45 Years Later, The Apple II Still Has Lessons to Teach Us


A man using an Apple II in a kitchen, 1970s, from a vintage Apple II advertisement.

45 years after the Apple II private laptop launched, the tech business has arguably moved away from a number of of the core principals that launched Apple and the non-public laptop into the mainstream. We spoke with business luminaries Tim Sweeney, John Romero, and Steve Wozniak about what the Apple II did proper—and what we will nonetheless be taught from it immediately.

Apple II: A Laptop For Everybody

Launched in June 1977, the Apple II made waves as an easy-to-use laptop geared toward common folks. The unique mannequin included a MOS 6502 CPU working at 1 MHz, a 40×24 character textual content decision, colour graphics, composite video output, a cassette interface for storage, and eight inside growth slots. It initially retailed in variable configurations starting from $1298 with 4K RAM, as much as $2638 for 48K RAM (that’s about $6,223 to  $12,647 adjusted to immediately’s {dollars}).

An original Apple II computer.
Steven Stengel

In 1978, Apple launched a 5.25″ floppy disk drive for the Apple II that would retailer 143 KB per disk, and the launch of VisiCalc in 1979 made the Apple II a vital buy for small companies. It additionally gained a powerful foothold in training because of efforts by Steve Jobs, and elementary college computer labs within the US have been usually filled with Apple II computer systems, introducing them to a era. Over time, Apple launched a minimum of 8 laptop fashions within the Apple II sequence and continued to assist it till 1993—for 16 years.

Just like the Apple I earlier than it, the Apple II notably built-in a “terminal” with a keyboard and video output straight into the pc itself, so there was no want for a separate teletype or CRT terminal interface. This made a complete Apple II system extra compact and cheaper than different full private laptop methods as much as that time, though many PCs would quickly observe the identical built-in I/O formulation.

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How Legends Obtained Began

The Apple II has been well-known because the Nineteen Seventies, however lots has modified within the tech business since then. So we puzzled: Is there something the Apple II did effectively that computer systems have overlooked lately? To get some solutions, we spoke to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (whom we’ve interviewed individually). We additionally requested two legendary sport builders who started their software program growth careers programming on the Apple II.

Tim Sweeney’s ZZT borrowed from the open ethos of the Apple II, regardless of being an IBM PC sport.

Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Video games, programmed apps and video games on the Apple II earlier than founding Epic in 1991. “My first Apple II was a present from my brother Steve Sweeney, nominally to my Dad, however I used to be the actual viewers,” says Sweeney. “In comparison with the Commodore 64s and Ataris of the period, it was a pure computing gadget. No sprite acceleration, no graphics processor. You probably did the whole lot your self, and discovered all of it.”

Two of John Romero's Apple II games from the 1980s.
John Romero programmed many Apple II video games within the Eighties, together with these: Pyramids of Egypt (L) and Harmful Dave (R). MobyGames

Equally, Doom and Quake co-creator John Romero developed many Apple II video games earlier than co-founding id Software program in 1991, making a reputation for himself within the discipline. “When my dad and mom lastly purchased an Apple II+ for the home in April 1982,” says Romero, “My life was completely set on its course as I spent each waking second, for years, studying the whole lot I might in regards to the laptop and making dozens of video games, many who have been printed.”

Listed below are some issues that they assume the Apple II did proper—and what we needs to be doing immediately. We corresponded by way of e-mail, and their responses have been edited frivolously for formatting.

“The Finest Studying Instrument within the World”

When it got here to growing software program on the Apple II, each John Romero and Tim Sweeney agree that Woz’s machine made programming very simple and accessible. “The Apple II was so engaging as a result of it was small, simple to program, and had extremely quick access to reminiscence,” says Romero. “The monitor program allowed viewing and altering reminiscence, so I actually acquired to be taught what a pc was like down on the byte-level. I might sort machine code and meeting language into it and see the outcomes. It was the perfect studying instrument on the earth.”

"The Applesoft Tutorial" book cover on an Apple II.
Benj Edwards

With the Apple II, the moment you turned it on, you have been prepared to leap into programming. Tim Sweeney remembers the benefit of getting straight into the motion. “The Apple II booted to a BASIC immediate, and you can instantly write code,” says Sweeney. “The manuals documented the whole lot, even the machine language and ROM. Each child with a pc from that period grew up a programmer, as a result of it was proper there and really easy.”

With immediately’s PCs and Macs, you face a prolonged boot course of to start out up initially, after which programming them is one thing of a thriller, obscured from the common person. A pc proprietor sometimes has to exit of their approach with particular data to accumulate the instruments crucial for programming a contemporary machine. However with an Apple II, all that was inbuilt, and it was easy sufficient for one particular person to understand all the system. “The Apple II is comprehensible,” Steve Wozniak advised us. “A single particular person can see into the Apple II design.”

