Monday, September 21, 2015

An Apple a Day

QUESTION: I was cleaning out my father’s attic and discovered an old Apple computer, an Apple II to be exact.  It’s hard to imagine that this little device was at the forefront of computers of its day. How collectible are early computers and how collectible is this Apple II?

ANSWER: The answer to both your questions is simple—very. The Apple II was the granddaddy of home computers. It looked more like a closed typewriter with its built-in keyboard, but it packed a lot of punch for its day.

Steve Wozniak, who designed the Apple I with limited funds, was able to make some definitive and much improved changes in the Apple II. Appearing for the first time at the  first West Coast Computer Faire on April 16 and 17, 1977, it was an instant sensation.

The main difference internally was a completely redesigned TV interface, which held the display in memory and could display it on a TV via an NTSC cable. Not only useful for simple text display, the Apple II included graphics, and, eventually, color. Steve Jobs, Wozniak’s friend and partner, meanwhile wanted an improved case and keyboard, with the idea that the machine should be complete and ready to run out of the box.

But building the Apple II was financially challenging. Jobs began looking for funds. However, banks were reluctant to lend him money—the idea of a computer for ordinary people seemed absurd at the time. He eventually found Mark Markkula, who co-signed a loan of $250,000. Jobs, Wozniak, and Markkula formed Apple Computer on April 1, 1976. They chose the Apple name because they wanted to beat Atari, and Apple came before Atari in the alphabet and this in the phone book.

With its new case and graphics, the Apple II became one of the 1977 Trinity of computers—along with the Tandy Corporation’s (Radio Shack) TRS-80 and the Commodore PET—credited with establishing the home computer market. Apple Computer sold 5-6 million Apple II’s by 1993.

In terms of ease of use, features, and expandability, the Apple II was a major technological advancement over its predecessor, the Apple I, a bare-bones motherboard computer for hobbyists. First sold on June 10, 1977, the Apple II became one of the longest running mass-produced home computer series, with models in production for just under 17 years. Among the first successful personal computers, it put Apple Computers on the map.

Jobs and Wozniak aggressively marketed the Apple II through volume discounts and manufacturing arrangements to educational institutions which made it the first computer to be used in American secondary schools, displacing the early leader, the Commodore PET. The effort to develop educational and business software for the Apple II made the computer especially popular with business users and families.

To load and save programs and data, the Apple II used audio cassette tapes. In 1978, Wozniak implemented a Disk Operating System or DOS, which he commissioned from the Shepardson Company. The final and most popular version of this software was Apple DOS 3.3. Some commercial Apple II software booted directly and didn’t use standard DOS formats. This discouraged copying or modifying of the software on the disks and improved loading speed.

By 1992, the Apple II series of computers had 16-bit processing capabilities, a mouse-driven Graphical User Interface (GUI for short), and graphics and sound capabilities far beyond the original created in 1977.

Wozniak designed the Apple II to look more like a home appliance than a piece of electronic equipment. The lid lifted off the beige plastic case without the use of tools, allowing access to the computer's internal workings, including the motherboard with eight expansion slots, and an array of random access memory (RAM) sockets that could hold up to 48 kilobytes worth of memory chips.

The Apple II eventually had color and high-resolution graphics modes, sound capabilities and one of two built-in BASIC programming languages, plus a microprocessor running at 1 MHz, 4 KB of RAM—today’s computers run at 800+ Ghz with RAM at 8 gigabytes or higher. Jobs and Wozniak targeted the computer for  consumers rather than just hobbyists and engineers. Unlike other home microcomputers at the time, Apple sold it as a finished consumer appliance rather than as a kit.

To reflect the computer's color graphics capability, the Apple logo on the case sported rainbow stripes which remained a part of Apple's corporate logo until early 1998.

Wozniak eventually added an external 5¼-inch floppy disk drive, the Disk II, attached via a controller card that plugged into one of the Apple II's expansion slots, to replace cassettes for data storage and retrieval. Apple's Disk II became the first affordable floppy drive for personal computers.

Wozniak's open design and the Apple II's multiple expansion slots permitted a wide variety of third-party devices, including Apple II peripheral cards such as serial controllers, display controllers, memory boards, hard disks, networking components, and realtime clocks—all common on today’s computers.

The original retail price of the Apple II with 4 kilobytes of RAM was $1,298 and $2,638 with the maximum 48 kilobytes. Today, Apple II’s can be found on eBay selling for $300-400 in working condition.

While there’s a collector for just about any pre-1990 computer, any from the 1970s and earlier are hot. Though there’s a lot of computer related equipment and peripherals to  to collect from this era,  nothing beats the early Apple computers. Apple has staying power. They’re the last of the home-brewed companies that emerged out of the 1970s that are still in business.

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