The Apple family tree: Apple platforms through the years

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If you asked someone to name Apple’s computer platforms, you’d probably get three answers: Apple II, Mac, and iOS. But the true history of Apple’s computing platform heritage is much more rich and varied than most people realize.

Over the past 36 years, Apple has created at least 13 distinct platforms, each hosting its own unique variety of software. Some of these surprisingly forgotten ecosystems met quick deaths at the hands of an unforgiving market, while others persist under our noses in the consumer electronics sector.

Technically, a computer platform is defined by the combination of operating system and underlying hardware architecture. You could say, then, that, in a sense, each platform represents its own species of machine, capable of running its own applications natively but not those of other platforms.

Although that definition of platform seems simple, it’s easy to group or regroup Apple technology families depending on which characteristics you emphasize, so there is no one right way to do it. In this particular list, you’ll see Apple’s platforms primarily grouped by product family, which, with only a few exceptions, are generally centered around a single hardware architecture or software paradigm.

It's worth noting that Apple has released several other products that are technically computers at heart, like the AirPort Wi-Fi series and the Time Capsule. Since those devices have very singular purposes—pulling all their code from firmware with no realistic potential to run anything —we have excluded them from the list. Technically, the iPod shuffle meets this criteria too, but it was included below because it is part of the iPod family.

Platform info key

With so much information ahead, it will be useful to clarify some terms used to describe these platforms, which we will briefly do here. Also note that whenever a property is common to all subplatforms, it is listed solely under the main platform for that section.

Year range: The years in which the platform has been/was active.

CPU class: The basic CPU architecture for the platform.

OS: The Apple-sanctioned operating system(s) available for the platform.

Development status: “Open” means that Apple allows unrestricted third-party development for the platform. “Closed” means that Apple disallows all third-party development. “Moderated” means that Apple allows third-party development with special permission and management.

Platform size: A number count of distinct models released in the platform. This number could vary widely depending on how you distinguish between models (especially with the Mac platform), so it should be used only as a rough indicator.

The following platforms appear in the order in which the platform’s founding model first appeared.

Apple I (1976 to 1977)

Ed Uthman
Apple I

CPU class: MOS 6502
OS: System Monitor
Development status: Open
Platform size: 1

The following story should sound familiar: The Apple I originated as a microcomputer hobby platform created by Steve Wozniak for his own use. Steve Jobs convinced Wozniak to turn it into a product, and Apple was born.

The Apple I platform wasn’t very large, as it lasted only a year and the machine rarely made its way outside of California hobbyist circles. The computer, which shipped as a populated circuit board without a case, power supply, or keyboard, received only a few official software applications from Apple. It is hard to pin down how many third-party commercial software packages shipped for it, but the few that did often used Ziploc baggies for product packaging.

Despite the Apple I’s short lifespan and low commercial impact, both the hardware and software technology underlying the 8-bit, 6502-based Apple I set the stage for the Apple II the following year.

Apple II (1977 to 1993)
Apple II

CPU class: MOS 6502
OS: Apple DOS, Apple Pascal, ProDOS
Development status: Open
Platform size: 7

When it came time to design a follow-up to the Apple I, Steve Wozniak drew on his love of video games to create the world’s least expensive color computer system. The Apple II retained the same 8-bit MOS 6502 CPU as its predecessor, but added (among other features) a series of seven expansion slots that significantly extended the lifespan of the platform. Oh, and it also included a case, a keyboard, and a power supply.

With seven major American variations on the Apple II platform over the course of almost two decades, the Apple II became the center of a large and vibrant ecosystem populated by numerous first- and third-party software packages and accessories. The Apple II remained Apple’s most popular platform for quite some time—even during the early years of the Macintosh.

Apple III (1980 to 1984)

Apple III

CPU class: 6502
OS: SOS, Apple Pascal
Development status: Open
Platform size: 2

The Apple III represented Apple’s first attempt to cater specifically to the business PC market. As such, Apple intentionally hobbled compatibility with the earlier Apple II in order to differentiate it in price and market. This decision came back to bite Apple in a big way almost immediately. Confused Apple management watched as the Apple II, with its vast third party expansion support, quickly gained capabilities above and beyond those baked into the Apple III, thereby negating any true advantage that the III may have had.

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