Apple II Computer Marks 30 Years as PC Breakthrough

Full disclosure: I did not own a personal computer until well into grad school, and at most used one on occasion in college to type up a few papers.

It's true I availed my childhood self as much as I could of my neighbor's Apple II; this, however, was solely to play "Ultima," or "The Prisoner," or any of the number of games that seemed to flourish in Apple Computer's first heyday.

So I cannot say that for me, the Apple II sparked a personal computer revolution, not personally. But it certainly did for others, and perhaps, over the last 30 years this month, created a new world for many.

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Although the first Apple II shipments to customers were on June 5, 1977, the computer made its debut on April 16 and 17 of that year at the first West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, according to Paul Kunkel's 1997 book "Apple Design."

"Steve Jobs bought a key booth, right by the front door," recalled Bruce Damer, the curator of the DigiBarn Computer Museum.

This tactic paid off: Kunkel wrote that "at the end of the first day," orders outstripped production capacity of the company that Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had hired to manufacture the Apple II's plastic case.

Despite the then-steep price of $1,298 (in 1977 dollars), monthly sales quickly reached $84,000 and annual sales nearly reached $1 million — for a company that was barely more than a couple of guys.

"You could think of the Apple II's importance on two levels — the Woz level and the Steve Jobs level," said Sellam Ismail, the proprietor of VintageTech, which maintains archives of computers, documents and software. ("The first time I used an Apple II was at a cousin's in 1982," Ismail said, "and I got my own in 1984, when I was 13.")

The "Woz aspect," Ismail said, was "the accessibility of the machine for those curious and bold enough."

Ismail said that the Apple II offered a system monitoring utility built into the computer's ROM that allowed users to program in assembly or machine languages, dissemble code on the spot for debugging, and more.

In addition, Ismail said, the Apple II's system manual was so comprehensive and detailed that one could teach oneself a serious amount of computer hardware and software engineering — which is exactly what Ismail did.

"The other early consumer computers of the day — the TRS-80, the Commodore PET — were good computers, but they didn't approach the openness of the Apple II," he said.

"The Apple II was a personal computer," he added, "but it was also a hacker's computer."

He noted that the built-in joystick port was designed to be used as a general I/O (input/output) port, which allowed this home computer to hook to printers and networks, or take in data from lab instruments — even control external motors.

In contrast, Ismail said, the "Steve Jobs angle" of the Apple II's impact was the way it was presented to consumers.

"The molded enclosure looked appealing; it was all packaged together and ready to go," Ismail said.

Damer agreed: "The Apple II showed that you could have a computer be a piece of consumer electronics — it was friendly while still being powerful, offering a good keyboard and good color graphics."

"Where the Apple II was incredible, other computers at the time were like owning a car in the 1920s," Damer said. "You had to know how to keep them running.

"But," he said, "the Apple II could be an actual home appliance."

This was no coincidence, nor was it due purely to engineering.

Kunkel wrote that with the Apple II, Jobs wanted a look somewhere between homemade wood cases and the "cold and impersonal" black metal of IBM and DEC "big iron" — the computer version of Hewlett-Packard's "sleek" and "beveled" calculators of the day.

In fact, one design debate Jobs lost was that he wanted the Apple II to be even more appliance-like; he opposed the inclusion of expansion slots, saying they were hacker-like and "inelegant."

Woz himself had to demand their inclusion, and the two compromised on having four.

"This was a transition period," said Ismail, "when computers were trying to become consumer appliances — and the Apple II was leaps ahead of what came out in previous years, like the Altair 880."

Still, with only approximately 1 million units out there after the first year, the Apple II hadn't yet achieved a critical mass of users. But a simple addition, due largely to clever and elegant engineering by Woz, caused sales to explode.

"When Apple shipped a floppy disk drive in 1978," said Damer, "sales really took off."

Damer noted that the previous data storage option — tape drives — were slow, unreliable and hard to use.

"It turned a lot of people off," he said, especially for such a high-ticket item.

"It's just like the early days of the Macintosh, where it was seen as an expensive toy until the laser printer came long," he said. "It was the floppy drive [which could be used to load and store BASIC, applications or games quickly and reliably] that made it all happen."

Kunkel came to the same conclusion, noting that "sales exploded" to $7.9 million in 1978 and $49 million in 1979, leading the Apple II to be "the fastest-selling personal computer up to that time."

Kunkel said Jobs had another target market in mind with the Apple II.

"Apple's second computer would be aimed not at tinkerers, but at software junkies — any one of whom might come up with the 'killer application' that would make owning an Apple II a more likely proposition," he wrote.

Jobs didn't invent the idea of a "killer app," and he wasn't the last to use it — look at PageMaker for the Macintosh or "Halo" for Microsoft's Xbox.

In the Apple II's case, it was VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet application for personal computers. Now home users and small businesses could track expenses and incomes electronically — and, with the floppy drive, archive and transfer the data.

This was something concrete to justify the investment for those who, unlike Damer and Ismail, had no desire to tinker under the hood — although such tinkering was a non-trivial use for the Apple II.

Damer said that though his "first love" (at least in terms of computing) was a DEC PDP-11, he loved programming on his college roommate's Apple II.

"It's what put me on the trajectory to be a programmer," said Ismail.

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