[Gamasutra's A History of Gaming Platforms series continues with a look at the Apple II system. Perhaps best-remembered for its ubiquity in U.S. classrooms in the 1980s, the computer was also a popular gaming system. Need to catch up? Check out the first two articles in the series, covering the Commodore 64 and the Vectrex.]
The Apple II is one of the most successful, influential and long-lived home computers of all time. Perhaps more than any other machine, it moved the home computer from the worktable of the hobbyist to the living room of the typical American family. The Apple series debuted in 1977 and became a definitive home computer after the introduction of the Disk II drive in 1978. The "Platinum" IIe, the last of the Apple II line, was in production until November 1993. For countless enthusiasts and professionals thriving in the industry today, the adventure began with their first bite of Apple.
The tale of the Apple II begins with
two Steves from Sunnyvale, California: Steve "Woz" Wozniak,
a talented engineer specializing in calculators at Hewlett-Packard (HP),
and Steve Jobs, who was an energetic and eccentric summer employee there.
Woz had been friends with Jobs in high school, where the two hackers
had made money selling "blue boxes," illegal devices used
by "phreakers" -- phone system hackers -- to steal free
long distance calls and eavesdrop on private conversations.
Jobs became Atari's 40th employee in 1974, serving the innovative young company as an hourly technician. He left Atari for a yearlong hiatus to India, returning to work with a shaved head and traditional Indian garb. Atari had scored big with its arcade version of Pong, and was about to repeat its success with its famous play-at-home version. Jobs, now a night-shift engineer, was asked to create a prototype for a single-player, vertical Pong variant called Breakout.
The goal of Breakout is to clear rows of blocks at the top of the screen by bouncing a ball off a small, movable paddle at the bottom. Unfortunately, the technology required to create a Breakout machine would tear into its profits, so Atari wanted a design that used as few chips as possible. Faced with such a daunting engineering challenge, Jobs sought the help of his old friend, Woz.
Atari had witnessed Woz's impressive self-built home Pong clone, but had failed to woo him away from HP. Nevertheless, Woz, a fan of both Atari arcade games and engineering challenges, came to his friend's rescue. He completed the bulk of the work in about four days, with an efficient design that used far fewer chips than any other Atari arcade game at the time. Atari's engineers were impressed and Jobs received a nice payout and bonus --most of which he kept for himself. Breakout would become another arcade hit for Atari.
After years of hardware hacking and his two dalliances in video games, Woz began work on a television computer terminal. Woz realized that one major stumbling block for the nascent home computer industry was the lack of a cheap and effective means of displaying output. Computer hobbyists could either content themselves with a row of flashing LEDs or ante up for a video or text terminal; neither solution was within reach of most.
Woz had been attending regular meetings at the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, where many eventual industry pioneers shared their ideas and passions. Inspired by this creative and highly motivated group, Woz was soon demonstrating a prototype that would ultimately become the Apple I. Really nothing more than an elegantly-designed circuit board with a low-cost MOS 6502 microprocessor, 4KB RAM, and expansion connectors, the Apple I nevertheless laid the foundation for what was to come. Atari and HP were not interested in the prototype, so the two Steves formed their own company, Apple Computer, on April 1, 1976.
Working out of Woz's bedroom and Jobs' garage, the two soon began production on the Apple I. The ever-persuasive Jobs negotiated with a local hobbyist computer store, the Byte Shop, for an order worth $50,000. Credit, time and supply constraints were tight, but the Byte Shop order was met, with the computer store providing full-stroke keyboards and wooden cases to complement the circuit board. Through the Byte Shop and magazine coverage and advertisements, the company had slow, but steady growth from Apple I sales.
Even before the Apple I had been officially released, Jobs and Woz were already thinking up new features; they frequently updated the design and shared their progress with the Homebrew Computer Club. The result was the Apple II. Even though little time had passed since their first release, the new unit improved on the Apple I in nearly every way. It sported a complete molded plastic enclosure with full-stroke keyboard, external peripheral ports, and eight easily accessible internal expansion slots.
Apple specialized in compelling
advertisements early on, as this page from a multi-page Apple II computer
ad in the February 1978 edition of Byte magazine atests.
Woz, who enjoyed dazzling his friends at the Club, wanted to play a version of Breakout written entirely in BASIC. Such a feat would have been unthinkable on the Apple I, so Woz's design for the Apple II came to incorporate color graphics commands, circuitry for paddle controllers, and a speaker for sound. With these standard features in place, the Apple II offered technology that its rivals in 1977, the Commodore PET and Tandy TRS-80 Model I, could not match. The home computer industry was a mouse about to roar -- thanks, at least in part, to a slick-talking mystic and an engineer fascinated with videogames.
"So a lot of these features that really made the Apple II stand out in its day came from a game, and the fun features that were built in were only to do one pet project, which was to program a BASIC version of Breakout and show it off at the club." - Steve Wozniak, Call-A.P.P.L.E. magazine, October 1986