How Apple owes everything to its 1977 Apple II computer

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in General Discussion
It's the Apple II that made the company, kept it afloat, and even made it a cult success -- but it was also the Apple II that Steve Jobs tried so hard to kill off with the Mac. It's the little machine that could, did, and for its fans, still does.

The Apple II computer
The Apple II computer


The iMac saved Apple, and the iPod ignited the company's incredible success -- but it was another machine entirely that got it started. The Apple II made the company, kept it going, and started the trend of Apple gaining fans as much as customers.

Where the Apple I had been Steve Wozniak's hobbyist project, the Apple II was his hobbyist project with Steve Jobs pushing him on. Apple II was their company's first consumer product, as in a computer that was designed to be used right out of the box, instead of having to be assembled by technology fans.

Central to that was how, unlike the Apple I, this new computer came in its own case. Woz was most concerned with making sure that the Apple II had expansion slots, while it was Jobs who pressed for it to be in a casing -- eventually.

Jobs had tried selling the bare motherboards to Paul Terrell of The Byte Shop, but Terrell would only buy complete units. He was willing to buy fifty of them, though, so he got what he wanted -- and the Apple II got a case.

That machine in that case became what was truly American's first home computer as we know it.






While we do remember how important the Apple II was to the company, at this distance it's easy to forget just how revolutionary it was for users -- even as Woz mostly still wanted to impress the famous Homebrew Computer Club.

"If you can take it down to the club and show a 30-chip circuit instead of 32, that's a little bit of a plus," Woz explained in a 1984 speech to the Denver Apple Pi computer club. "The computer was not being designed to be a product and was not being designed to be sold nearly as much as it was being designed to impress."

Apple launched the Apple II on April 17, 1977, and the following month saw a highly technical, six-page technical article in Byte magazine with Woz detailing his design. It was another era -- not only did Byte include system bus diagrams for you to pore over, it also printed Apple's postal address.

"The latest result of my design activities is the Apple II," he wrote from 20863 Stevens Creek Boulevard, Cupertino, CA 95014. "To me, a personal computer should be small, reliable, convenient to use and inexpensive."

The Apple II was all of these things, and if he built it to impress hobbyists, it soon garnered a wider circle of fans -- specifically because this machine had a startling number of firsts.






"It was the first one to have BASIC included in ROM, the very first one," Woz continued in his Denver speech. "The first one ever to have a plastic case. The first one ever to be completely assembled, all you've got to do is plug it in the wall. The first one ever to have 48K of RAM built-in on the motherboard. It was unheard of. It was the first one to have color, the first one to have sound... graphics..."

In a separate 1990s interview quoted on the fan site apple2history.org, Woz explained just why his machine had ended up having all of these firsts. None of them were particularly planned, he says, and much of them came from him adding what he wanted, when he wanted it.

"A lot of features of the Apple II went in because I had designed Breakout for Atari," he said. "[That] was the reason that color was added in first -- so that games could be programmed. I sat down one night and tried to put it into BASIC... I got this ball bouncing around, and I said, 'Well, it needs sound,' and I had to add a speaker to the Apple II."

"Obviously you need paddles [for a game]," he continued, "so I had to scratch my head and design a simple minimum-chip paddle circuit, and put on some paddles. So, 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."






If all of this made the Apple II appealing to Woz, the Homebrew club, and consumers, it was software to handle numbers that truly made it fly for everyone else. For the very first spreadsheet program ever created was VisiCalc for the Apple II, and that was world-changing.

Before its 1979 release, the word "spreadsheet" meant a large paper ledger document that companies relied on. After its 1979 release, it meant software and no one remembers physical ledgers.

"There have been two real explosions that have propelled the [technology] industry forward," Steve Jobs said in a 1996 interview for Japan's NHK network. "The first one.. was the spreadsheet. I remember when Dan Bricklin, who ran the company that marketed the first spreadsheet, walked into my office at Apple one day and pulled out this disc from his vest pocket, and said I have this incredible new program, I call it a visual calculator. And that's what really drove, propelled the Apple II to the success it had achieved."

Before we make the Apple II sound like a machine you would want to buy today, you wouldn't. For all its firsts, it had a major deficiency in that only supported uppercase letters. If you bought an Apple II in 1977, you could only type on it in capitals. It wasn't until 1983 and the Apple IIe that it shipped with the ability to show lowercase too.

That was six years after the launch and if it seems impossible now that you could use a computer that didn't have this, back then it was more unusual that the computer could still be around. This was a time of incredible numbers of incompatible computers from astonishing numbers of different companies.

L-R: Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and then-CEO of Apple, John Sculley at the Apple II Forever event
L-R: Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and then-CEO of Apple, John Sculley at the Apple II Forever event


And it was also a time when each of those companies would produce new machines that were incompatible with their old ones. That's perhaps where Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs saw things differently. Woz wanted to make a computer that lasted forever and, at the time, Jobs was expecting to replace it.

