45 years after the launch of the Apple II PC, the tech industry can be said to have departed from some of the core principles that launched Apple and the PC into the mainstream. We spoke with industry figures Tim Sweeney, John Romero, and Steve Wozniak about what the Apple II did right — and what we can still learn from today.
Apple II: a computer for everyone
Released in June 1977, the Apple II made waves as an easy-to-use computer aimed at everyday people. The original model included a MOS 6502 CPU running at 1MHz, 40×24-character text resolution, color graphics, composite video output, a storage cassette interface, and eight internal expansion slots. Originally retailing in variable configurations ranging from $1,298 with 4K RAM, up to $2,638 for 48KB RAM (about $6223) $12,647 adjusted to today’s dollars).
In 1978 Apple released a 5.25-inch floppy disk drive for the Apple II that could store 143KB per disk, and VisiCalc launched in 1979, making the Apple II an essential purchase for small businesses. It also gained a strong foothold in education thanks to the efforts of Steve Jobs, and elementary school computer labs in the United States were often filled with Apple II computers, introducing them to generation by generation. Over time, Apple released at least 8 computer models in the Apple II series and continued to support them until 1993 – for 16 years.
Like the Apple i before it, the Apple II integrated a “terminal” with a keyboard and video output directly into the computer itself, so there was no need for a separate remote or CRT peripheral interface. This made the entire Apple II system more compact and less expensive than other complete PC systems up to that point, although many computers would soon follow the same integrated I/O format.
Related: What are Teletypes and why were they used with computers?
How did the legends begin?
The Apple II has been popular since the 1970s, but a lot has changed in the tech industry since then. So we wondered: Is there anything the Apple II has done so well that computers have been missing lately? To get some answers, we spoke to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (who we have interviewed separately). We also asked two legendary game developers who started their software development careers on the Apple II.
Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, programmed apps and games on the Apple II before founding Epic in 1991. “The first Apple II phone was a gift from my brother Steve Sweeney, named to my father, but I was the real audience,” Sweeney says. Compared to the Commodore 64s and Ataris of that era, it was a pure PC. No animation acceleration, no graphics processor. You did everything yourself, and you learned everything.”
Similarly, Doom and Quake co-founder John Romero, developed several Apple II games by the Co-Foundation Identifier Program in 1991, has made a name for himself in the field. “When my parents finally bought an Apple II+ for the house in April 1982, my life was always on track as I spent every waking moment, for years, learning all I could about the computer and making dozens of games, many of which were published,” Romero says.
Here are some of the things they think the Apple II did right – and what we should be doing today. We reached out via email, and their responses have been slightly modified for coordination.
Related: From Keen to Doom: Id Software’s Founders on 30 years of gaming history
“The best educational tool in the world”
When it comes to software development on the Apple II, John Romero and Tim Sweeney agree that the Woz Machine made programming incredibly easy and accessible. “The Apple II was very attractive because it was small, easy to program, and had very easy access to memory,” Romero says. “The monitoring software allowed viewing and memory changing, so I really learned how the computer was below the byte level. I can write machine and assembly language code in it and see the results. It was the best teaching tool in the world.”
With the Apple II, once it was up and running, I was ready to jump into programming. Tim Sweeney remembers the ease of getting directly involved in the action. “The Apple II boots into a BASIC prompt, and you can write code right away,” Sweeney says. “The manuals documented everything, even machine language and ROM. Every kid with a computer from that era grew up as a programmer, because it was there and so easy. “
With PCs and Macs today, you face a long booting process to start up at first, and then programming it becomes a bit of a mystery, hidden from the average user. Usually, the owner of a computer has to do his best with special knowledge to acquire the necessary tools for programming a modern machine. But with the Apple II, everything was built into it, and it was very easy for one person to understand the entire system. “The Apple II is a concept,” Steve Wozniak told us. “One person can see in the design of the Apple II.”
