Apple II Bits' octal birthday

April 30th, 2018 7:46 AM
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This past weekend, I set up my Apple IIGS in my game room and connected it to my HDTV. I popped in some floppies and played a few classic games: Choplifter, Lode Runner, Karateka, and Conan. Each was as fun as I remembered.

The excuse for this occasion was research for a Juiced.GS article. As editor of that publication, most of my contributions and responsibilities don't require me to work on the metal, but this particular article called for the real thing.

But underpinning this academic exercise was unbridled enthusiasm for returning to my roots. I spend my days on a laptop with macOS and WordPress, all environments that I very much enjoy and which even inspire a degree of devotion. But nothing brings a smile to my face like the Apple II.

It was fitting that this game session coincided with the eighth anniversary of Apple II Bits: on April 29, 2010, I published my first blog post to this site. I've continued to write about the Apple II every Monday since. Whereas once such musings would constitute my quarterly "A Word or ][" column for Juiced.GS, I've now written 524 such columns for this website — enough to sustain 125 years of Juiced.GS.

Eight apples

Eight apple bits = one apple byte?

I'm never wanting for something to say about the Apple II, but some times are easier than others. One August, freshly home from KansasFest, I found myself bursting with ideas and wrote the next several months' worth of columns in advance. Other times, I come home from work on Monday night, knowing what to say but having only until midnight to say it.

Regardless of the volume or urgency, there's always a new chapter to write. Whenever Steve Wozniak is a speaker somewhere, he's introduced as the inventor of the Apple II. Anytime a "top games of all time" list is compiled, an Apple II game makes an appearance. And wherever Raspberry Pi and Arduino hacking occurs, it's often to connect Apple II equipment to modern environments.

I've always said of Juiced.GS that the magazine will publish as long as there are stories to tell, writers to tell them, and subscribers to read them. With Apple II Bits, I need only one of those three criteria: stories to tell.

At this rate, another eight years seems assured.

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Apple II Bits' seven-year itch

April 24th, 2017 10:00 AM
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The seven-year itch isn't just a classic Marilyn Monroe film; it's also a predictor for the shelf life of my own hobbies. It's after that period of time that I tend to find myself growing weary of a particular pursuit and begin looking for new interests. For seven years, 1997–2004, I wrote video game reviews; 2001–2008, I performed in community theater; 2004–2011, I taught at a high school or worked toward a master's degree, each satisfying my desire to be involved in education.

But I find the Apple II bucks this trend. This summer will make my twentieth consecutive KansasFest; this year makes my eleventh volume of Juiced.GS. And this month marks my seventh year of writing this weekly blog. I don't see myself discontinuing any of these pastimes anytime soon.

Seven apples

Each year kinda snuck up on me.

What is it about the Apple II computer and community that manages to hold my interest? Perhaps it's the nostalgia factor, dating back to my childhood in a way that writing, acting, and teaching do not. Maybe it's that it serves as a safe space in which to develop new talents — it was editing Juiced.GS that put me on the path to getting a master's degree in publishing, and Open Apple was where I honed the skills for my two current podcasts. It could be that, despite the discontinued nature of the Apple II, it continues to produce remarkably unique experiences: every KansasFest attracts a new crowd with whom to form new bonds and new memories.

While all those factors are true, perhaps the most compelling reason is the continued challenge. I lose interest in something when I find I can't get any better at it — not to say I've mastered it, but that I've reached the limits of my own ability to excel. After writing three hundred video game reviews, the process had become rote and formulaic; after 28 community theater productions, I no longer worried about forgetting my lines, any more than I believed myself capable of achieving a starring role.

But every issue of Juiced.GS is like none other, both in assembling the content and in marketing the publication. I've tried many new ideas to grow the magazine — some worked, some didn't. But the result is a net gain, with the subscriber base having quintupled in the last eleven years, and the magazine on the cusp of publishing its one thousandth piece of editorial content.

I have abandoned many hobbies after seven years. I don't have a fear of commitment; I have a fear of complacency. And the one place I don't have to worry about growing complacent is, ironically, the community and creations surrounding a 40-year-old computer.

So happy 40th birthday to the Apple II, and happy 7th birthday to Apple II Bits. Forget the seven-year itch — this is just the seventh-inning stretch!

Marilyn Monroe on subway grate

Here's to many more.

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The Apple IIGS turns 30

September 26th, 2016 8:56 AM
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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!

Get your kicks in year six of Apple II Bits

April 25th, 2016 9:22 AM
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The best course I took in grad school was Jeff Seglin's column-writing class. The opening exercise was to go to the local bookstore, choose several magazines, and draft pitches for articles to each. Early in the semester, I found this assignment challenging — but when we revisited it a few months later, the ideas flowed. I'm not sure what potential Seglin tapped, but he somehow got me seeing stories everywhere. Since then, I've rarely been short of ideas for Apple II Bits, Juiced.GS, Polygamer, or The Moth.

