When The Apple II Was New

I’ve been so busy recovering from birthing my book (the stitches have come out, thank you) that I have not paid attention to anniversaries. I was reminded by the post on Cult of Mac yesterday (here) that it was on June 10, 1977 that the full Apple II system with case was first shipped.

Apple II, Panasonic RQ-2102 cassette, and TV
Apple II, Panasonic RQ-2102 cassette, and TV – Photo credit: Carl Knoblock, Phil Pfeiffer

This computer was nearly twice as expensive as the competitors that would be available for purchase later in the year (the Commodore PET 2001 in August, and the TRS-80 Model I in November), but offered expandability right out of the box that neither of those competitors could provide without a retrofit or redesign.

Okay, if you’ve read this blog in the past, you know of my opinion about the significance of this computer, but let me reiterate: It established Apple as a company, and turned on a fire-hose of cash that funded the next several years of stumbles with other products (the Apple III, Lisa, and original 128K Macintosh). It was such a significant player that the company had to intentionally hobble it in its later years, so it would not pull customers away from the Mac.

The Apple II also set the stage for the appearance of computers on desktops for years to come. The popularity of the beige color was copied endlessly by other competing products that were released, well into the 1990s, when the term “boring beige box” came into its own. Yes, the Apple II was indeed beige — but it was the first to be beige.

Wozniak’s design was also unique in being the ideal hacker’s platform. Here I do not mean “hacker” in the sense of one who maliciously breaks into other computer systems with the intent of stealing or vandalizing. Rather, this refers to “hacker” in its original sense, that of one who could create new things, be it software or hardware, that brought functionality to the Apple II that went beyond what Woz originally envisioned. The eight slots allowed hardware expandability that other platforms did not as easily offer, and many of those add-ons were accessible by amateur programmers through its built-in BASIC and powerful 6502 assembly language.

All said, the release of this computer was a significant event in computing history. Happy 37th birthday, Apple II !

Oriental Apples

In part 13 of the History on this web site (and in Chapter 15 of Sophistication & Simplicity, available at fine booksellers everywhere), there is a short section discussing Apple’s first foray into sales targeting the Far East. The Apple II j-Plus was a slightly redesigned Apple II Plus, with a character ROM chip modified to display Japanese Katakana characters with the appropriate POKE to $C05C to activate them.

A reader of this web site who lives in Hong Kong, Wyatt Wong, recently sent me an email asking why I didn’t mention anything about a Chinese “language card” for the Apple II in this part of the History. I had not heard of it before, and so he helped educate me about this hack that let Chinese-speaking (and writing) individuals use an Apple II in years past. Further information came from Lim Thye Chean of Singapore.

While in school in the 1980s, Wong was exposed to a Far Eastern Apple II clone. Like those from Japan, the use of this Apple II required some knowledge of English to do programming or to use the large library of software available from the United States. Yet, there was desire to make it work for the numerous Chinese logograms used in that written language, and hackers in that part of the world worked to create a solution that would work for this computer. The result was referred to as the Chinese language card.

The Giantek Technology Corporation of Taiwan was founded in 1982, and produced English-Chinese terminals for Taiwan and mainland China. In 1983 the company came out with the Giantek Chinese Interface Card for the Apple II, officially called  the Zon Ding Chinese System, or simply Han Card (Han means “Chinese”). Despite the “Chinese language card” name used to refer to it, this was not a RAM card like the 16K Apple Language Card. It was much more complicated.

Giantek Chinese Interface Card, photo credit ubb.frostplace.com
Giantek Chinese Interface Card, photo credit ubb.frostplace.com

According to a discussion about it on comp.sys.apple2 back in 2002, at least one version of this system involved a pair of cards connected together by a 14-pin ribbon cable. One of the cards was equipped with its own Z80A CPU, and most commonly was installed in slot 3 or 4. This card held six EPROM chips labeled ROM-1 through ROM-6, and in the discussion, it was speculated that the card was actually its own computer (just as the Microsoft SoftCard was a computer on a card to run CP/M), and that the ROM chips were used to store the Chinese characters to be displayed. 

The card utilized the Apple II hi-res screen to display the Chinese characters. Wong recalls that it required either a modified version of Apple DOS, or another application that ran on top of DOS. This was necessary to make it possible to allow entry of the Chinese characters from the keyboard. This Giantek card used traditional Chinese, specifically either Cangjei or Simplified Cangjei (not to be confused with simplified Chinese, which was most commonly used in mainland China).

To enter a traditional Chinese character, the typical method was to type a QWERTY character, then type up to five additional characters from the keyboard to create the desired Chinese character. The twenty-four Roman letters A through W, plus Y on the keyboard were used in the Cangjei method. Z was not used at all, and X was reserved for entry of difficult Chinese characters.

Other non-US versions of the Apple II dealt with languages that had a limited alphabet, and so were more suitable to map to a standard US keyboard. It is not surprising that Apple did not at that time specifically service the Chinese market, as the language was considerably more complicated than other places in the world. I do find it interesting to see how Wozniak’s open design on the Apple II made it possible to work with the Chinese language long before there was any graphic-interface computers available to do the job.

Point To Point

At a recent gathering to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh, a video recording was taken of a conversation between Dan Kottke, Rod Holt, and Steve Wozniak discussing the preparation of the original Apple II prototype. In the video, Kottke expresses his surprise that Holt, a photographer, never took any pictures of the Apple II prototypes, and neither did Steve Jobs.  There are apparently no photos of the Apple II during its design process.

Woz also clarifies that his prototyping method in those days was to use point-to-point soldering, rather than the more commonly used wire-wrapping technique. In the latter part of the video, he discusses how he put the pieces together and soldered them, on both the Apple-1 and the Apple II.

Macintosh Forever? Uh-oh…

<snarky mode enabled> Jason Snell, writing for MacWorld today about the 30th anniversary of the launch of the original 128K Macintosh, gave a quote by Phil Schiller. He said:

“There is a super-important role [for the Mac] that will always be,” Schiller said. “We don’t see an end to that role. There’s a role for the Mac as far as our eye can see. A role in conjunction with smartphones and tablets, that allows you to make the choice of what you want to use. Our view is, the Mac keeps going forever, because the differences it brings are really valuable.” (emphasis mine)

Based on our past experience with the Apple II, I would give the Mac just a few more years before it is gone. “Apple II Forever” was the theme at the launch of the Apple IIc in April 1984, and forever lasted only nine years before they pulled the plug.

Macintosh forever
Making life better and better
Macintosh forever and ever
Bringing the rainbow to you
Macintosh forever!

<snarky mode disabled>

Actually, I don’t want that to happen, because I use my MacBook Pro on a daily basis, and want to continue to do so. But I just couldn’t help but make that connection to an old nit to pick.