Laboratory origins of the Apple II

August 18th, 2011 4:02 PM
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Filed under History;
1 comment.

The past week has been one of milestones: the IBM PC turned 30, just days before the Web itself turned 20. Of course, both are still whippersnappers compared to the Apple II, but it's timely to consider the birthplace of that and other innovations.

Of course, Steve Wozniak was the genius behind the Apple II, but many of the ideas found in the Apple II and other computers were devised in collaborative environments. A recent story looks at six computer labs that gave birth to the digital world. The penultimate page is dedicated to the many innovations to come out of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and how they influenced Apple's products:

These inventions culminated in 1973 with the Xerox Alto, the first GUI-driven personal computer (check out the three-button mouse!) Sadly the Alto was never sold commercially, and only 2,000 units were built — but don’t worry, its legacy lived on with the 1977 Apple II, the first mouse-and-GUI-driven home computer, and the 1984 Macintosh.

Although the Apple II did indeed have a mouse, I (as some article's readers do) think the author intended to reference the Apple Lisa. Steve Weyhrich's history of the Apple II supports that reading:

Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) develops the “Alto”, a breakthrough computer which used a pointing device called a “mouse”, a bit-mapped graphic screen, and icons to represent documents. Also, it had a 2.5 megabyte removable disk cartridge and the first implementation of Ethernet. It cost $15,000 just to build it, and only 1,200 were ever produced. This computer and the Xerox Star were the inspirations within a decade for the Lisa and the Macintosh.

Readers also take exception to a statement on the preceding page that "in 1981, IBM released the Personal Computer, the first home computer made from off-the-shelf parts". Was not the Apple II that machine? At least one reader says yes:

The Apple II was all off the shelf parts 6502 processor, 4K memory (8102 DRAM?), etc. There were no custom IC's. The only "non off the shelf" were things like the power supply, keyboard, paddles, etc. The same was true for other microcomputers sold before IBM played catch up with the 5150 (including the Altair 8800). On all of the microcomputers, (including the IBM 5150) the design, circuit board, case, keyboard, expansion slots, power supply, were custom as well as the BIOS. The IBM 5150 helped to mainstream microcomputers (outside the classroom) because "No one ever got fired for recommending IBM" — a common quote from that era.

What say you, dedicated retrocomputing enthusiasts? Did the author of this gallery do his homework, or are a few of his facts a wee bit off?

Keyboard navigation in a GUI world

August 4th, 2011 3:38 PM
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Filed under Hacks & mods;
4 comments.

Computers have come a long way since the Apple II, with important improvements to both hardware and software. But along the way, a few valuable computing aspects were lost.

A recent ITworld.com story looks at features that lost the evolutionary war: "… there are some things they don't do that the old, slow, often command-line-intead-of-GUI-oriented applications did." The first page of the story focuses on the losses associated with the transition from a command-line interface (CLI) to a graphical user interface (GUI). One consultant laments the loss of programmable function keys and other shortcuts that extended keyboards once offered. These features were never available to the Apple II user, but I can commiserate with the need for shortcuts that don't require a pointing device.

My first six years as a Macintosh predominantly took the form of a laptop (a PowerBook 1400cs) with an external trackball (an ADB Kensington TurboMouse). That trackball had four buttons that could be programmed for a variety of custom functions, such as right-clicking or switching applications. My right hand rarely strayed from that device, as it was impossible to use Mac OS Classic without it.

After switching to Mac OS X on December 7, 2003, I began to rely less and less. I found this reinvention of the Macintosh operating system featured keyboard-based shortcuts that I'd previously used the TurboMouse for. Now, I could switch windows, applications, and more while keeping my hands on the keyboard. In this way, OS X is actually a bit more similar to the Apple II with which I grew up. Navigating Microsoft Word will never be as intuitive or efficient as using AppleWorks, but it's a bit closer.

With all my Macs having always been portable, it's important for such power to be inbuilt, though I imagine those with desktop computers might enjoy the options such a stable position brings. For example, Andrew Plotkin, in an interview with The Setup (the same site that previously interviewed Bert Kersey), recommended the Matias Tactile Pro 3 keyboard, saying, "If your typing doesn’t sound like a hailstorm on a tin roof, you’re not typing." (This is despite the keyboard being connected to a MacBook Pro; says Plotkin, "I essentially never move it — I’m not a laptop person at heart.")

As a former or current Apple II user, by what input device or method do you prefer to navigate your modern computer? Is there particular hardware you favor or recommend?