KansasFest 2015 really got those creative juices flowing, though again, I can't pinpoint the inspirational moment. All I know is, when I got back from that annual convention, Apple II Bits blog posts were flowing fast and furious, until I had up to two months of weekly columns queued in advance. It was a great relief to be able to table that Sunday night scurry for an idea.

I sometimes wonder when I'll run out of ideas and have to stop writing this blog altogether. But with all the activity of the Apple II community to inspire me, and with Seglin having given me the tools to recognize the stories therein, I don't think it'll be a lack of ideas that will be as challenging as finding the time and energy to keep up with it all.

In the meantime, I've made it six years of writing Apple II Bits, with the first post having gone live on April 29, 2010. I wrote two posts a week for the first two years — 104 posts a year! — and once a week for the four years since then, for a total of 419 posts. If Seglin had sent me to the book store with the assignment to pick one magazine and come up with 419 pitches, I would've failed his course. Yet Apple II Bits continues chugging along.

Six apples in two rows

My thanks to everyone who has inspired this blog's articles and to all the readers who have taken the time to mull their words, publicly or privately. I still have a few more years in me; I hope you'll come along.

In the meantime, here are some numbers by which to quantify the site's content and evolution.

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40 years in 40 seconds

March 28th, 2016 9:16 AM
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Apple is the most profitable company in the world, based on its market cap of $672 billion. (That's more than half a trillion, folks.) The iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and Macs all started in the apocryphal garage, where Steve Wozniak invented and Steve Jobs designed the Apple II.

Given all the success that's sprung from those early innovations, we diehard enthusiasts sometimes feel that modern-day Apple Inc. doesn't give its roots the recognition it deserves, as evidenced by the Apple II being erased from press releases. But our favorite computer finally did get a nod in this commercial celebrating Apple's 40th birthday on April 1, 2016:

On Facebook, commenters were underwhelmed, with "Not enough Apple II" being a recurring theme. It's true that Apple's classic machines constitute only a few of the video's opening seconds, but I'm not sure we could expect more than that: even more than the computers themselves, programs and peripherals for the Apple II lack the modern recognition of more recent innovations, such as iWork, AirPort, or Mighty Mouse.

Sometimes it's nice just to be mentioned.

(Hat tip to Shona Ghosh)

A half-decade of Apple II blogging

April 27th, 2015 7:49 AM
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When I joined the Juiced.GS staff in 2002 as associate editor, I was given a quarterly column in which to ruminate about whatever Apple II topic I wanted. Over the next 16 issues, I wrote about exploring Boston with Ryan Suenaga, the passing of Gary Utter, BASIC programming, and more. The freedom to write about whatever struck my fancy, combined with the structure of writing on a quarterly schedule, was enjoyable and inspiring.

Starting with volume 11, I become editor-in-chief of Juiced.GS and handed my column to Eric Shepherd. I still had my own column in the form of the quarterly editorial, but this one was a lengthier and a bit more formal and on-topic to the magazine. I've enjoyed writing it for ten years — but halfway through that run, I decided I wanted something more. I decided a blog would not only give me more options in what content to write and how to present it, such as the embedding of photos and video; it would also be timelier than a quarterly print pub could be, allowing pieces that were shorter but more relevant to everything that happens between issues of Juiced.GS.

Thus was born Apple II Bits, which turns five years old this Wednesday. A twice-weekly column for the first two years, and "only" weekly for the next three, it's now produced 367 posts — which, at Juiced.GS's publication rate, would've taken me 92 years to write.

Friends outside the retrocomputing community are baffled how I can find something new to say about the Apple II every week. While there are times that it can be challenging, finding a topic generally isn't all that hard: there's always someone releasing a new game, or developing hardware, or publishing a podcast to keep the Apple II alive and well. I enjoy this regular opportunity to be creative and hone my writing on the topic that made me a writer in the first place. My thanks to all the creators and readers that make this blog possible.

For a less fascinating and more quantitative look at this site's growth since last year, continue reading.

  • • As of today, the site hosts 367 posts (52 more than this time last year), 1823 tags (+186), 441 comments (+31) from 133 readers (+4), and 1 blogger. With the exception of the number of posts, each of these numbers is growing more slowly year-over-year.
  • • Year-to-year, our pageviews were down 8% and unique visitors down 8% in our fifth year. This is the second consecutive year of decline in traffic.
  • • Our busiest day was August 1, 2014. I have no idea what people were doing here that day.
  • • Our top posts three in the past year were all from 2011: "Selling to Pawn Stars", "Best computer games from the '80s", and "Taking the Apple II online with Uthernet". These were our top three posts the previous year, too. Correspondingly, the top search terms leading visitors to this site are "chris espinosa net worth" and "best apple ii games".
  • • Our top referrals were from A2Central.com, Twitter, and Facebook. This is the first time StumbleUpon did not break the top three and Facebook did.
  • • Traffic from mobile devices was up 10%, and from tablets, down 7%
  • • In the past year, we blocked 18,590 pieces of spam, down from 121,301 the previous year — WOW! More than half of all that spam came in October and November 2014 alone.