Vintage Tech: Looking back at the Apple II

Vintage Tech: Looking back at the Apple II

We're feeling a bit older with news this week that the Apple II is turning 35. So what was so special about it?

[It's the 35th anniversary of the Apple II this week. So what was so special about the machine? With the anniversary this week, we decided to repost this story below, first published in July 2010.]

Did Apple's first mainstream colour computer really ignite the personal computing revolution? For once, it's arguably not hyperbole from a company rather too well known for it.

The Apple II really did do it all. It offered personal computing whether you wanted office applications, games or educational software. It birthed the spreadsheet via Visicalc. It was also astonishingly open for an Apple product, something the company has rather steered away from following the start of the Macintosh line.

Key Stats:

What hardware did the Apple II run on?
That depends somewhat on the model you're talking about. The earliest Apple II computers launched in 1977 used a MOS 6502 1MHz processor, 4kB of RAM and tape drive storage. Within a year, the tape drive was made essentially obsolete via the 5.25 Disk II floppy drive. Like the rest of the Apple hardware of the day, the Disk II was designed by Steve "Woz" Wozniak by hand with one eye to usability but the other towards the economy of components. Rather than bore you with our analysis, though, why not watch Woz himself cover the early Apple years? Just ignore the last fifty seconds or so...

So how many models of Apple II were there?

Lots of models. It was the Apple II for a start because it replaced the original build-it-yourself enthusiast only Apple. The original Apple II gave way to the Apple II Plus, which upped the minimum memory to 48kB (previously only available as a costly upgrade for the Apple II) and included a revamped Apple BASIC, written by a little (at the time) company called Microsoft. You may have heard of them now, but back then Microsoft were just another small struggling software company.

As technology improved, 1979's Apple II Plus gave way to 1983's Apple IIe, which was cheaper, supported double disk drives and higher resolutions on the display screen. High resolution on 1983's terms, however. We're talking 280x192 pixels with 15 colours. 1984 saw the Apple IIc, which Apple described as "portable". Again, you've got to take these things in context of the times. 3.4kgs might not feel very portable in today's netbook and iPad world, but at the time it was about as good as it got. With 1986's Apple IIGS the series undertook a serious evolution with the shift to a 16-bit 2.8MHz W65C816S processor. The IIGS was compatible with existing Apple II software simply because it was able to emulate an entire 6502 processor within itself, as well as increased resolution support, embedded sound and networking hardware.

The final Apple II model, the Apple IIc Plus was launched in 1988, eleven years after the original Apple II. It dropped the 5.25" floppy drive in favour of 3.5" floppies, used a 4MHz 65C02 processor and was only sold in the US.

Whatever happened to the Apple II?

Apple shifted its strategy to the Macintosh line, which we'll cover in an upcoming Vintage Tech column. In the context of the Apple II though, the last real roll of the dice for users was 1990's Apple IIe Card, which allowed users of Macintosh systems of the day to run Apple II software via hardware-based emulation. It's a decent indication of the evolution of technology over the period that the components that made up an entire system in 1977 could be squished into a chip by 1990. The Apple IIGS was officially discontinued in 1992, and the Apple IIe lasted until November 1993, giving the Apple II line sixteen years of production life.

Why was it relevant?

Most computing claims are sheer hyperbole, but Apple's constantly repeated line about the Apple II "igniting the personal computer revolution" hold a lot more veracity than most. Its success over time introduced computing in areas where it had never been before, and while over its astonishing sixteen year run there were plenty of competitors in the same space, most of them looked to the Apple II as the "premium" model that they were either emulating or undercutting. The list of programmers who cut their teeth on the Apple II and its remarkably open architecture would take weeks to simply write down. Apple IIs were used in business, in the home and most notably in education, a market that Apple's fought hard to retain in the years since the Apple II was discontinued. Thankfully, the current educational advertising pitches are little more subtle than this:

What's it worth?

If you check out the Apple Australia online store and type in "Apple II".... you don't find anything. Nothing at all but a command that "No results were found. Please try a different search." Then again, as noted, Apple did stop selling the IIe seventeen years ago, so it's not surprising that they're a touch out of stock of the Apple II line. Yes, even in the refurb store.

That leaves eBay, and a wide variety of prices for a wide variety of models. For a system that sold over five million units, though, complete Apple II systems in the wild appear to be rather rare. We found mice, expansion cards and monitors, but at the time of writing, nobody selling a full system online. As with all things retro, it also depends on quite how passionate you are about having absolutely everything pristine. This Computerworld story from 2008 notes one Apple aficionado paying a hefty US$2,800 for an Apple IIc that had never previously been opened.

And then he opened it.

So if you are sitting on an original unopened Apple II system that you've somehow ignored for thirty-three years, you might just be set up for retirement.

Copyright © PC & Tech Authority. All rights reserved.

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