Even though the Apple II, and its variations, originally outlasted Jobs at Apple, he continued to believe that technology should be replaced as he founded NeXT.

"All computer architectures have about a ten-year life," Jobs said at the launch of NeXT Computer in 1988, "and that means if they're really revolutionary when they come out they don't run existing software."

The Mac, for instance, had not run Apple II software. Jobs was so disinterested in this fact that when he made a presentation at the famous Apple II Forever event earlier in 1984, he chose to spend most of his time talking about the then-new Mac.

At that point, the Mac was three months old and for all Jobs's massaging of the numbers, was failing. And also at that point, the Apple II was seven years old and so successful that it was still Apple's primary source of income.

Although that Apple II Forever event was really the launch of the Apple IIc, a version which somewhat failed to match the success of its predecessors. Arguably that event was also a presage of the Apple of the future, too, as it was large-scale, lavish, and expensive. It also had its own theme song, which you can only hope sounded good at the time. It was the 1980s, after all.






But then suddenly it was the 1990s, and still the Apple II was selling. By this point, it had gone through very many variations, but the final one was the Apple IIe. It ceased production in November 1993.

The Apple II, in its various forms, had survived for 16 years. It had weathered IBM launching the IBM PC, it had easily weathered Apple launching the Lisa, and even then the Macintosh. And it had, just about, survived the Apple III, which was as much of a calamitous failure as the II had been a giant success.

We might not recognize the company that Apple was in 1977 when it created the Apple II, as its hobbyists' roots are long gone. But we definitely wouldn't recognize the Apple of 1993 when it killed off the Apple II. Back then, Apple was on a downward spiral -- and Steve Jobs would not return to save it for another four years.



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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 28
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 9,562member
    I was one of those who stuck with the Apple II line as long as I could. The end of the line was the Apple IIGS in 1986, two years after the Macintosh was introduced. GS/OS was an attempt at putting the Mac GUI on an Apple II series. I bought my IIGS shortly after it came out and was very pleased with its performance and GS/OS. I finally made the jump to the Mac when I bought a Power Mac 8100 with all the bells and whistles. I believe it was the Power Mac 7100 that started out with an internal codename of Carl Sagan, Sagan sued and the codename changed to “Butthead Astronomer”. Sagan sued again. 
    edited April 2020 mykemOferelijahglolliverjony0JWSCwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 28
    jdb8167jdb8167 Posts: 621member
    >It wasn't until 1983 and the Apple IIe that it shipped with the ability to show lowercase too.

    Accurate but there lots of third-party 80-column terminal cards that allowed upper and lower case that were available before the IIe in 1983. They generally went into slot #3 and were kind of standardized. Doing a brief search, it looks like the availability started around 1980.
    edited April 2020 pscooter63dysamoriawatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 28
    gbdocgbdoc Posts: 80member

    My first computer was a //c, in 1984. I loved it. It got better and better with stuff like AppleWorks, BeagleWorks, a ZipChip, a modem (remember BAUD rates?), a battery for portability. The OS and programming were so easy to understand that even I could play with the software, write little apps, etc. I mourned when I switched to a Mac.

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 28
    crowleycrowley Posts: 8,906member
    It's the Apple II that made the company, kept it afloat, and even made it a cult success -- but it was also the Apple II that Steve Jobs tried so hard to kill off with the Mac. It's the little machine that could, did, and for its fans, still does.
    Still does?  Not seeing much evidence of that in the article.  Is anyone still using an Apple II for anything other than nostalgia?
    bonobobrazorpit
  • Reply 5 of 28
    I recently found some Polaroid pics I took at my first Apple dealership in 1980. The one that interests me is the one that made my career: an Apple ][ with a 10Mb Corvus hard disk. That's it over on the left. Corvus made the first hard disks available for microcomputers, and the Apple version had Omninet, a network that ran on flat ribbon cables so multiple computers could share the hard drive. You can see the cable in the lower left corner of this pic. I remember selling multiuser database with DBMaster, businesses loved the Apple ][ for simple databases, it was the type of app that broke the Apple ][ out of the Visicalc model and into the networked world. Soon after this, I left retail and worked in software development.


    d_2razorpitmld53aiqatedodsdwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 28
    eriamjheriamjh Posts: 1,348member
    "All computer architectures have about a ten-year life," Jobs said at the launch of NeXT Computer in 1988, "and that means if they're really revolutionary when they come out they don't run existing software."
    Ah, but now Apple is smart enough to prepare said software by working with developers so when the new HW is launched there is something new to run on it.   
    lolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 28
    I had a couple Apple II computers before I got my first Mac in 1985.  I'm on my 46th and 47th Macs currently.  Here's me in Nov 1984, fourteen years old.

    bloggerblogGeorgeBMacmarkwcoelijahgiqatedodewmewatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 28
    The Commodore Amiga 500 was the first computer I ever had but I've always admired Apple. In fact, the first computer I bought with my own money was a graphite iMac G3. I still actually have it.

