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.)

Remembering the Apple II

April 8th, 2013 9:28 AM
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A recent CNET story has popularized the unearthing of design schematics for the Disk ][ floppy drive and the contract that outsourced its operating system. This story has been a Big Deal, having been picked up by TUAW, Slashdot, A2Central.com, and others.

This story is also an opportunity to consider the scale and scope of computer history. We Apple II users have gobbled up this news, but I suspect it hasn't achieved awareness outside the small circles of retrocomputing enthusiasts and computer historians. After all, what relevancy does the Apple II have to the Apple Inc. of today, whose foundation lies not in desktop or even laptop computers, but in cell phones, tablets, and MP3 players?

It wouldn't be the first time the Apple II has failed to penetrate the public awareness. When I presented the history of the Apple II to the Denver Apple Pi users group, the audience was eager and receptive — with one exception. When one person learned the topic of my speech would be the computer that Apple made before the Macintosh, her response was, "Apple made computers before the Macintosh?" She didn't see the relevancy in this archaic machine and chose not to stay for the presentation.

Similarly, when I recruited Jason Scott as a guest speaker for my college course, he asked my students the loaded question, "How many of you would agree with me if I said Nintendo is thirty years old?" Nintendo was in fact founded in 1889 and dabbled in many industries, from playing cards to hotels to taxi services, before landing in electronic entertainment. Home video games are just a blip in the timeline of the company that set the standard.

These are just two examples of modern consumers being ignorant or uncaring of the lineage behind their everyday tech. I don't know that this oversight is necessarily evil so much as it is the product of irrelevance. Is it one we need to change? I would presume that awareness of the existence of pre-Macintosh computers has improved since the passing of Steve Jobs, but my experience is that just as many people as ever respond to my stories of the Apple II with a comment such as "That was my first Mac!"

The Apple II was sold for 16 years, 1977–1993. Sixteen years ago this year, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. That second era has achieved historical notoriety, both for the metaphoric prodigal son's return and for the reinvention of Apple Computer Inc. as a profitable company. Yet what was long the flagship product of the company's first 16 years seems to have fallen from public consciousness. Is all tech history susceptible to the vagaries of time? Or is the popularity of computer history directly proportionate the penetration of that era's computers? Since 1970s computers were not widely adopted by the mass market, is their history similarly of limited appeal? Do we need to improve the Apple II's public image — not just for the health of our retrocomputing hobby, but for the annals of time? If so, how?

I welcome your historical perspective on this matter!

The course of my life with the Apple II

January 30th, 2012 11:56 AM
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Fellow Massachusetts retrocomputing enthusiast and all-around neat guy Dan McLaughlin recently started his own Apple II blog. He's actually had one for awhile, but its latest incarnation is powered by WordPress, the unofficial CMS of the Apple II community. I discovered the relaunch of Dan site's via the story of his introduction to the Apple IIGS:

[My father and I] pulled into the strip mall and entered The Computer Shop. In The Computer Shop, everything was gray: The carpet, the room dividers and shelving that held books and software, even the display tables. I take that back there was an accent color: beige. There might have been a touch of maroon in there as well. It smelled like new carpet even though it had been open for a few years. There was a large plate glass window from which sunlight was streaming in on this beautiful fall day.

After we had walked past the software displays, and aisles of computer books and magazines, near the back center of the store, I saw it. There for all to hear and to behold was the Apple IIGS.

Like Dan, I was introduced to the Apple II through my father. My family's business is commercial real estate, and once upon a time, we had an authorized Apple dealer as a tenant. It's for that reason more than any other that our first computer was an Apple IIe and not a Commodore 64 or one of the many other platforms of the personal computer revolution. My three older brothers and I all made use of the computer for school projects, personal correspondence, and especially games, but I cottoned to it like none other in the family: I taught myself programming (and in the process destroyed some software for which we had no backups), expanded the hardware, and became a part of the community on CompuServe. Whereas my three brothers went to college and got their first PCs, I got my first Mac, sticking with the only brand that I'd ever known. After college, I became part of a convention, a magazine, and a podcast, leading me to make friends, pursue education, develop skills, attain jobs, and relocate across the country.

Dan's post reminded me how a financial decision made decades ago for practical and immediate reasons can have a snowball effect that we continue to experience and observe well into the 21st century. It's no understatement my father's fateful decision has defined the personal and professional development of my childhood and my adulthood. Although I can never know what timelines might've developed from bring a different microcomputer into the Gagné household, it's an alternative I'm glad I never needed to explore.

How would your life be different with a computer other than the Apple II?

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.?

Steve Jobs' greatest hits

January 24th, 2011 1:04 PM
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Steve Jobs, a survivor of pancreatic cancer who in 2009 underwent a successful liver transplant, is currently on medical leave from Apple Inc.

Many would argue that Apple's health is directly tied to that of its co-founder and CEO, as evidenced by the company's floundering without his leadership from 1985 to 1997. To commemorate that perspective, Computerworld recently published a gallery that highlights 12 noteworthy innovations rolled out under Jobs' leadership at Apple. Though Jobs' role in the design of many Apple products is questionable, we circumvented the issue by simply saying that these were products launched while he was CEO — a rather inarguable fact.

I was assigned this story by the publication's chief news editor, Ken Mingis, who selected the contents of the gallery. It was originally proposed to cover only those products launched since Jobs' return to the company in 1997 and not any of the releases from his first tour of duty, from the company's founding in 1977 to when he was ousted in 1985. I had no issue with that — an article has to be focused, lest it try to cover all of existence — but we were challenged to explain to the readers how or why we could omit such milestones as the Apple II and the Macintosh. We compromised by adding those two products to the original ten, resulting in this final, chronological lineup:

  1. Apple II (1977)
  2. Macintosh (1984)
  3. iMac (1997)
  4. Power Mac G4 Cube (2000)
  5. Mac OS X (2001)
  6. iPod (2001)
  1. iMac G4 (2002)
  2. Mac mini (2005)
  3. iPhone (2007)
  4. MacBook Air (2008)
  5. iPad (2010)
  6. iPhone 4 (2010)

Had it been up to me, I would've omitted different models of the same product, such as the iMac G4 and the iPhone 4, and maybe included more failures, like the Apple III and Apple Lisa (the latter especially being notable for its pre-Mac GUI). But even without those changes, it's a pretty thorough gallery. Still, I still expected Apple fans to be more contentious in the selection, yet the article has thus far produced little discussion and feedback. What about you — what products would you have added or removed?

I was encouraged to be "witty" with each product's headline, so I relied heavily on this list of Apple advertising slogans. Although it might've been clearer to use the product name and release date instead, editor Mike Barton, who also selected the photos, instead bolded the product name in its brief description, allowing us to be both witty and clear.

I hope everyone enjoys this brief review of Apple's history. Whether or not you like Jobs, he and his company deserve to be in good health.

(Hat tip to Arnold Kim)