Nowadays everybody knows Apple. But how did it start and can we run Apple ][ apps today? Let’s figure it out.
It’s interesting to know the computer’s history. To know, how the UI evolved from big mainframes to modern tablets, to know when the first mouse was made, was it easy or not to use the text-only interface, and so on. It was also interesting for me to know, how people were using computers before I was born. And the last but not least, I was also working 5 years as an iPhone developer, so to “dig” to the very beginning of Apple’s era is also a challenge for me. And the easiest way to do it is to try it on my own.
Let’s get started.
Before we begin, let’s figure out what hardware can a customer obtain when buying an Apple computer in 1980th.
Apple II Plus, displayed on the picture, had 16, 32 or 64 KB of RAM. The computer had no hard disk drive by default, and the OS could be loaded from the internal ROM (BASIC programming language) or from the 5¼-floppy disk, that had a 140 KB capacity. The best available video mode was the so-called “high-resolution” 280×160. The computer’s price was about 1300$ (5500$ value today), the floppy disk drive cost was 490$, and Apple Monitor had the 229$ price.
It looks not cheap, and it is true, nowadays computers are much more affordable. But we should keep in mind that in the 80s a CP/M computer had a 2000–4000$ price, the difference was obvious. Finally, the Apple II became one of the world’s first highly successful mass-produced computers.
There are enough articles and YouTube movies about old hardware. This can be fun to watch, but the movie will not give you the opportunity to get your own experience. Luckily, nowadays it can be easily done at zero cost — it is possible to install the emulator that can natively run Apple II disk images. So I encourage readers to do this, because trying to do something on your own, on a “live” system, is just much more fun. When doing stuff on your own, many questions arise, like how to run the program, how to switch between disks, and so on. It’s not only much more interesting but gives a better understanding of how the system works.
The best emulator, I was able to find, is the AppleWin. It’s enough to extract files in any folder, the disk images can easily be found online. Then we should mount the disk, press the “reboot” button with the rainbow-coloured Apple logo (it was changed later in 1998), and finally, get something like this:
Now we are ready for the time-travel to the 80s.
The first thing we get after boot is the command prompt. It is based on BASIC programming language, so the user can enter any BASIC commands after boot:
First, we can see during the typing — there is no lowercase letters support. It was a compromise solution, but adding additional support for the high/lowercase characters was not so easy, both in terms of hardware and software implementation. Those who are interested can read Steve Wozniak’s article on how and why it was implemented.
File system support is also limited. We can get a list of files by typing the CATALOG command:
There were some tools to copy files between disks, and that’s actually all, we can do with files. Norton Commander was invented only 15 years later for another platform…
The BASIC program can be loaded and saved using the LOAD or SAVE command. We can also run the code by typing the RUN command. Let’s try something simple, like displaying the prime numbers from 1 to 1000:
This app needs several minutes to finish the calculations, the computer was actually not too fast.
The next interesting feature is graphics mode support. The maximum resolution was only 280×192, but we should remember that many other computers from that time had only text mode at all.
After running the code, we’ll get this spiral:
It takes about 30 seconds on Apple II to draw it — the sine and cosine calculations are obviously slow. But comparing to manual calculations it was definitely a breakthrough, and I can imagine how it can make life easier for students and engineers.
The VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet application for personal computers, and it really turned an Apple II into a business tool, lot’s of companies were buying the Apple II only because of this app.
And it’s just fun to see nowadays that spreadsheet apps were existing a long time ago before the Excel market dominance.
FreeWriter is a text editor, that in general, does the job well, but having only an upper case register is a bit unusual nowadays.
Different educational and productivity software was also available.
Hundreds of other apps were created, and it’s obviously impossible to review them all. At least, I hope, readers now have the feeling of how was it looking.
I was reviewing the CP/M OS before, this OS had only the text mode. It was more powerful than Apple’s ProDOS console, but the number of games that can be played using only text, was obviously very limited. Apple II has graphics mode support and no wonder that many games were created for it.
The Prince Of Persia
The Castle Wolfenstein
Many years later a first-person shooter Return to Castle Wolfenstein was released, and it was definitely inspired by this one.
And finally, the Elite, a popular space trading game, that was also available for many other platforms, from ZX Spectrum or IBM PC:
Of course, much more games were created, but the article size is limited. Those who are interested can test other games on their own.
The Apple II was the first successful personal computer in history, and it’s influence on our modern IT world is remarkable. Today the lifespan of the typical home computer is only several years, and it’s hard to find other devices, that were in production for almost 20 years:
Of course, the Apple II was not perfect and had many limitations, but its price-to-performance ratio was really good. I can bet that many kids and students, who had Apple II as their first personal computer, later became CEO or developers or project managers in different IT companies, and their products we are using today.
Those who are interested in computers history, and also read my article about CP/M OS. Next time I am going to test the Macintosh system from 1985.