    I'd like to get my hands on a Macintosh SE.
    bloggerblogiqatedowatto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 28
    I have an original Apple II Plus with a serial number under 100,000. It was my first computer and it still works.

    [email protected]
    GeorgeBMacwatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 28
    FatmanFatman Posts: 513member
    Always wanted a IIe, too expensive, went with a Commodore 64 - a tremendous value with great integrated graphics and sound for the time ... tons of software ... apparently Commodore sold 15 million of them.
    razorpitwatto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 28
    zoetmbzoetmb Posts: 2,597member
    I was managing the recording studios at a large publisher when the head of the Science department came to me and asked if I could make copies of some cassettes he had.  I had high-speed duplicators, so I said, "sure", but then looked at the cassettes and they had this big square notch in the back and I had never seen that before.  He explained that they were data cassettes for microcomputers and that we had a computer room of which I had previously been unaware.   I told him I didn't know if my high-speed duplicators were going to work because I didn't know what frequencies were being laid down, so he gave me the keys to the computer room.

    We had an Apple ][, a Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I and four Commodore machines:  an 8032, 8064, 4032, 4064, where the first two digits represented the number of columns and the second two represented the memory in Kilobytes.   That 8064 seemed more advanced than the Tandy or the Apple because it was 80 column and had more memory than the base Apple machine.  

    The data cassettes were only for the TRS-80.  I read the manual, figured out how to load them and looked at the source code.  I had heard of Basic, but had never seen it before, but had previously studied Fortran.   So I pretty much understood the code.   I brought the programming manuals home to study them.   But the TRS-80 was horrible as it had keyboard bounce.    But then I looked at the Apple manuals and thought that at least from a documentation standpoint, they did a much better job, so the Apple ][ became my machine of choice.  And shortly after that the floppy drives were purchased and we didn't have to use cassettes on any of the machines anymore. 

    I got more and more involved and eventually became Director of Software Development.  It was amazing what people used to do with so little disk storage space and so little memory.   I remember that someone came out with a notch cutter, so you could write to the backside of a floppy, even though that side wasn't certified.  

    We developed a classroom test scoring and evaluation program and when we did the second version, the developer told me it was going to require three floppy drives and an extra 16KB of memory and I freaked out.   We compromised on the drives by making the third drive optional and we wound up including the memory board in the software price.

    Apple was great in those days.  They had "Evangelists" who were trying to get software developers and publishers to issue software for the Apple ][, so they'd seed you with machines and let you buy others for half price.   The Apple II+ was an especially good machine and it had those 8 slots that people developed all kinds of cards for.  As an educational publisher, we issued over 60 software titles.   I got hold of an Apple IIe some years go, but couldn't make it work.   I've still got a bunch of Apple II software and a "lab" board.    I think it was the Iic that had a little switch that enabled one to change the keyboard from QWERTY to DVORAK.   It's too bad that never took off.

    I don't remember any of those Apple II machines ever experiencing any hardware problems.   Some years later, when the Commodore 64 came out, they would break so often, we used to pile them up against the wall.   We must have had 30-40 broken machines and we finally just decided not to produce anything for it, although it was primarily a home computer anyway and we were producing for schools.  
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 28
    zoetmbzoetmb Posts: 2,597member
    Dan Bricklin later developed the "Dan Bricklin Demo Program" for MS-DOS.   It was a really terrific program that enabled one to mock up screens and produce demos using layered screens and "go to" programming based upon a keystroke.    I remember wishing he would develop a similar program for Mac and Windows when those came about.  

    It enabled me to design screens exactly as I wanted them to appear and then send them to the programmers.   It really cut down a lot of back and forth with the programmers. I also created demos for the customers.  
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 28
    karmadavekarmadave Posts: 368member
    Steve Jobs wanted to donate a computer to every school in the US. In order to make it work financially, Apple lobbied Congress for a tax break. The bill failed in the US Congress, but a similar one passed in the California Legislature. The subsequent program, called 'Kids Can't Wait' was a stoke of genius as it immediately established Apple as the leader in Education. The Apple IIe was introduced for Kids Can't Wait...

