The genesis of Apple

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While nobody could hold a candle to Woz’s engineering skills, Jobs understood that form was as important as functionality. He hated the crude metal cases of the hobbyist computers of the time and insisted that the Apple II have a professionally designed plastic enclosure that would appeal to consumers. Furthermore, he felt that Wayne’s logo was too cerebral and not easily reproduced at small sizes. In early 1977, Jobs hired Regis McKenna Advertising, which defined a new logo and logotype (Motter Tektura) and created Apple’s first professionally produced ads.

Working under account executive Bill Kelley, art director Rob Janoff started with a black and white silhouette of an apple, but felt something was missing. “I wanted to simplify the shape of an apple, and by taking a bite—a byte, right?—out of the side, it prevented the apple from looking like a cherry tomato,” explains Janoff. Furthermore, the lowercase company name could snuggle into the bite. At Jobs’ insistence, Janoff added six colorful, horizontal stripes that paid tribute to the Apple II’s impressive color capabilities. Although separating the green, yellow, orange, red, purple, and blue bars with thin black lines would have reduced registration problems during reproduction, Jobs nixed the proposal, resulting in the world famous Apple logo, which Scott called “the most expensive bloody logo ever designed.”

The revolutionary $1,298 Apple II was introduced under the badge of the new logo during the first West Coast Computer Faire held at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium on April 17, 1977, and it took the fledgling computer industry by storm. It was the first personal computer designed for the mass market thanks to its attractive low-slung case that was complete with standard keyboard, power supply, and color graphics capability.

In August 1977, Apple achieved positive cash flow and Michael Scott, Apple’s first president, negotiated to pay $21,000 for an eight-year license to Microsoft’s version of the BASIC programming language. After some fiddling by a high schooler named Randy Wigginton (who went on to create MacWrite), Microsoft’s modified code was released as Applesoft (floating-point BASIC). Over the years, tens of thousands of useful programs were written in Applesoft for the Apple II series, contributing in a large part to the computer’s popularity.

The Apple II was a successful product, but it wasn’t until two new products aligned that the small California company was propelled into the big leagues. The first piece fell into place in July 1978 in the form of the $495 Apple Disk II drive. Just as he had created a unique cassette interface to solve the data storage problem of the Apple I, Woz came up with a completely novel design for a 110K 5.25-inch floppy drive with a controller card that fit in one of the Apple II’s eight expansion slots. The drive was half as expensive as competitive products and gave the Apple II the lead in storage capabilities at a time when most computers were still using temperamental cassette drives.

The second key to the success of the Apple II didn’t come from Woz or anyone else in Cupertino. Rather, it was invented on the other side of the country independently of Apple. In January 1979, Daniel Fylstra, from Boston-based Personal Software, showed Markkula and Jobs a prototype of an Applesoft program called Calculedger. Written in an attic by 26-year-old Daniel Bricklin, a first-year Harvard Business School MBA student, and his MIT friend Robert Frankston, Calculedger was a cross between a calculator and a ledger sheet that solved complex “what if” financial problems by establishing mathematical relationships between numbers. Fylstra offered to sell the program for $1 million, but Apple turned him down.

The wizards in Cupertino were not alone in failing to grasp the importance of the program. Bill Gates also declined to purchase the program because Microsoft was too busy selling BASIC directly to computer manufacturers to get involved in publishing applications, stating, “We do not talk to any end users.” By the time it was unveiled publicly at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco that May, Calculedger had been renamed VisiCalc (a contraction of “visible calculator”), and the world got its first look at an electronic spreadsheet.

While Personal Software was completing VisiCalc for its eventual release in October, in June Apple introduced the $1,195 Apple II Plus featuring 48K of memory, additional color capabilities, and Applesoft in ROM, which eliminated the need to load it from tape or floppy. It was a modest upgrade, but when combined with the Apple Disk II and VisiCalc, the Apple II Plus transcended the home market and became an essential business tool. VisiCalc sold 200,000 copies in two years, becoming the world’s first “killer application,” a program so compelling that people bought hardware just to run it. Because VisiCalc didn’t run on any other computers, Apple II sales took off.

[ Owen W. Linzmayer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who has been covering Apple since 1980. He is the author of Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company (No Starch Press, 2004). ]

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