45 Years Ago, Apple Kickstarted the Personal Computer Industry

On April 16, 1977, the first annual West Coast Computer Faire kicked off in San Francisco. At that event, which was attended by 12,750 people, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak unveiled the Apple II personal computer. It’s not hyperbole to say that the world has never been the same.

Apple wasn’t the first company to introduce a “microcomputer,” as it was referred to then because of its use of a microprocessor. A $399 MITS Altair 8800 appeared on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics (famously, a non-working prototype, as the working one was lost in shipment to the magazine). It was a kit computer you had to assemble yourself unless you paid extra to MITS and were willing to wait.

The Altair 8800, which sold out immediately, and other kit computers of its ilk such as the Imsai 8080, were hobbyist dreams realized more than useful tools for regular people. They didn’t come with keyboards, displays, or storage devices, much less ready-to-run software. But they put some of the power of a mainframe or minicomputer on your desk—and you didn’t have to share processing time with anyone else.


Steve Jobs on stage in front of a 1976 photo showing Steve Wozniak (left) and himself working on the Apple-1.
(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Steve Wozniak, at the time a young electrical engineer with experience working for HP and Atari, designed his own personal computer. He introduced the first prototype, barely more than a circuit board and dubbed the Apple-1, at the local Homebrew Computer Club in July 1976. Soon, he began hand-building units with the help of his friend Steve Jobs, whom he had met some years earlier and worked with at HP and Atari. Together, they sold Apple-1 systems to enthusiastic clubgoers; they also sold about 50 of them to a local electronics store called the Byte Shop (see the readout on the far left of the screen above).

Arguably, Steve Wozniak knew how to design electronics better than anyone else at the time. He could whittle a design down so it used as few chips as possible, as evidenced by his work on Atari’s hit 1976 coin-op Breakout.

Apple-1 at the Computer History Museum


An autographed Apple-1 at the Computer History Museum in 2008
(Photo: Jamie Lendino)

Soon, Wozniak and Jobs worked to develop a second model, one that could display not only text but also real color graphics, as well as play sound and work with paddle controllers—a desktop machine that could play that Breakout game at home, among other things. It would also have a built-in BASIC interpreter, a full keyboard, and expansion slots. Jobs ensured the system was packaged as a professional product you could use right out of the box, complete with an attractive plastic housing and an internal power supply.


The Revolution Was Computerized

The year 1977 is remembered in tech circles for the introduction of a so-called “trinity” of personal computers. All three were pre-built, packaged in desktop enclosures with QWERTY keyboards, and included just 4K of RAM.

Commodore unveiled the $795 PET 2001 in January at the 1977 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but it didn’t ship in volume until that December. The MOS 6502-powered machine had circa-1970s futuristic styling, with an integrated monochrome monitor and cassette drive. It looked awesome, like a portal to another world—as all these machines were, of course, in one form or another.

Tandy announced the Zilog Z80-based Radio Shack TRS-80 on August 3, 1977, and began shipping completed units in November. The company sold the microcomputer in its several thousand Radio Shack stores for $649, with a 12-inch monitor and a cassette recorder for storage.

Apple II at launch in 1977


The Apple II at its unveiling at the first West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, April 1977
(Photo: Tom Munnecke/Getty Images)

It was the Apple II, though, that everyone remembers. Although it was the second of the “trinity” of home computers announced in 1977, it was the first to ship. It contained a 1MHz MOS 6502, the same as the earlier Apple-1 and the PET 2001. But unlike the other machines, the Apple II had BASIC in ROM and could display real color graphics. More important, it had eight internal expansion slots for adding extra memory, new ports, upgraded graphics, and untold other features.

The PET 2001 and especially the TRS-80 both sold well, but the Apple II fast became the market leader, as it had the most potential. In 1978, Wozniak unveiled the Disk II, a revolutionary 5.25-inch desktop floppy drive system that sold for $695 with the required controller expansion card. (The TRS-80 got its own floppy drive just a few months later.) Soon, Dan Bricklin’s VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet software, harnessed the Apple II’s disk drive and became the system’s killer app for businesses.

That wasn’t all, though. Families brought the Apple II home to type letters, to learn to program in BASIC, and to play games. Enthusiasts bought the machines to program their own software and dial into online bulletin board systems using modems. Scores of third-party vendors sprung up to make expansion cards. Within a couple of years, thousands of Apple II programs were available, and along with the competing TRS-80, the PET 2001, and Atari’s upstart 400 and 800, the personal computer age was fully underway.

Apple II ad from 1979


A 1979 Apple II ad


A Byte Out of the Competition

Numerous hardware upgrades kept the Apple II line competitive with the increasing field of rivals, both on the lower end from Atari, Tandy, Commodore, and Texas Instruments, and on the high end from IBM.

The Apple II Plus, released in 1979, kept the same form factor as the original model but included 48K of RAM and a newer, Microsoft-derived AppleSoft BASIC interpreter in ROM. The Apple IIe, which shipped in 1983, boasted a full ASCII character set with lowercase letters, four-way cursor control, a joystick connector, and 64K of memory (expandable to 128K), all upgrades that made the computer much more competitive with Atari and Commodore. An option for 80-column text meant it could go toe to toe with IBM’s then-new 16-bit PC. And the IIe’s vastly reduced chip count (31, down from 120) and 4164 DRAM chips made for a simpler, cooler, and more reliable hardware layout.

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The Apple II also kicked off the computer gaming revolution. By the early 1980s, we saw the launch and early success of such storied developers as Brøderbund, Datamost, Infocom, Muse Software, Origin Systems, Sierra On-Line (originally On-Line Systems), Sir-Tech, and Sirius Software. The Apple II birthed games as popular and diverse as Aztec, Bandits, The Bard’s Tale, Bilestoad, Castle Wolfenstein, Choplifter, Karateka, Hard Hat Mac, Lode Runner, Mystery House, Pinball Construction Set, Spare Change, Taipan, Ultima III and IV, the Wizardry series, and Zork: The Great Underground Empire. (Just typing this list makes me want to go play them all again.)

Soon, countless grade-school gamers would cut their teeth on the globetrotting Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and a port of the mainframe staple The Oregon Trail. The Apple II became the first computer to see widespread use in schools across America.

Karateka


Karateka

Further hardware upgrades meant that the Apple II line had a long life, even in the shadow of the company’s high-end, groundbreaking Macintosh. The nifty, svelte IIc model came with 128K in 1984 and was paired with a beautiful 9-inch monochrome monitor, although attention that year quickly shifted to the Mac. The IIGS brought a GUI and 16-bit graphics to the lineup while remaining fully compatible with 8-bit software. Additional Enhanced and Platinum versions carried the 8-bit Apple II platform through the late 1980s and early 1990s, a remarkable 16-year run in all.

Steve Wozniak in 1983


Steve Wozniak holding an Apple IIe in May 1983.
(Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images)

The rest, as they say, is history. During that time, Apple became the Macintosh company—followed by the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad company. PCMag covered the original Macintosh in 1984 and has reviewed Apple computers ever since. Meanwhile, the IBM PC and dozens of clones, all running Intel processors and Microsoft’s MS-DOS, became ascendant, leading to the Windows/macOS duopoly on the desktop that persists to this day.

By some estimates, more than 2 billion pre-built, pre-packaged desktops, laptops, and servers are in use today. The Apple II was the first one.

You can read Steve Wozniak’s May 1977 article introducing the Apple II in Byte, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

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