Romero sees the programmer-centric nature of the Apple II as a characteristic that’s sorely lacking immediately: “Top-of-the-line issues in regards to the Apple II was its accessibility for studying and programming. The instant skill to code by simply turning on the pc is unprecedented. You’ll be able to’t try this immediately. There are some nice emulators or methods you need to use immediately, like Pico8, that create a mini-console setting that makes it enjoyable and straightforward to discover ways to program, however nothing will equal the ability of the Apple II—a cutting-edge machine that you can begin coding inside one second of turning it on.”

Sweeney’s take agrees with Romero, and he supplied some potential options for immediately’s machines: “[One thing lost today] is the position Apple II and different early computer systems performed in instructing everybody to program, by booting as much as the period’s main programming language,” says Sweeney. “Home windows ought to put a programming immediate one key press away. Fortnite ought to put a programming immediate one key press away and, in time, we are going to. We have to launch a brand new period the place programming is simple, and everybody’s a programmer once more.”

A few of this easy-programming philosophy lives on within the continued growth of the Raspberry Pi undertaking, which is over a decade previous now. Its creator, Even Upton, noticed that programming expertise have been waning in fashionable faculty college students, and he additionally wished to permit quick access to {hardware} management just like the traditional Eighties machines. However the Raspberry Pi is the exception today. You’ll be able to’t simply immediately energy up, say, an iPhone and begin programming—then share the outcome freely with the world, which brings us to a different level.

You Owned and Managed It

Digital Rights Administration (DRM) features prominently in immediately’s computer-powered gadgets, from smartphones to tractors. It’s a approach that producers can lock down a product in order that unauthorized software program can not run on it, and it’s the precise reverse of the open ethos carried by Steve Wozniak when he designed his early computer systems.

Equally, some producers equivalent to Apple immediately have labored to make their merchandise difficult to physically open and repair by unauthorized, unlicensed personnel. These restrictions give some people the sensation that they don’t actually personal the merchandise they’ve purchased, since they aren’t free to make use of them (and even restore them) how they need.

The Apple II with its lid open, showing its internal expansion slots.
The Apple II was simple to increase or restore. Steven Stengel

In distinction, the Apple II included an open structure that invited growth of add-on {hardware} within the type of small plug-in playing cards. In the event you wished in, you can simply carry the lid on the highest of the case. And Apple additionally allowed anybody to develop and distribute software program for the Apple II. This openness created a big ecosystem across the machine pretty rapidly, and it sustained the platform for 16 years.

This philosophy strongly knowledgeable the work of Tim Sweeney, who has constructed video games with free and open modifying instruments since ZZT in 1991. “[The Apple II] was a splendidly open and discoverable system defining the ethos of computer systems as instruments working for the person,” Sweeney says. “The historical past of firms from id Software program to Epic Video games begins with Apple II within the Eighties,” says Sweeney. “We opened up our video games and engines to customers to switch and construct on, because the Apple II opened up computing to us.”

Some fashionable platforms, such because the iPhone, solely enable licensed builders to create software program for the platform. The iPhone additionally prevents homeowners from putting in unlicensed software program on their gadgets. This has led to criticism from business veterans like Sweeney, whose firm is in the midst of a battle for open platforms, together with a current lawsuit with Apple over charges within the App Retailer. “Woz confirmed that person freedom and firm earnings can coexist,” says Sweeney. “We’re shedding that now, satirically, to a malevolent spirited evolution of Apple itself, and have to battle to protect our rightful freedoms.”

Whether or not Apple’s present trajectory towards closed methods is actually malevolent or only a pure extension of desirous to make as a lot cash as doable (which, to be truthful, Epic desires as effectively) is a worth judgment past the scope of this piece. However it’s a undeniable fact that closed laptop methods have allowed repressive governments to spy on and persecute their folks, one thing that the majority Individuals would most likely agree is a nasty factor. The Apple II’s spirit of freedom and openness appears suitable with conventional American values of liberty in a approach that isn’t essentially mirrored in immediately’s closed architectures and DRM-locked app shops.

After we requested Steve Wozniak (who was unaware of Sweeney’s feedback) what we will be taught from the Apple II that fashionable platforms have forgotten, he gave a quick reply that emphasised openness on the Apple II: “You, the person, have been in management your self and owned it.” The open ethos is as important to him today because it was in 1977 when he designed the Apple II. And as extra elements of society rely on providers locked down with DRM, following the spirit of Woz might be certain that America stays free and open effectively into the longer term.

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