A timeline of monitors and displays

April 10th, 2017 11:18 AM
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There are as many ways to connect an Apple II to a display as there have been display types across the decades. Each machine had its own protocols, standards, and benefits. Although the Apple II was designed for color — hence the six-color Apple logo — most people remember a monochromatic experience, due to the black-and-green monitors to which many early computers were connected. The first laptop Macintosh I ever used had a black-and-white display, which was great for playing Crystal Quest but not much else.

A new interactive infographic, "The Evolution of Computer Screens", attempts to chronicle the different ways computers have visually presented data to us over the eras, inviting us: "Take a trip through time and experience the most noteworthy achievements in computer screens, from little known discoveries way back in 1968, to the heated battles between Apple and PC and beyond."

Naturally, such a timeline would be remiss to overlook the Apple II:

Monitor timeline

There are a couple problems with this artistic rendition, though. First, that looks like a mockup, not an actual screenshot, of VisiCalc — the font just seems odd to me. Second, the accompanying text offers the prompt A>dir, which would never be valid on an Apple II unless it had a PC Transporter running MS-DOS, or a Microsoft Z-80 SoftCard running CP/M — a more representative prompt would've been ProDOS or DOS 3.3's native ]CATALOG. Third, the text doesn't actually say anything about the monitor or the display — there's no explanation justifying the Apple II's inclusion on this timeline.

This timeline is produced by AT&T with no individual bylines attached to it. I don't believe corporate sponsorship of a product is inherently suspicious, but not knowing the pedigree of the creators leaves me wondering what their familiarity with or interest in the topic was.

Fortunately, the timeline includes citations to resources referenced during their research. One such link is to Benj Edwards' 2010 feature for PCWorld, "A Brief History of Computer Displays". As a slideshow, it may lack the pizazz of the above timeline, but Edwards' content is, as always, top-notch. Spanning 1951–2010, the twenty slides cover a range of technologies and applications, including both the Apple-1 and Apple II, with technical explanations for what made each innovation a milestone.

Any acknowledgement of the Apple II in mainstream media is one I appreciate; early Apple's flagship product is otherwise too often overlooked. But clarity of audience, intention, and detail do the Apple II justice and ensure that the reference will be understood and appreciated by those familiar with the topic.

(Thanks to Paul Hagstrom for added details.)

Dan Bricklin & VisiCalc at TEDx

February 20th, 2017 10:58 AM
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When Steve Wozniak gave a TED Talk, it was a disjointed series of anecdotes that gave us a glimpse into the early days of Apple. It was fun, but it wasn't a story.

Other veterans of that era have a more natural flair storytelling. Enter Dan Bricklin, who in November 2016 gave a TED Talk on the origins of his industry-redefining application, VisiCalc.

It's a familiar story, and one I mostly already knew, having learned it when I taught my high-school students how to use VisiCalc (as detailed in Juiced.GS Volume 10, Issue 1), though a few details I got wrong: I thought the plaque commemorating VisiCalc's conception was at Bricklin's undergrad of MIT, not his graduate school of Harvard.

But what really underscores this talk is just how revolutionary VisiCalc was. While I knew it was the first electronic spreadsheet, I assumed more of it was derived from analog counterparts: the grid-based patterns, the naming of cells, and the syntax of formulae are all so intuitive, I didn't realize that it all had to be created from scratch.

My thanks to my Massachusetts neighbors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston for making Apple the company it was. For more of the story, this time from Frankston, watch Kevin Savetz's interview from August 2016.

(Hat tip to Dagen Brock)

VisiCalc review

June 25th, 2012 8:30 PM
Filed under Software showcase;

I have a soft spot in my heart for VisiCalc, though perhaps more as an idea than a piece of software. I don't advocate using the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet in modern times, except perhaps as a learning tool or torture device. But with this the software that cemented the Apple II's place in business having been invented practically in my own backyard (Massachusetts) by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, I can't help but have a sense of pride and nostalgia for the little productivity tool.

YouTube artist Brian Picchi is apparently also a fan, as he's recently deviated from his usual computer game reviews to spend five minutes with VisiCalc:

Half historical narrative and half review, Picchi's video is an effective summary of the key points of VisiCalc's significance and function. I didn't remember VisiCalc's formulae for equations, so it was interesting to see that they aren't much different from the syntax used in AppleWorks or Excel.

I could've interviewed Brian for more details about his video, but since he often reads this blog, I'll ask him to leave a comment: Where did you get your v1.37 VisiCalc, Brian?

