Friday, June 10, 2005

Happy Birthday, Apple ][

On this day in 1977, the very first Apple ][ computers shipped. The boxes didn’t include a monitor, a modem, a floppy drive, or a hard drive. ”The standard configuration included 4K of memory, two game paddles, and a demo cassette with programs, costing $1,298. Home televisions were usually used for monitors.”

Twenty-eight years later, the once bleeding-edge Apple ][ is laughably quaint with its maximum RAM of 48K—yes, that’s kilobytes, not megabytes, certainly not gigabytes. But it still holds a place in many geeks’ hearts. The Model T of home computers, the Apple ][ brought high tech to the masses. Simple to use, with some incredibly handy programs, it was also advanced technology for the time. (It was the first computer to support a color display.) The Apple ][ set the standard for home microcomputers.

This workhorse and its successors, the ][+ and ][e, stayed in production for years. Because they were designed to be easily modified by hobbyists, you could make your computer your own. Snapping the lid up to add a card was simple and fun. I had no high-tech training at all, but I did a fair bit of tinkering with the insides of my ][e over the years.

The integrated keyboard had a satisfying feel. Like all Apple products, the case design was simple, striking, elegant, and the interface was eminently usable. That’s astonishing, given the fact that ”early computers didn't necessarily have a case or even a keyboard. On some systems you had to added your own keyboard, if possible, and on others you toggled switches to enter programs and issue commands.”

Soon the Apple floppy drive was introduced, but the ][ never had a hard drive. You could get internal storage for the ][e with a device called a RamDisk, but it was volatile. If the electricity went out or the computer was turned off, the data disappeared. An additional device called a RamCharger kept your data saved even with the computer turned off. I bought one of these in 1988. That single megabyte of storage cost me a thousand dollars.

I bought the Apple ][e in August 1985 and used it hard for the next eight years, writing several books and all my grad-school papers on it. Until it finally expired in 1993, it never gave me a lick of trouble. (It also never distracted me with the Internet, and only rarely with games.) I still have 5.25-inch floppies with old data on them.

Just for the sake of comparison: At age 28, most physicians are still in training. Most athletes are in their prime (except for gymnasts). Houses are thinking about a new roof and some updated decorating. Cars have become classic—but in California, at least, many are still rustless and on the road. Horses are close to the glue factory, but parrots and turtles are still youngsters. Visual art is still relatively new, maybe even controversial, while films and music have become either classic or passé. A cast-iron frying pan is still developing its patina. A bottle of Puligny-Montrachet burgundy is entering its most glorious phase. (And 1977 was a great vintage.)

When faced with a roomful of shy, silent geeks, you can always get a lively conversation going reminiscing about the old Apples.

The Apple ][ was beautifully designed. It was insanely great. It changed the world.

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