The Apple IIGS turns 30

Filed under Hacks & mods;

September 15, 2016, marked the 30th anniversary of the release of the Apple IIGS, the last model of Apple II to be developed and produced by Apple Computer Inc. Released two years after the introduction of the Macintosh, the IIGS was the only 16-bit Apple II, offering an entirely new operating system and suite of software.

Happy 30th to the Apple IIɢs!

I was 9 years old when we got our first Apple IIGS. I'd already been weaned on a steady diet of Apple IIe software, from VisiCalc and AppleWriter to Castle Wolfenstein and Choplifter — so that's how we used the Apple IIGS: as an accelerated Apple IIe. It wasn't until I started plundering the games library of the Apple II Users Forum on CompuServe that I started exploring what the Apple IIGS was uniquely capable of. With advice from Scott Everts and Loren Damewood, we invested in some hardware upgrades from Quality Computers that made the Apple IIGS a far more powerful machine than the IIe we once owned.

It wasn't long before my gaming hours were being spent on Bouncin' Ferno, Milestones 2000, Copy Killers, DuelTris, Floortiles, GShisen, and Xenocide. For telecommunications, I moved from ProTERM to Spectrum and its infinitely scriptable environment, where I crafted many chatroom games for CompuServe and GEnie. This budding podcaster got his start manipulating people's voices in AudioZap. And for word processing — well, I stuck with AppleWorks, of course. But for the most part, I never looked back once I "upgraded" to the ultimate Apple II.

Yet today, it seems the vast majority of today's retrocomputing programmers are developing 8-bit software. Quinn Dunk is hacking the Apple IIc Plus ROM, Martin Haye and company are building the world of Lawless Legends, French Touch is crafting 8-bit demos… the quantity and quality of Apple II software seems to dwarf releases for the Apple IIGS.

I can think of two reasons why this may be true. Given its late arrival and relatively limited number of models, the Apple IIGS was never as popular as its predecessors nor as likely to be someone's first Apple II. Thirty years ago, there were more 8-bit users than there were 16-bit users, and the two communities have experienced attrition proportionately. And with more secondhand 8-bit Apple II computers available, it's more likely to be the gateway for new community members than the Apple IIGS is.

The second reason is that the 8-bit Apple II offers a greater programming challenge than the Apple IIGS, in that constraints breed creativity. Although the Apple IIGS has more software and hardware resources at its disposal, it's more of a challenge and an accomplishment to create a cool program when you have only 48 kilobytes of RAM and not 4.25 megabytes.

It's similar to what Eric Shepherd said at KansasFest 2013: the Apple is finite and capable of being entirely grokked by a single developer. That's more true for the Apple II than it is for the IIGS.

The IIGS is the youngest Apple II, just as for many years, I was the youngest of the Apple II community. It'll always hold a special place in my heart. Now I'm curious to know why you think this technically superior machine doesn't hold that place in the hearts of more Apple II users. Share your theories in the comment belows or on Facebook or Twitter!

  1. Martin Haye says:

    For me you nailed it with the two reasons you gave. First is that I was 8-bit before I was 16-bit, and when returning nostalgically, I seem to return to the earliest formative years. Second, constraint is indeed a powerful challenge and driver, and the 8-bit models are much more of a challenge, and thus feel more rewarding.

  2. I know for me, my II+ still works perfectly, my IIgs has a problem with the monitor and needs a new battery. Means I can use one more than the other–at least until I can afford to buy replacement parts.

  3. I'm puzzled as to why more 8-bit guys don't embrace the IIGS as the 'Super' IIe that it really is.

    Considering things from an 8-bit programmer's viewpoint, I think the IIGS' Control Panel and the 'Visitor Monitor' CDA are fantastic hacking tools to use in deciphering 8-bit program internals.

    And, from the perspective of an 8-bit software user, I'd say that the IIGS' built-in acceleration, (2) built-in serial ports (plus cards in the same slots), built-in mouse card, built-in clock, built-in floppy controller, ADB keyboard controller capable of supporting function keys and built-in memory expansion all enhance the 8-bit software user's experience.

