Cliff Spohn's Art of Apple

April 3rd, 2017 9:47 AM
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Like many of my generation, I got my start in gaming on an Atari console. The Atari 2600 was home to countless classic games, from Adventure to Indiana Jones to the notorious E.T. Whereas my Apple II had games that came on unremarkably labeled floppy disks, Atari's games sported works of art on their boxes and labels, evoking worlds of excitement and intrigue far beyond the console's ability to render.

The history, process, and impact of this art is detailed in a new book, The Art of Atari, released in October 2016. This hardcover coffee-table book features gorgeous blow-ups of published Atari creations, as well as concept art and early drafts. Many of the original artists were interviewed about their inspirations and workflows.

One such artist is Cliff Spohn, who gets a two-page profile on pages 70–71. Accompanying this spread is a piece of art that is decidedly un-Atari. Its caption: "Spohn's illustration for an early Apple Computer manual. His artwork was personally commissioned by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs."

I'm unsure where this art would've originally been published; the only references to it that I can find on Google refer back to this very book. According to Spohn's website, he "also did Apple's first one or two instruction booklet covers", but I don't recall having seen this artwork before, either.

UPDATE: Will Scullin cites this art as appearing on Jef Raskin's Apple II BASIC Programming Manual, and Sean McNamara has proof:

Nonetheless, Spohn's legacy could be felt even in recent years of Apple media. Spohn writes that "demand for my kind of illustration was and is slowly disappearing". But Apple II enthusiasts may remember that the style of Spohn and his contemporaries inspired the art for the Jason Scott documentary GET LAMP, as illustrated by Lukas Ketner.

GET LAMP art by Lukas Ketner

GET LAMP art by Lukas Ketner

Atari was the proving ground for many early computer pioneers, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Let's remember the geniuses like Cliff Spohn that made them look good, too.

(Hat tip to Susan Arendt)

Documentary crowdfunding frustration

July 4th, 2016 7:18 AM
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The Kickstarter for 8 bit generation succeeded, leading to the imminent release of a documentary about 8-bit computers. It was a long road, as the film was marked as "Missing In Action" back in 2012, well after I'd already paid for the DVD.

The Kickstarter promised an unlikely turnaround time: the campaign closed on September 25, 2015, with DVDs to ship just five months later in February 2016. That hasn't yet happened — but while we wait, the producers have launched a second Kickstarter for a second documentary.

"The story of Atari is two-thirds the story of Nolan Bushnell, founder and visionary," says the project description, "and one-third the first and probably biggest boom and bust of the new economy some 20 years before the new economy even existed."

The story of Atari is also the origin story of Apple: Steve Jobs got his first job there; Steve Wozniak developed their Breakout game; and together, before they founded Apple Computer Inc., the Steves tried selling the Apple II to Atari.

But how did the filmmakers spin the Atari content out from the original documentary without detracting from it? Turns out there was a marketing miscommunication: the first film was only the first part of a series, with each installment focusing on a different computer and company. What I thought was a broader overview of the 8-bit generation, and which I backed based on its interviews with Steve Wozniak, turned out to be subtitled The Commodore Wars.

Admittedly, I should've read the project's description more closely: "We resolved to release a single long run episode by the working title of Growing The 8 Bit Generation, focused on the home computer explosion and Commodore role in the personal computer revolution." But I usually count on a Kickstarter's campaign video to detail a project — and this project had no video.

That's not the only reason I feel conflicted about their second Kickstarter. I understand that, logistically, launching another crowdfunding campaign while the first remains unfulfilled makes perfect sense: the first documentary is already content-locked and is in the final stages of production, freeing the directors to begin work on editing another film. But emotionally and politically, it's a gamble, as Comcept discovered with the Mighty No. 9 and Red Ash campaigns. It feels like the directors are asking us to double down.

For almost half a decade now, I've been expecting a DVD of a documentary about Apple and its contemporaries. Such a thing may exist as future installments in this DVD series are produced — but it's not what I've been promised, it's not what I paid for, and I find myself a skeptical customer to be asking for more money and faith from.

Jack Tramiel dies at 83

April 9th, 2012 9:58 PM
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Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore and Atari Corporation, the latter a gaming company he salvaged from Atari Inc., passed away yesterday at the age of 83.

The Commodore 64 was a better-selling computer than the Apple II. Due to an original larger user base than our community's, their retrocomputing scene is in many ways still more active, allowing an ancient rivalry to some places persists to this day.

Yet the competition wasn't personal between the computers' founders. Tramiel never met his contemporary and competitor, Steve Wozniak, until the 25th anniversary of Commodore at the Computer History Museum in 2007, an event which shed some details on their history:

With no money to build thousands of the Apple machines, Wozniak and Jobs approached Commodore about distributing the Apple II. "Chuck Peddle from Commodore came to the garage, and he was one of about three people we showed the Apple II prototype," Wozniak said.

As struggling 20-year-olds with zero savings and no business experience, the idea of a stable job at Commodore comforted them, Wozniak said. "Steve [Jobs] started saying all we want to do was offer [Apple II] for a few hundred thousand dollars, and we will get jobs at Commodore, we'll get some stock, and we'll be in charge of running the program," Wozniak said.

Commodore rejected the idea, preferring instead to develop its own simpler … machine without the pizazz of the Apple II, Wozniak said. Commodore could do it more quickly and thought at the time that would be a better course for the company, he said.

I've never used a C64 but, so close to having lost Steve Jobs, I can appreciate what Jack Tramiel's passing means to his fans. I offer my thanks to the man who played such a significant role in the founding of an era, and my sympathy and condolences to his many admirers, both then and now.

(Hat tip to Mike Maginnis, as retweeted by Eric Shepherd)

Generational hardware gap deux

December 19th, 2011 7:36 PM
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Remember those modern kids confronted with ancient technology? They were, for the most part, baffled by archaic storage media and entertainment devices. It was an amusing demonstration of the changes in interfaces and expectations across the generations.

Here's another example of the clash between new and old. Four American kids, all siblings, are given three devices from their mother's attic: a tape deck, a Commodore Plus/4, and an Atari 2600.

It's great fun to see the girl's delight at getting the Commodore to work. Today's computers may be more elegant and inviting, but there's a far greater sense of accomplishment at mastering the rudimentary commands of yesterday's machines.

By contrast, it's challenging to believe the young man couldn't figure out how to fire in a game that has one button, it's not surprising that he and his brother would find the Atari games challenging. In 2009, I brought a 22-year-old to the American Classic Arcade Museum at Funspot. Bred into being a multitasker by today's complex and staccato media, she was confused by the simplicity of the coin-ops of the 1980s. Surely there was more to it than that?

I'm glad there are retro enthusiasts out there who are not only holding onto their tech but are willing to share it with their kids. May we always remember the way things were — the better to appreciate the way things are!

(Hat tip to ComputeHer, 8 Bit Weapon)