For more non-gaming critiques from Picchi, check out his top ten television shows cancelled after one season.

Apple's 50 greatest moments

July 28th, 2011 11:14 AM
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In the latest episode of Open Apple, I pointed listeners to an article outlining Apple's ten worst products ever. Such lists aren't original — Computerworld blogger Jonny Evans had his own take last year — but it can be entertaining to see what other people interpret to be Apple's successes and failures.

Back in January, a pair of sites produced more upbeat lists of Apple successes: Computerworld and Complex. The latter's list of the fifty greatest moments in Apple history is comprehensive — how many of us can name any fifty moments in one company's history? To list so many points, Complex couldn't exclude our favorite computer. Many items in Complex's gallery, which is not in chronological order, revolve around our favorite computer and its creator:

Technically, the Apple-1 was not a product of Apple Computer Inc., though it certainly laid the groundwork for the company's eventual founding and success. The machine that launched the corporation was the Apple II, the release of which is noticeably absent from the list. And some of the moments aren't exactly what I'd call the "greatest" — such as Microsoft invests 150 million into Apple, or Pirates of Silicon Valley hits theaters.

What would you consider key moments in the life of Apple Inc.?

Personal data lineage

May 16th, 2011 11:19 AM
Filed under Musings;
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The many hours of driving that composed my weekend were filled with podcasts. Among them were This Week in Tech's interviews with first Bob Frankston and then Dan Bricklin, creators of VisiCalc. The two pioneers must've been happy to finally talk about something other than their spreadsheet, as there was nary a mention of the Apple II to be found.

But around time index 34:03, Bricklin said something to which I can relate:

Every time I get a new hard disk with a new machine, I take everything I used to have from that old, huge 300 gigabyte, and put it the corner of the new drive, and then take that and put it in the corner of a new drive. I've been doing that for years. You always make copies.

This passage describes my practice perfectly. Although I occasionally clean my computer of any unused applications and extensions, the data is persistent, migrating with me from one machine to the next. As a result, I can at a moment's notice access any email I've sent in the last 14 years, or any school paper I've written in the last 23. All this data takes up less than one gigabyte. By 8-bit standards, that's staggering; by today's, having the output of an entire era fit on 0.2% of my current computer's capacity is humbling.

Other Apple II users are likely also inclined to be digital packrats — but what shape does that take? Have you converted your data to disk images? Do you keep your Apple II up and running, able to access the data in its original environment? Or are your hard drives long disconnected, waiting to be archived before it's too late?

VisiCalc demoed today in 1979

May 12th, 2011 11:42 AM
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I love VisiCalc. The world's first electronic spreadsheet was also one of my first computer games. Although an Apple II booted without a floppy still had access to Applesoft BASIC, that environment expected precise input, rewarding creativity with SYNTAX ERROR. Cursor movement was also limited, with text appearing on consecutive lines only. VisiCalc, by contrast, not only let me type words and numbers, but I could put them anywhere on the screen! It was a great introduction to the power of personal computing.

The world was introduced to that potential 32 years ago today, when VisiCalc received its first public demonstration at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. It set the accounting world on fire and is often considered one of the first "killer apps", warranting the Apple II a place in business. Reports I Programmer: "People bought personal computer simply to run VisiCalc. At its peak, it sold 2 million copies at $150 per copy in 12 months."


Image courtesy Apple II History

Although not viable as a modern business tool, VisiCalc continues to be used and discussed. A Windows-compatible version, available as a free download from Dan Bricklin's Web site, allowed me to introduce this revolutionary program to a new generation when I, as a high school teacher, spent an hour teaching a class of 16-year-olds how to use it. There were many utterances of frustration as they struggled to understand why the mouse — which didn't exist for the Apple II when VisiCalc debuted — wouldn't work.

Aside from the program, the man behind the machine, Dan Bricklin, also remains a visible entity. His history is as fascinating as the modern insights he offers on the evolution and changes in personal computing. In this recent ITworld follow-up to Susan Lammers' 1986 book Programmers at Work, he offers several reflections, such as on the evolution of programming:

People are writing their own programs. Anybody who uses a spreadsheet is writing their own programs; it's just that the language is different now…. We're just making the users do more and more of the programming themselves, but they don't know it. Using different style sheets with Microsoft Word is doing programming; using spreadsheets is doing programming.

Those interested in seeing where Dan Bricklin has taken software development in the last 32 years can check out his iPad application, Note Taker HD, courtesy his company, the Software Garden, or watch him on Triangulation tonight at 7 PM EDT.

(Hat tip to Mitch Wagner)