Anniversary Post: Apple I

Apple IToday, the Apple I is 39 years old. The company itself was started just ten days earlier. It’s interesting that in the public consciousness, Apple is Steve Jobs. Yet the first Apple computer was not built by Steve Jobs. In fact, I don’t think that Steve Jobs ever built a computer. He was the sales guy — the PR man. The Apple I was built by Steve Wozniak. So was the Apple II. Wozniak was the tech guy of the company for as long as the company couldn’t afford to hire tech people from outside.

Apparently, a year earlier, Wozniak had attended a computer club meeting. He was so inspired that he decided to build his own computer. And a year later, he had. Forgive me for not thinking much about the non-technical aspects of business, but I just don’t think that Jobs’ “idea” of selling the computer was all that brilliant. But he’s the man who everyone remembers. And he’s the man who every know-nothing uses (along with Bill Gates) as examples of entrepreneurship and why we need to keep Mitt Romney’s taxes low.

The Apple I was a pretty basic unit. It came with 4 KB of memory — which could be expanded to 8 KB on board or 48 KB with expansion cards. I know, this sounds like nothing. But the truth is that with 48 KB, there are some pretty decent user applications that can be created. In particular, I’ve run totally acceptable word processors and spreadsheets on computers of that quality. But the biggest thing that limited all computers of that age was the video. The Apple I had a 40×24 character display. It looked something like this:

On March 5, 1975 Steve Wozniak attended
the first meeting of the Homebrew
Computer Club in Gordon French’s garage.
He was so inspired that he immediately
set to work on what would become the
Apple I computer. Wozniak calculated
that laying out his design would cost
$1,000 and parts would cost another $20
per computer; he hoped to recoup his
costs if 50 people bought his design
for $40 each. His friend Steve Jobs
obtained an order from a local computer
store the Byte Shop the affordable
computer store in Mt View California
for 50 computers at $500 each. To
fulfill the $25,000 order, they obtained
$20,000 in parts at 30 days net and
delivered the finished product in 10
days. Apple went on to be one of the
biggest computer companies in the world
by stealing innovations of other
companies and suing any competitors. Now
people buy Apple products because of its
brand, even though better products at
cheaper prices are widely available.

Happy anniversary Apple I!

4 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Apple I

  1. I just don’t think that Jobs’ “idea” of selling the computer was all that brilliant.

    I think it was utterly brilliant. Before IBM released the “personal computer” in 1981, Apple was by far the leading microcomputer brand, and was a household word. My own first computer was an Atari 400. I looked at prices and advertised specs and came to the conclusion that an Apple 2 or 3 was about double the computer for about three times the money. Atari unfortunately sold itself tragically short by focusing on the toy store market. They were ahead of their time in so many ways. The fact that they had already established a name for themselves in video games probably didn’t help in the gravitas department, either. Apple, of course, focused heavily on the K-12 education market, particularly sales to schools and school districts. I have no doubt that that is why its products amounted to less computer for the money than fellow 6502-based computer makers Atari and Commodore. It was like comparing the price of a textbook to the price of a trade book about the same subject. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those who sell to the public sector (or for that matter to captive markets which would include private school students) are rent seekers. Needless to say, when Apple later introduced the Macintosh, they focused on the collegiate market, with agressive sales to colleges and universities themselves, and deep discounts for student purchasers. In either case, if Apple is what you learned in school, Apple was what you were familiar with, and then comes brand loyalty, etc. So I would say early Apple marketing was utterly brilliant, enabling command of both higher market share and higher prices.

    But yeah, business savvy beats technical not only in money, but in historical legacy. The Edison>Tesla effect. :(

    • The issue isn’t between Apple and IBM. IBM got into the game late. The only reason it was important was because it was the huge computer company deciding to go into the PC market. But Apple wasn’t the first in the PC market either. The history of computers is very complicated, but the people who matter are people like Wozniak and Konrad Zuse — not people like Jobs and Gates. And ultimately, Apple and Microsoft have been bad for innovation — although for different reasons. Gates in particular shows that being in the right place at the right time is all that really matters.

      But I taught myself database design on an Apple II. I’m not a partisan. I hate them all equally. But Richard Stallman is my hero.

    • My public school had Apple II+-es. I learned those suckers inside and out. In terms of brand loyalty, it didn’t do much, though, as I was too poor to afford a computer for the next, oh, 20 years or so.

      I did attend a private high school on scholarship (charity, really, I think they weren’t especially choosy about what handful of poor kids they admitted, as long as they were white) and they had TRS-80s. Those might have been good machines, in their own way, but I avoided them like Black Death. I think the only computers I touched after that were things the journalism school had in college, which might have been bought second-hand from the KGB. Those had five-inch screens built into the unit and communicated only in some form of Esperanto that somehow had access to AP wire articles. Naturally I loved them. Figuring out the secret language of code fascinated me then the way it makes me want to murder computer designers now. But of course then I had nothing I wanted to write, and now I just want the computer to get out of my damn way and let me write things!

      • The TRS-80 have a bad reputation, but I have fond memories of them. It is amazing what you could do with 48 KB of RAM. My first computer was a Commodore 64, which I did music with. I have fond memories of those days when everything was done in assembly language. I was still coding in assembly into my grad school days. It doesn’t much matter, but coding at that level makes you understand the hardware. Most programmers today don’t know anything. And that’s a good thing in a way. But I miss the old days.

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