    https://timeline.com/apple-kids-cant-wait-2792d326aa31


    GeorgeBMacelijahglolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 28
    sgordonsgordon Posts: 44member
    Not all those first were first... commodore pet had basic in rom and was released before the Apple II
    razorpitdysamoriawatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 28
    crowley said:
    It's the Apple II that made the company, kept it afloat, and even made it a cult success -- but it was also the Apple II that Steve Jobs tried so hard to kill off with the Mac. It's the little machine that could, did, and for its fans, still does.
    Still does?  Not seeing much evidence of that in the article.  Is anyone still using an Apple II for anything other than nostalgia?
    I guess "nostalgia" can be defined a bit, but plenty of us use Apple II's (albeit later models than the absolute *original* Apple II) for fun. There are even new peripherals that get developed for them - video cards, storage devices, and it's still a fun challenge making a 35-40 year old computer do things it was never intended to.
    lolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 28
    bloggerblogbloggerblog Posts: 2,097member
    Had Woz listened to Jobs and implemented floating point into Apple Basic, there would‘ve been no need for Microsoft Basic on the Apple II. 

    elijahgwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 28
    mainyehcmainyehc Posts: 108member
    Wait, maybe I’m missing something here, so please bear with me:

    […]
    Before we make the Apple II sound like a machine you would want to buy today, you wouldn't. For all its firsts, it had a major deficiency in that only supported uppercase letters. If you bought an Apple II in 1977, you could only type on it in capitals. It wasn't until 1983 and the Apple IIe that it shipped with the ability to show lowercase too.
    […]
    But then suddenly it was the 1990s, and still the Apple II was selling. By this point, it had gone through very many variations, but the final one was the Apple IIe. It ceased production in November 1993.
    How could the Apple IIe have been simultaneously launched in 1983 *and* the “final” model? The final one to be actually in production, standing alone, after a 10-year-long run? You’re meaning to tell me Apple discontinued the more capable Apple IIGS even before the IIe, and not the entire remaining lineup at the same time? I mean, I know Apple is no stranger to selling really old hardware for years without updating it – the Macintosh Plus, the iPod Classic, the iPod Touch, the Mac Mini and the infamous 2013 Mac Pro come to mind –, but jeez, ten years?

    Edit: ooooh, I see. That would’ve been indeed the Apple IIe Platinum. And judging from its specs, it wasn’t that different from the other IIe models. Still extremely weird, IMHO.
    edited April 2020 inequalswatto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 28
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 10,496member
    The Apple II opened a LOT of doors.   But at the same time it closed a big one for Apple:  Business and Accounting

    In the late 70's & early 80's I was an accountant and financial analyst and had a strong need for computer.   I loved the Apple II -- but could not use it because of how limited it was in processing numbers:  In accounting 1 + 1 needs to equal 2 -- always!

    So, I was pushed into a miniature Casio programmable calculator / computer where the program was entered from a cassette tape.

    From there, the Microsoft & IBM computers were better suited to my needs.   In the latter 80's I used a MacIntosh for Word processing but that too was soon replaced with an IBM computer.

    And, to this day, Microsoft continues to dominate in business.
  • Reply 19 of 28
    great article!. not only for what it shares, but beyond that for spawning probably my favourite Apple Insider comment section that i can remember all this time. Thank you all for sharing. my first computer was a Texas Instruments for gaming (Parsec, and a Rabbit that taught math) and then i inherited an Apple IIc when my father got the 128Kb. thanks to the article i now understand why my grandfather got the IIe (still have both) at about the same time. i received UpTime monthly disks full of stuff but they were no mach for the MacPaint et al. marvel so every second i could id spend in the new Mac. shortly after it was upgraded with 1MB RAM to become a Mac Plus, and Dark Castle was a dream, even in b&c. unfortunately i had to turn in the Plus years later in a promotion for a VX or something like this, but it still worked great. before this we had the Mac IIci, which may have been the best Mac ever in longevity. good times of lesser obsolescence
  • Reply 20 of 28
    razorpitrazorpit Posts: 1,796member
    Fatman said:
    Always wanted a IIe, too expensive, went with a Commodore 64 - a tremendous value with great integrated graphics and sound for the time ... tons of software ... apparently Commodore sold 15 million of them.
    We started with a Vic 20. I wanted an Apple so bad because that’s what we had in school. For obvious reasons the Vic was soon replaced with a 64. At least Commodore did it right. All of the accessories; printer, Data-cassette, and 300 baud Vicmodem, worked on the 64.
    sgordon said:
    Not all those first were first... commodore pet had basic in rom and was released before the Apple II
    Came here to say the same. People forget what a competitor Commodore was back in the day. 

    Unfortunately they sat too long on the success of the 64 before moving on to the Amiga. Makes you wonder what the computer landscape would look like now if Commodore management and investors were as smart as Steve who knew it was time to move on to a new platform. A lot of the early CGI you see in early 80’s shows and movies was done on Amiga’s. They owned that market at one time.
    edited April 2020 dysamorialolliverwatto_cobra
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