45 years after the launch of the Apple II personal computer, the technology industry has arguably moved away from some of the basic principles that launched Apple and the personal computer into the mainstream. We talked to industry luminaries Tim Sweeney, John Romero, and Steve Wozniak about what Apple II did right and what we can still learn from it today.
Apple II: a computer for everyone
Released in June 1977, the Apple II made waves as an easy-to-use computer aimed at the average person. The original model featured a MOS 6502 CPU running at 1 MHz, 40 × 24 character text resolution, color graphics, composite video output, a cassette interface for storage, and eight internal expansion slots. It originally retailed in varying configurations ranging from $1,298 with 4K RAM, up to $2,638 for 48K RAM (that’s about $6,223 per $12,647 adjusted to today’s dollars).
In 1978, Apple released a 5.25″ floppy drive for the Apple II that could store 143 KB per disk, and the release of VisiCalc in 1979 made the Apple II an essential purchase for small businesses. It also gained strong support in education through the efforts of Steve Jobs, and elementary school computer labs in the US were often filled with Apple II computers, introducing them to a generation. Over time, Apple released at least 8 computer models in the Apple II series and continued to support it until 1993, for 16 years.
Like the Apple I before it, the Apple II notably integrated a “terminal” with a keyboard and video output directly into the computer, so there was no need for a separate CRT or Teletype terminal interface. This made an entire Apple II system more compact and less expensive than other complete personal computer systems up to that time, although many PCs would soon follow the same integrated I/O formula.
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How the legends began
The Apple II has been famous since the 1970s, but a lot has changed in the tech industry since then. So we ask ourselves: is there something the Apple II has done well that computers have recently lost sight of? To get some answers, we spoke with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (whom we interviewed separately). We also asked two legendary game developers who began their software development careers programming on the Apple II.
Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, programmed apps and games on the Apple II before founding Epic in 1991. “My first Apple II was a gift from my brother Steve Sweeney, nominally for my dad, but I was the real audience.” Sweeney says. “Compared to the Commodore 64 and Ataris of the time, it was a pure computing device. No sprite acceleration, no graphics processor. You did everything yourself and learned everything.”
Similarly, Doom and Quake co-creator John Romero developed many Apple II games before co-founding id Software in 1991, allowing him to make a name for himself in the field. “When my parents finally bought an Apple II+ for the house in April 1982,” Romero says, “my life was permanently set in course, as I spent every waking moment for years learning everything I could about the computer and making dozens of games, many of which were published.”
Here are some things they think Apple II got right, and what we should be doing today. We emailed each other and your responses have been lightly edited for formatting.
“The best learning tool in the world”
When it came to developing software on the Apple II, both John Romero and Tim Sweeney agree that Woz’s machine made programming very easy and accessible. “The Apple II was so attractive because it was small, easy to program, and had incredibly easy access to memory,” says Romero. “The monitor program allowed you to view and change memory, so I really learned what a computer looked like at the byte level. You could write machine code and assembly language and see the results. It was the best learning tool in the world.”
With the Apple II, the instant you turned it on, you were ready to jump into programming. Tim Sweeney remembers the ease of jumping straight into the action. “The Apple II booted up with a BASIC prompt and you could write code right away,” says Sweeney. “The manuals documented everything, including the machine language and the ROM. Every kid with a computer that age grew up a programmer, because it was there and it was so easy.”
With today’s PCs and Macs, you face a lengthy boot process to initially start up, and then programming them is something of a mystery, hidden from the average user. The owner of a computer usually has to exert special knowledge to acquire the necessary tools to program a modern machine. But with an Apple II, all of that was built in and simple enough for one person to master the entire system. “The Apple II is understandable,” Steve Wozniak told us. “A single person can see the design of the Apple II.”
Romero considers the programmer-centric nature of the Apple II to be a feature that is sorely lacking these days: “One of the best things about the Apple II was its accessibility for learning and programming. The immediate ability to encode simply by turning on the computer is unprecedented. You can’t do that today. There are some great emulators or systems you can use today, like Pico8, that create a mini-console environment that makes learning programming fun and easy, but nothing will match the power of the state-of-the-art Apple II. machine that could start encoding within a second after turning it on.”
Sweeney’s opinion agrees with Romero, and he provided some possible solutions for current machines: “[One thing lost today] it’s the role the Apple II and other early computers played in teaching everyone to program, starting with the leading programming language of the era,” says Sweeney. “Windows should put up a schedule prompt with just one key press. Fortnite you need to put a programming indicator with a single key press and in time we will. We need to launch a new era where programming is easy and everyone is a programmer again.”
Part of this easy programming philosophy lives on in the ongoing development of the Raspberry Pi project, now over a decade old. Its creator, Even Upton, saw that programming skills were declining in modern college students, and he also wanted to allow easy access to hardware control like the classic machines of the 1980s. But the Raspberry Pi is the exception these days. You can’t just instantly turn on, say, an iPhone and start programming, then freely share the result with the world, which brings us to another point.
You owned and controlled it
Digital rights management (DRM) figures prominently in today’s computing devices, from smartphones to tractors. It’s a way for manufacturers to lock down a product so unauthorized software can’t run on it, and it’s the exact opposite of the open-mindedness Steve Wozniak had when he designed his first computers.
Similarly, some manufacturers like Apple today have gone to great lengths to make their products difficult for unauthorized and unlicensed personnel to physically open and repair. These restrictions give some people the feeling that they do not really own the products they have purchased, as they are not free to use (or even repair) them as they wish.
In contrast, the Apple II included an open architecture that invited the development of additional hardware in the form of small plug-in cards. If you wanted to get in, you could just lift the lid on the top of the box. And Apple also allowed anyone to develop and distribute software for the Apple II. This opening created a huge ecosystem around the machine pretty quickly and sustained the platform for 16 years.
This philosophy strongly influenced the work of Tim Sweeney, who has been creating games with free and open editing tools since ZZT in 1991.”[The Apple II] it was a wonderfully open and recognizable system that defined the spirit of computers as tools that work for the user,” says Sweeney. “The history of companies, from id Software to Epic Games, begins with the Apple II in the 1980s,” says Sweeney. “We open our games and engines to users to modify and develop them, like the Apple II opened computing for us.”
Some modern platforms, like 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 drawn criticism from industry veterans like Sweeney, whose company is in the midst of a battle over open platforms, including a recent lawsuit with Apple over fees on the App Store. “Woz proved that user freedom and business profit can coexist,” says Sweeney. “We’re losing that now, ironically, to a malevolent evolution of Apple, and we need to fight to preserve our legitimate freedoms.”
Whether Apple’s current trajectory toward closed systems is truly malevolent or just a natural extension of wanting to make as much money as possible (which, to be fair, Epic wants too) is a value judgment that is beyond the scope of this article. Article. But it is a fact that closed computer systems have allowed repressive governments to spy on and persecute their people, something most Americans would probably agree is a bad thing. The spirit of freedom and openness of the Apple II seems compatible with traditional American values of freedom in a way that is not necessarily reflected in today’s closed architectures and DRM-locked app stores.
When we asked Steve Wozniak (who was unaware of Sweeney’s comments) what we can learn from the Apple II that modern platforms have forgotten, he gave a short answer that emphasized the openness in the Apple II: “You, the user, He had control over himself.” and he owned it.” The open spirit is as important to him today as it was in 1977 when he designed the Apple II. And as more aspects of society depend on DRM-locked services, following the spirit of Woz can ensure that America stays free and open in the future.