Apple II

I began my relationship with computers with a make-believe computer that I drew as a child on on the inside of boxes, and modeled on the computers I’d seen on Lost in Space and Batman (Star Trek was on too late for me) and read about in stories featuring big consoles hooked up to cabinets out of sight. I had fun with that for a couple of days, graduated to making control panels for make-believe spaceships, and that was that.

I got my first real computer in 1985, an Apple IIc.
At that point, I knew I wanted to go with an Apple machine (I regarded IBM as a copier trying to horn in on Apple) and my choice was between the Macintosh 128K (I couldn’t afford the so-called ‘Fat Mac’), the IIc, and the Apple IIe. The IIe would have required buying a bunch of extra cards to provide the same functionality that the IIc had, and I reasoned that while 128 K (!) was pretty insufficient for a Mac, it was plenty for an Apple II (this proved to be correct). I ended up with the IIc, the 9 inch monochrome monitor, Apple II Mouse, and Scribe printer. At the time, the computer press and Apple II fans tended to look down on the IIc, because it did’t have the II’s legendary open slots, but I used it with a great deal of happiness for four years.

Mouse based software was just starting to come out, and I really got into computer art with Dazzle Draw, creating a number of ‘double high res’ pictures. Color on the 8 bit Apple IIs relied on a quirk of NTSC television — if you positioned a white pixel in such a way that it straddled a one or two of the colored phosphors of the TV set, you got color. Dazzle Draw enabled you to draw to the individual sub-pixels, so if you were working in black and white you could do quite detailed things; on a composite monitor, you’d get a black or white line with a bit of color fringing.

Clipper ship picture created on an Apple IIc

Screen capture of my double hi res picture of a clipper ship, running on Sweet16 a IIGS emulator. Two screen captures, one color, one monochrome were merged to simulate the color fringing you got on a composite monitor

Apple also provided a special character set called MouseText which could be used to create a GUI using only the faster text screen, rather than drawing the UI on the graphics screen. AOL’s Apple II software used MouseText extensively, as did the word processor I used, MouseWrite.

I was both right and wrong about 128K being a lot for Apple IIs. I was right in that programs written in assembly language — i.e. commercial software—made good use of it. Unfortunately, AppleSoft, the dialect of BASIC used by the Apple II, hadn’t been much changed since the Apple II Plus, and didn’t offer the programmer any way to access the extra memory, nor did most software written for older Apple IIs. I did manage to write an inventory program in it for work, and it was in writing that program that I discovered that creating the user interface for a program is a lot more work than creating the guts of the program that actually carries out the program’s tasks.

I graduated to the 16 bit Apple IIGS in 1989, buying myself a ROM 3 machine with a whole megabyte of RAM for my birthday. The IIGS was a 16 bit machine with Apple II emulation built into the hardware. It offered both a Mac-like user interface and nearly perfect Apple II compatibility. The 8 bit 6502/65C02 processors used on earlier Apple IIs were limited to addressing 64K of memory at any one time; the IIGS processor could address up to 256 banks of 64K simultaneously.

The graphics modes of the IIGS took some getting used to for me. On the plus side, the 320 pixel mode used by most graphic software offered many more colors to the artist than the fixed 16 colors of double hi-res; on the other hand, the resolution was coarser than the 560 pixels of double hi-res monochrome mode. 640 pixel mode offered higher resolution, but the colors were more restricted–any given pixel could be one of four colors, usually black and white and two other colors, which could be drawn from a standard palette or customized. Alternating pixels used different palettes offering the ability to create dithered color. Different lines could use different palettes, which programs like DreamGraphics used to good effect.

Whale at Sunset: an Apple IIGS picture

Whale at Sunset, my last IIGS picture. Created using DreamGraphics to use more than one palette in the picture, breaking the 16 color limit.

I’d first gotten online with the IIc, but it was with the IIGS that I really started telecommunicating, via AOL. I became active in the Apple II Art & Graphics forum, and eventually became part of the remote staff there (free online time! Yay!)

During my whole time with the Apple II, though, it was clear that Apple’s intentions were elsewhere, with the Mac. There was lots of grousing among Apple II users about how the II was being ignored in favor of the Mac, It was generating a lot of revenue at the time, but was not being promoted, or developed much, aside from updates to the system software. Finally, the IIGS was discontinued in December of 1992, and the last Apple II, the IIe, eleven months later. By that time I’d moved on myself, to a Mac IIvx that I’d bought in May of 1993.

I recently discovered a mirror of Apple II resources. It contains links to scans of old Apple II manuals, disk images, pictures, and scans of magazine articles and ads. It’s been fun looking at the old articles and product photos, but for me, the most interesting parts have been the technical manuals. For one thing, I understand them better now. But it’s also been interesting see how Apple managed to expand the II while desperately trying to avoid breaking compatibility.

In hindsight, one of the Apple’s biggest strengths was also, in part, a liability. Unlike the Mac or iPhone or iPad, the II was a fully open product. It had eight slots that offered full access to the CPU’s address and data buses, and the slots took up 8 predefined sections of memory, and shared a predefined section of ROM space (the space from $C800-$CFFF in memory). The source to the computer’s firmware was published, and developers could, and did, write to specific routines in ROM, by their defined addresses. All this openness was great for developers, but it also meant that Apple couldn’t change things easily without breaking existing software. Newer systems access hardware and software much more indirectly, allowing the manufacturer more freedom to change things and move things around.

In addition, the 6502 CPU used by the Apple II was limited to addressing only 65535 (or 64K) discrete addresses in memory at any one time. When the first Apple IIs came out, they reserved 48K for RAM, but only came with 4, 12 or 16K. The upper 12K of space were reserved for ROM, but even then, not all of that was populated. Soon, though, dropping memory prices, and increasingly capable software started putting demands on memory space. Apple responded by increasingly “bank-switching” memory.

Computer addressing is often explained in terms of each address being like a Post Office boxes—each address being like a separate PO box. A good way to think about bank-switching is to imagine someone rolling away one wall of PO boxes, and substituting another— with the same range of box numbers–– while the CPU isn’t looking. As far as the CPU is concerned, it’s still stuffing mail into the same addresses, but they are in fact, different mailboxes. When the original Apple II came out in 1977, only the section of address space reserved for ROM in slot based cards was shared. When the Apple II Plus came out, systems came with 48K of RAM; to make room for the Pascal system, Apple offered the Language Card to be placed in slot 0; this added 16K of memory by bank switching the 12K of ROM space, with 4K switched over twice. By the time the 128K IIc came out, some sections of address space were shared between up to 5 different banks. When the 16 bit IIGS came out, all these weird addressing quirks were retained in emulation mode, in order to maintain compatibility with older software, while using linear memory in 16 bit mode. The result was an amazing machine that offered full compatibility with older 8 bit software while still offering a color GUI, at a time the Macintosh was still black and white.

Looking back, I think that had the Mac and the Apple II been produced by separate companies, the II would have lasted a lot longer. Yes, the 8 bit side was already getting old—the IIe and IIc were born obsolescent—but the IIGS breathed new life into the series, and clearly laid a lot of pipe for new expansion. During the late 80’s while Apple was focusing the Mac on higher end users, Apple was content to keep the II around for families and schools, but as competing low cost machines became more capable, Apple had to choose between making a lower cost Mac, or making the IIGS more capable. As much as it hurt then, I think they made the right choice.