The Apple family tree: Apple platforms through the years
By Benj Edwards
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)
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)
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)
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.
High price, limited third-party support, and a defective batch of early Apple III units led to tepid adoption of the Apple III and to its ultimate discontinuation in 1984. However, its flexible and well-received operating system (SOS, short for Sophisticated Operating System) served as the inspiration for ProDOS on the Apple II, which helped to extend that platform’s lifespan into the early 1990s.
Apple Lisa (1983 to 1985)
The Apple Lisa met its ultimate genesis when Steve Jobs and a few other Apple employees took a stroll through Xerox PARC, a research and development center for the copier giant. There, they saw an advanced machine called the Alto which utilized a bitmapped graphical interface and a pointing device called a mouse.
Apple soon created its own bitmapped windowing platform, the Lisa, which became one of the first two commercial microcomputer systems equipped with a graphical user interface (GUI). Its high price ($10,000 when first launched ), slow speed, and troublesome proprietary floppy drives hobbled the platform out of the gate.
Reacting to criticism, Apple redesigned the Lisa with a new floppy drive the following year—while simultaneously launching the far cheaper GUI-based Macintosh. Brisk sales of Macintosh over the Lisa doomed the Lisa platform to obscurity.
Of the few customers who purchased a Lisa, most of them were satisfied with a suite of graphical office tools that Apple included with the computer. Low adoption rates made third party software development on the platform unattractive, and very few third-party applications actually shipped for this series of large and expensive machines.
Macintosh (1984 to present)
The Macintosh platform first emerged in 1984, and it has been with us in some form or another ever since. Over these past 22 years, the platform has seen three major hardware shifts (those between 68K, PowerPC, and x86 CPUs) and one major operating system shift (between Classic OS and OS X).
While some could argue that these three CPU types constitute three separate platforms (and technically, they do), Apple accompanied each hardware shift with emulation layers that preserved backwards compatibility, thus maintaining the spirit of Macintosh between hardware revisions.
Within these three hardware subplatforms, the Mac ecosystem is further subdivided by the use of different operating systems such as the Unix-based A/UX on 68K machines, and of course, the switch between the classic OS and OS X in the PowerPC era.
With ample third-party support and literally hundreds of family members, the Macintosh stands as Apple’s most popular platform to date.
Macintosh 68K (1984 to 1996)
CPU class: Motorola 68K OS: Mac OS, A/UX Subplatform size: 72
Macintosh PowerPC (1994 to 2006)
CPU class: PowerPC OS: Mac OS, Mac OS X Subplatform size: 87
Macintosh x86 (2006 to present)
CPU class: Intel x86 OS: Mac OS X Subplatform size: 51+
Apple IIgs (1986 to 1992)
Far from being just another derivative Apple II product, the IIgs platform is actually a superset of the earlier 8-bit platform. This post-Mac machine expanded significantly upon its 8-bit processor by using a 16-bit processor that allowed utilization of more system memory and faster program execution. A new graphics chip and an impressive sound synthesizer further differentiated the IIgs from its 8-bit cousins.
As a member of the Apple II family, the IIgs’s WDC 65816 processor contained an emulation mode that could execute programs written for the original Apple II’s 6502 processor at roughly twice the speed, thus carrying on the vast legacy of Apple II software products.
This new processor, however, also allowed the creation of newer, more powerful applications specifically designed to take advantage of hardware enhancements unique to the IIgs. Accordingly, Apple created a special 16-bit operating system (ProDOS 16) and later introduced a colorful graphical user interface reminiscent of the Macintosh.
Overall, the IIgs remained a popular platform for at least half a decade (especially in education) despite limited support from Apple. Focus on the Macintosh platform put the brakes on the IIgs in 1992.
TechStep (1991 to 1993)
This little-known diagnostic tool, which allowed technicians to troubleshoot Mac systems, unintentionally represented Apple’s first handheld mobile computer platform. While most consider this small device an accessory, the TechStep itself contains an embedded computer running specialized software from Apple-provided ROM software packs. No third-party development occurred for this limited diagnostic platform.
Newton/eMate (1993 to 1998)
Newcomers to the Apple ecosystem may be surprised to learn that the iPhone and the iPad were not Apple’s first forays into touchscreen-based mobile computing. That honor belongs to the Newton, a PDA (personal digital assistant) that combined pen-based input with a monochrome LCD display on a handheld, pocket-size device.
The Newton spawned a vibrant third-party software community, albeit one that was small in size because of relatively limited sales of Newton hardware. Frequently lampooned in the media for its sometimes inaccurate (but still pretty good for the time) handwriting recognition, the Newton never reached a broad customer base. Still, its high profile in the media catalyzed the larger PDA market of the 1990s.
Near the end of its life, the Newton family gained a unique new member, the eMate 300. Unlike the Newton before it, the eMate shipped in a notebook-style clamshell form factor.