    I think, however, my favorite thing about the IIGS as a 'Super' IIe is this — it can use the _wicked_ fast RamFAST Rev. D SCSI disk controller, which gives one, even today, unmatched 8-bit ProDOS speed on an Apple II computer.


  4. There are two big fallacies here. It's not an error in the writing or editing of the article, but it takes a lot of IIgs insight to be able to spot them.

    One is the statements about addition challenges in programming and grokking the IIgs .

    The IIgs is far simpler to grok than the 8-bit Apple II systems and has a much simpler programming model. (Please see SHR layout versus ANY previous display map.) It *only* gets complicated when you spend time paying attention to all the IIe junk that gets in your way. Specifically, it's the backwards compatibility of the hardware and software that makes it seem complex, and indeed it is more complex than it needs to be. Now I am thankful as a user that it does offer the compatibility of a "Super IIe", but as a programmer, it did so much to stunt the system's capabilities. Slow RAM in "IIe" banks being an egregious example of over-compromise that hurt badly.

    The second fallacy is about current developments. Kaboom, GSOS updates, Mini Memory Tester, VNCviewGS (A friggen VNC client!), NinjaTracker, BrkDown (disassembler), and a lot more. Not so many games, but I took a break to work on my own IIgs emulator and debugger (GSplus and GSvision), and I was also delayed spending the past 2.5 – 3 years learning how to program 8-bit Apple II's (Flapple Bird and various demos) which is where I learned how much more obtuse the IIe et al are in comparison. And I also took time to do a DLR delta animation demo BEFORE French Touch, I'm more happy about my IIgs mini-demo/into "Look Behind You" which features something like 6 full songs in stereo with 60FPS and maybe 40-ish colors.

    I also feel like there's more hardware coming out for the IIgs than specifically for 8-bits, but that's not a point of the article.

    My point, there's a lot going on. Only IIgs fans pay attention to IIgs releases.

    Don't make me Quinn Dunk on you, brah!

  5. I forgot one other point about complexity of programming, that was a really big reason it didn't get mass adoption. Again, it's not the complexity (I swear it's a simple box), but if you wanted to learn you had to buy expensive manuals… many of them. At a minimum you need the Hardware Ref., Firmware Ref., Toolbox Refs. 1&2 and probably a good 65816 programming manual. Even though it's a simple computer, they did a crap job documenting it and those manuals don't really cover 100%. Also those reference books were only available from Apple/Addison Wesley. This was a bad move. They should've shipped the computer with far more information.

  6. Thank you for all the insights, Dagen! Not being a programmer, I don't have your familiarity with developing for the IIGS, which is why it was absent from the original blog post.

    As to your second point about modern hardware and software developments on the IIGS, I did not mean to ignore or dismiss any of them — each is significant and appreciated. But if it came down to a tally, I feel like each 16-bit game and OS update has just as many, if not more, 8-bit equivalents. Perhaps that's more anecdotal than empirical, but when I attend KansasFest, it's the impression I get.

  7. Apparently, when a teenage brain is being rewired during puberty, that's when strong emotions are stored long term in memory. At least that's what the current science seems to say.

    So the answer to which platform gets more love is down to what everybody did when they were young.

    I got to the Apple II in its later days and then quickly moved to the IIGS, so I would never even consider going back to the IIe. It is just slow, monochrome green version of a IIGS. Ultima V was a great Apple II game, but the IIGS monitor showed colors and everything was faster.

  8. Why I never moved on to the Apple ][gs.

    I bought my Apple ][ in NOV-1983, I started college in JAN-1985, and used Franklin 1000s and 1200nd and IBM-PCs and IBM-XTs.. I chose to buy an IBM-AT Clone in 1987 and stared moving away from the original Apple line.

    My dad used my original Apple ][e as his daily computer until 1994, when he switched to a Windows 3.1 PC..