Romero sees the programmer-centric nature of the Apple II as a feature sorely missing today: “One of the best things about the Apple II was the accessibility to learn and code. The immediate ability to program as soon as the computer is turned on is unprecedented. You can’t do that today. There are some great emulators or systems you can use today, like the Pico 8, which creates a micro-console environment that makes learning how to code fun and easy, but nothing beats the power of the Apple II – a state-of-the-art machine that you can start coding within a second of turning it on. . “
Sweeney agrees with Romero, and he offers some potential solutions for today’s machines: “[One thing lost today] “It is the role that the Apple II and other early computers played in teaching everyone to program, by setting the stage for the leading programming language of the era,” says Sweeney. “Windows should put in a one-click programming prompt. fortnite The one-key-push programming prompt should be put away, and in time, we’ll do it. We need to launch a new era where programming is easy, and everyone is programmed again.”
Some of this easy programming philosophy continues in the ongoing development of the Raspberry Pi project, which is more than a decade old. Its creator, Eben Upton, saw that programming skills were waning in modern college students, and he also wanted to allow easy access to controlling devices like classic 80s machines. But the Raspberry Pi is the exception these days. You can’t just turn on your iPhone right away, for example, start programming and then freely share the result with the world. This brings us to another point.
You own it and control it
Digital rights management (DRM) features prominent in today’s computer-powered devices, from smartphones to tractors. It’s a way manufacturers can lock down a product so that unauthorized software can’t run on it, and it’s the exact opposite of the open spirit that Steve Wozniak carried when he designed his early computers.
Similarly, some manufacturers like Apple today have struggled to make their products physically difficult to open and service by unauthorized and unlicensed employees. These limitations give some people the feeling that they don’t really own the products they bought, because they aren’t free to use them (or even fix them) the way they want to.
In turn, Apple II included an open architecture that called for the development of additional hardware in the form of micro-connection cards. If you wish, you can just lift the cap on the top of the case. Apple also allows anyone to develop and distribute software for the Apple II. This openness created a large ecosystem around the device very quickly, and it continued to maintain the platform for 16 years.
This philosophy has been a powerful inspiration for the work of Tim Sweeney, who has been designing games with free and open source editing tools ever since. ZZT in 1991.”[The Apple II] It was a wonderfully open and discoverable system that defined the ethos of computers as working tools for the user,” says Sweeney. “The corporate history from ID Software to Epic Games begins with the Apple II in the 1980s,” says Sweeney. “We’ve opened our games and engines for users to modify and build on, because the Apple II has opened up computing for us.”
Some modern platforms, such as the iPhone, only allow licensed developers to create software for the platform. iPhone also prevents owners from installing unlicensed software on their devices. This has led to criticism from industry veterans such as Sweeney, whose company is in the middle of a battle over open platforms, including the recent lawsuit with Apple increasing fees in the App Store. “Woz showed that user freedom and company profits can coexist,” Sweeney says. “We’re losing it now and, ironically, moving into a cynical, racy evolution of Apple itself, and we’ve got to fight to preserve our legitimate liberties.”
Whether Apple’s current path toward closed systems is really really good or just a natural extension of wanting to make as much money as possible (which Epic also wants, to be fair) is a value judgment beyond the scope of this piece. But it’s the fact that closed computer systems have allowed repressive governments to spy on and persecute their own people, something most Americans would probably agree is a bad thing. The spirit of freedom and openness in the Apple II feels aligned with traditional American values of freedom in a way that is not necessarily reflected in closed architecture and DRM-secured app stores.
When we asked Steve Wozniak (who was unaware of Sweeney’s comments) what we could learn from the Apple II that modern platforms have forgotten, he gave a short answer that emphasized openness to the Apple II: “You, the user, were in control and owning yourself.” The open spirit is just as important to him today as it was in 1977 when he designed the Apple II. And as more aspects of society depend on services locked with DRM, following Woz’s spirit may ensure that America remains free and open well into the future.