Upon his return to Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs quickly axed the Newton in order to provide focus for the company. Portions of the Newton’s software technology live on in OS X, and experience with the Newton (on what and what not to do) helped shape the form of Apple’s next major mobile computing initiative over a decade later.
Pippin (1995 to 1997)
In the mid-1990s, Apple hopped on a brief, Web-fueled craze that sought to provide simple, cheap hardware that would allow users to get on the Internet, usually through their TV sets. And while they were at it, why not throw in CD-based multimedia entertainment, too?
The company jumped into this mythical market with the Apple Pippin, a Mac-based hardware reference platform (running a modified version of Mac OS 7.5.x) that spelled out the basics of a stand-alone, console-style computer with a gamepad that hooked to a television set. Apple never sold its own Pippin hardware, instead leaving that to licensee Bandai in Japan and North America.
Following the precedent set by video game consoles, Apple restricted third-party development for the Pippin platform to licensees only. The high price of Pippin hardware and a general lack of a definitive target audience drove Pippin to failure in the marketplace, and very few software titles for the system reached the public.
Apple Network Server (1996 to 1997)
With the Apple Network Server series, Apple attempted to cater to the medium-range server market that would later be covered by the XServe. The machines themselves used underlying Macintosh technology, including PowerPC CPUs, but since they exclusively ran a modified version of IBM’s AIX operating system (IBM’s proprietary implementation of UNIX), Apple never referred to the machines as Macs.
Only two machines in this series, the 500 and the 700, reached the market. Their high price and bizarre mixed pedigree limited their appeal, and the platform met its end with Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997. Interestingly, the ANS 500 and 700 are the only Apple machines ever designed exclusively to run a non-Apple operating system.
iPod (2001 to present)
Platform size: 20
As a consumer electronics gadget with a streamlined interface and (very) limited third-party software support, the classic iPod series is something that few people think of as a computer platform. But underneath those fancy click wheels lay the beating heart of a computing machine.
Every member of the classic iPod family (save one, the first iPod Shuffle) has sported an ARM-based CPU, most in configurations designed by PortalPlayer. Similarly, almost all classic iPods run a custom version of the Pixo OS, an embedded operating system initially licensed by Apple (and later bought outright from the Pixo company itself).
For the first five years of its lifespan, the iPod classic platform remained closed to third party development. In 2006, Apple unveiled a line of iPod click-wheel games created by select, Apple-invited third-party developers—with casual games like Bejeweled and Mahjong being typical fare. Overall, 50 titles appeared on the iPod before Apple removed them from the iTunes store in 2011.
Of the various iPods, the only units capable of running Apple-sanctioned third-party software are the later iPod classic models and the iPod nano. According to most reports, all iPod nano iterations run versions of Pixo OS, even those with touchscreen interfaces.
iPod classic (2001 to present)
CPU class: ARM OS: Pixo OS Development status: Moderated Subplatform size: 7
iPod mini (2004 to 2005)
CPU class: ARM OS: Pixo OS Development status: Closed Subplatform size: 2
iPod nano (2005 to present)
CPU class: ARM OS: Pixo OS Development status: Moderated Subplatform size: 7
iPod shuffle 1st generation (2005 to 2006)
CPU class: Sigmatel STMP3550 OS: iPod Shuffle OS Development status: Closed Subplatform size: 1
iPod shuffle 2nd to 4th generation (2006 to present)
CPU class: ARM OS: iPod Shuffle OS Development status: Closed Subplatform size: 3
Apple TV (2007 to present)
The Apple TV digital media box began its life as a special-purpose x86-based computer running a modified version of OS X. In 2010, the platform fractured drastically, shifting to an ARM/iOS combination that more closely resembled an iPhone than a Mac.
So far, Apple’s diminutive TV box isn’t an open or even moderated platform, but with an app-like home screen in the most recent OS version, many suspect that that status will change at some point.
Apple TV 1st generation (2007 to 2010)
CPU class: Intel x86 OS: OS X (modified) Subplatform size: 1
Apple TV 2nd and 3rd generation (2010 to present)
CPU class: ARM OS: iOS Subplatform size: 2
iOS (2007 to present)
iOS began is life as iPhone OS, which itself stemmed from Apple’s OS X desktop OS. This touchscreen operating system powers three distinct hardware subplatforms: iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Each contains a CPU based on the ARM microprocessor architecture. Many iOS apps can run on all three subplatforms, while others are limited to or optimized for a certain iOS device class.
iOS initially shipped on the 2007 iPhone without the App Store or any means of installing third-party applications. In 2008, Apple launched the App Store, and iOS quickly became one of the most populous software platforms of all time. As of this writing, it boasts over 700,000 third-party apps and is growing bigger every day.
With an ever-increasing stable of family members, the iOS platform is the heir apparent to claim the title of most popular Apple platform.
iPhone (2007 to present)
Subplatform size: 6
iPod touch (2007 to present)
Subplatform size: 5
iPad (2010 to present)
Subplatform size: 5
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