Ah, the late 1970’s.
It was a different time—the time of the Village People, Star Wars, and Saturday Night Fever. And somewhere deep in the bedroom of a certain Steve Wozniak in Los Altos, a world-changing invention was being created.
The Story of the Apple II
The Apple I, Apple’s first personal computer, was a passion project for Steve Wozniak and his friends Steve Jobs and Ron Wayne. The trio first previewed it in 1976, and it quickly became the team’s cool factor in their Homebrew Computer Club. When it came time to do it again, the Apple II didn’t fall far from the proverbial tree.
Just like the Apple I, the Apple II was designed to impress. It launched only a year after Apple I, and it was once again shown off first to the Homebrew Computer Club. By this time, Ron Wayne had backed out and took a $800 payout, wary of the financial risks the team was willing to take to sell the Apple I.
This left just Jobs and Woz, the dynamic duo that would go on to become legends. While Wozniak focused more on making a machine that would impress hobbyists, Jobs had a keen business sense and pushed for the features that would make the Apple II consumer-ready.
This combination of goals turned out to be Apple II’s perfect storm. It became Apple’s first consumer product, meaning it could be used right out of the box by people who didn’t have the know-how to assemble it.
The Apple II’s Features
The boundary-breaking features of retro computers are some of their greatest assets. It’s why they sold so well at the time of their launch, and it’s why people feel such a strong nostalgia for them today. Here are some of the key features that the Apple II brought to the table back in 1977:
1. A Killer App
One secret weapon for tech marketing is a system’s compatibility with a hugely popular program or software—the ‘killer app.’ The phenomenon works so the popularity of the killer app drives sales of the system itself. The Atari 400/800 had Star Raider, the Sega Genesis had Sonic the Hedgehog, and by 1979 the Apple II had a little something called VisiCalc.
VisiCalc was a spreadsheet application, like the modern-day Microsoft Excel or Apple Numbers. We take these things for granted today, but it wasn’t always so.
At the time of the Apple II’s launch, the concept of running spreadsheet operations on a personal computer was nothing short of revolutionary. In Steve Jobs’ own words, the VisiCalc is “what really drove, propelled the Apple II to the success it had achieved.”
VisiCalc was released on the Apple II before any other system due to the Apple II’s potential for 48K of RAM. This strengthened the association between a great computer and its killer app. With this spreadsheet capability, the Apple II found a niche in the business world.
2. A Case
Unlike its precursor, the Apple II came with two options: a ready-made product with the casing included or a board-only version “for the do-it-yourself hobbyist.”
The case option was a game-changer for the personal computer market. It allowed consumers to use the computer without being put off by special assembly, and it provided the look and feel of a single unit.
And this was not just any case. It was a plastic case, the first of its kind. A sheet metal casing would have been cheaper, but Steve Jobs pushed for molded plastic as a way to improve the consumer’s experience. And it worked.
The plastic case of the Apple II gave the computer a familiar and approachable feel. Like many products of the late 70’s, molded plastic gave the casing an aesthetic that fit with the times.
3. Lots of Expansion Slots
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak initially had disagreements over the number of expansion slots the Apple II should have. Jobs thought a general consumer wouldn’t need more than two—enough for a printer and a modem—and that any more would be off-putting. But Wozniak pushed for eight expansion slots, and his idea won out in the end.
This turned out to be the right decision, as the number of expansion slots on the Apple II gave it a functionality that was crucial to its success. With these extra slots, new cards could easily be added to the existing Apple II system, allowing the computer to be as relevant as the latest advancements. As floppy disk controllers and video cards came on the market, hobbyists were able to add them to the Apple II.
According to the man himself, Woz only included a speaker in the Apple II so users could play the game Breakout. He wanted users to be able to hear a “ping” when the ball hit the bricks and an “ehhhh” when they lost. While much of the Apple II’s success can be attributed to its potential in business settings, fun details like this certainly didn’t hurt.
In the end, sound gave the Apple II a new dimension that separated it from the rest of the market. It made the computer more user-friendly, and as we’ve now come to know, this meant everything for Apple. These days, some people are even making music with the rudimentary sound features of the Apple II.
The launch of the Apple II marked a major turning point in Apple history.
With this consumer-ready machine, Apple products became something that even a non-techie could buy. It had a killer app and a range of new features. All of this came together to make Apple a household name and put it on a path to greatness.
While the Apple II was discontinued in 1982, its legacy lives on in the people who appreciate its beauty and contribution to modern computing. In the world of retro computers, this chunky, odd machine is a definite favorite.