit board. Through the Byte Shop, as well as magazine coverage and advertisements, Apple had slow, but steady growth from sales of its first computer. It was a promising start, but it’s doubtful that even Jobs predicted the scale of the success just around the corner.

Even before they officially released the Apple I, Jobs and Woz were thinking up new features. They frequently updated the design and shared their progress with their fellow enthusiasts at the Homebrew Computer Club. The eventual result was the Apple II. Even though little time had passed since the first Apple, the new unit improved on it in nearly every way. It sported a com- plete molded plastic enclosure with full-stroke keyboard, external peripheral ports, and eight easily accessible internal expansion slots. Even if some might look at it today and find it clunky, at the time it was the sleekest home computer anyone had ever seen; the Ferrari of the industry.

Appropriately enough, the Apple II owes many of its innovations to the Breakout game. The Apple II was clearly designed to be something special, and, as Woz recalled in the October 1986 issue of Call-APPLE Maga- zine, “a lot of these features that really made the Apple II stand out in its day came from a game, and the fun features that were built in were only to do one pet project, which was to program a BASIC version of Breakout and

show it off at the club.” As a result of his Breakout ambitions, Woz’s design for the Apple II came to incorporate color graphics commands, circuitry for paddle controllers, and a speaker for sound. With these standard features in place, the Apple II offered technology that its rivals in 1977, the Commodore PET and Tandy TRS-80, simply couldn’t match.

As impressive as it was, however, the Apple did suffer one very noticeable limitation: it relied on the ubiquitous but cumbersome cassette tape for data storage. The Apple II’s built-in cassette port could read and write data using any decent off-the-shelf cassette recorder, matching most other computers’ storage abilities at the time. Although cassette recorders were slow and unreli- able for storing computer data, they were cheap, which made them the early standard over more reliable disk-based systems that could cost more than a computer.

Luckily for Apple, Woz had more tricks up his sleeve. His next act was a design for an effi- cient, speedy, and relatively inexpensive 5.25-inch floppy disk drive called the Disk II, which was released in 1978 to instant and near-universal acclaim. Disks soon ejected cassettes as the storage medium of choice on Apple systems, and it would take competitors years to catch up to Apple’s decisive lead with this important storage technology.

The early disk standardization complemented the platform’s color graphics and sound, as well as its well documented and versatile architecture, making the Apple II series the preferred target of both application and game developers well into the 1980s. As a result, even though other platforms easily outsold and eventually outperformed the Apple II series, fans of these rival systems often had to settle for quick and dirty ports of games originally designed on and for the Apple II.

By 1980, the company boasted nearly 1000 employees and had outgrown several office spaces. In December, Apple Computer, Inc., successfully went public, with a valuation close to $2 billion. Several millionaires were created in the process, Jobs and Woz among them. In 1981, after an injury received in a plane crash, Woz took a leave of absence and returned only briefly before departing for good to explore educa- tional, charitable, and other business ven- tures. Meanwhile, Jobs became chairman of Apple.

In 1983, Jobs appointed John Sculley, then president of Pepsi-Cola, to become president and CEO of Apple. By 1985, significant differ- ences between Sculley and Jobs led to Jobs’ resignation. He didn’t lose much sleep over it, founding both Pixar Animation Studios and NeXT Computer shortly after. He didn’t return to Apple until 1997, when, older and wiser but still indefatigable, he began the remarkable turnaround of what had become an ailing and financially weakened company in his absence.

1979–1983: The Apple II+ (aka, II Plus) included 16–48KB RAM, six-color display, and a new BASIC from Microsoft, which established critical new base specifications for the computer line. It was also at this time that Apple allowed media equipment specialist Bell & Howell to make the only authorized clone, a black Apple II+ with special audio/ video ports and a case accessible only with a screwdriver. This special Apple II+ was targeted at schools, where Apple hoped to firmly establish their platform. The strategy worked, and countless American school children received their first exposure to home computers courtesy of the Apple II+.

Model Highlights

What follows are some highlights of the major Apple II and related systems released in the United States:

• 1977–1980: The Apple II initially included 4KB RAM, a four-color (later six-color) display, built-in Integer BASIC, two game paddles, and one demo cassette. It was available preassembled or in kit form.

1979–1983: The Apple II+ (aka, II Plus) included 16–48KB RAM, six-color display, and a new BASIC from Microsoft, which established critical new base specifications for the computer line. It was also at this time that Apple allowed media equipment specialist Bell & Howell to make the only authorized clone, a black Apple II+ with special audio/ video ports and a case accessible only with a screwdriver. This special Apple II+ was targeted at schools, where Apple hoped to firmly establish their platform. The strategy worked, and countless American school children received their first exposure to home computers courtesy of the Apple II+.


1984–1990: The compact Apple IIc was introduced with 128KB RAM and a built-in 5.25-inch floppy drive. The IIc+, whose pro- duction replaced the IIc’s, was introduced in 1988 with a faster 4 MHz processor, high-capacity RAM expansion option, and a 3.5-inch internal disk drive, which had the same 800KB capacity as the drive for the Apple IIGS. The first Apple Macintosh was released the same year for just under $2000, though the price was soon raised to just under $2500 (about $5400, adjusted).

1986–1992: Apple released the 16-bit Apple IIGS, the true backwards compatible suc- cessor to the original 8-bit II-series of computers. Although Apple was built on the back of the II-series, within a few years the Macintosh began to receive most of the company’s attention and resources, and by 1987 was consistently outselling its brethren.

Apple II Forever

Despite the famous proclamation of “Apple II Forever” during a 1984 event to unveil the Apple IIc, “forever” ended about ten years later when Apple committed themselves exclusively to the Macintosh. Nevertheless, for technology with roots as far back as 1976, the Apple II series of computers had an amazing run. Indeed, it still enjoyed a remarkably devoted fan base, and if Apple had continued to fully support it instead of lavishing its energies on the Macintosh, who knows, maybe the Apple II series would still be in production today.

One of the reasons the Apple II was so successful was that the inner workings of the hardware was made public, whereas other manufacturers treated such things as trade secrets. Another key factor was being one of the first systems for which a disk drive was an expected end-user acces- sory. Developers took advantage of the Disk II standard, and within a few years there was an explosion of disk software. As stated in the December 1983 issue of Electronic Games magazine, “Just about anything the acquisitive computerist might want for his or her system is available to the Apple II owner.” This was no exaggeration.

The Apple II had two major disk operating systems, DOS 3.x and ProDOS, each of which might be needed to run specific software that didn’t automatically boot. DOS 3.1 (not 1.0 due to internal versioning) was released along with the original Disk II. In 1980, DOS 3.3 was the last new version of the original DOS released. It supported increased disk capacities and a new sec- tor format. The new format required a conversion before old disks could be used on the newer disk drive, which had an updated ROM.

Since the original Apple DOS was designed exclusively for Disk II, ProDOS was released in 1984 to make mixed disk formats and hard drives more accessible, as well as faster and more flexible. Based on the Apple III’s versatile Sophisticated Operating System (SOS), ProDOS was able to support the II-series for the entire original run of the systems and through to the present day. In 1986, with the release of ProDOS 16 1.0 on the 16-bit Apple IIGS, the original 8-bit Pro- DOS software’s name was changed to ProDOS 8 with the release of version 1.2. The last version of ProDOS 8, version 1.9, was released in 1990.

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston created the first “killer app” for the business world with their VisiCalc spreadsheet software in 1979, but the II-series was not destined to rule the office. That honor, of course, would go to the IBM PC and its endless clones, which are discussed later in Chapter 1.6. However, Apple still enjoyed a lucrative slice of the business market well into the 1990s, with plenty of software for both professionals and casual users. If the Commodore 64 (released in 1982) was the low-cost computer for the masses, the Apple II was the more refined and tasteful computer for the classes.

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