When Steve Wozniak designed the Apple II—released in June 1977—he kick-started a wave of appliance-like home computers for average people. For the 45th anniversary of this monumentally important machine, we talked to Wozniak about its impact—and he had a lot to say.
The Key to Apple’s Early Success
In 2022, Apple is one of the largest, most successful companies on earth. That’s an immense achievement, and it all started back in 1976 when Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer, Inc. While the company released its first product (the Apple I) in 1976, it reached a very limited audience as a hobbyist machine. In contrast, 1977’s Apple II aimed for the mainstream from the start, and its popularity made Apple a wildly successful company by the standards at the time.
In that vein, we asked Wozniak if he thought there was anything special about the original Apple II design that laid the foundations for Apple’s current success. (He replied to our questions via email, and his answers have been lightly edited for presentation.)
“The Apple II was years ahead of others,” replied Wozniak, referring to other personal computers in development at the time. “In fact, I had designed and built for myself a small computer 5 years earlier that was like what everyone else was trying—basically a processor with a bus and switches and lights [for an] interface.”
By 1976, small computers were mostly sold among technical-minded electronics hobbyists who knew how to build and use them, Woz notes. But his Apple II relied on a more user-friendly setup: a typewriter-style QWERTY keyboard as an input device, a CRT monitor or television set as an output device, and came with the BASIC programming language built in. As soon as you turned it on, you could begin using the computer right away.
“The Apple II was such an advance that it was our only successful product—earning lots of money for Apple—for the first 10 years of the company,” says Wozniak, referring to a rough era where the Apple III (1980), Apple Lisa (1983), and the Macintosh (1984) all struggled in the marketplace. “The Apple II gave business leaders the platform to create other hit products eventually, after many failures.”
The Influence of Video Games on the Apple II
During the course of our interview, Woz emphasized the influence that early video games played in his Apple II design, and how that influence translated into unique features of the Apple II, such as low-cost color graphics and the inclusion of two paddles (rotary knob controllers) for playing games.
“Atari was creating the video arcade industry in Los Gatos, California,” he wrote. “These were fast-paced graphical games, starting with Pong (and a bit before). They were black and white because color was more expensive and harder to create. These arcade games had 100 to 200 chips typically, with thousands of wires to be connected by skilled TV engineers to put game elements on the TV screen. You can see why a game prototype took the better part of a man-year to develop—and only by skilled engineers. I know because I developed some video arcade games including Breakout.”
Color in arcade games was extremely rare in the 1970s, so being able to create a color game on the Apple II, programmed in software instead of logic chips, was a big deal, says Wozniak. “A 9-year old could create a decent game (for the time) in one day using a simple programming language, BASIC, which was built into the Apple II. I had created this version of BASIC with commands to set colors and to plot horizontal and vertical lines.”
The way that Wozniak designed the Apple II to create color video signals on the cheap is the stuff of legend. Contemporary color video boards for the earlier Altair computer, such as the Cromemco Dazzler, cost $350 (about $1800 today) and used dozens of chips. Woz’s solution used no additional circuitry and came built into the machine.
“To generate color for $0, I had to work far outside of the books and mathematics defining the color system of the day, NTSC in the US,” says Wozniak. “I was qualified to be a TV engineer as well. It was an analog world and took precision parts with lots of testing to get color on a TV. The circuits required differential calculus just to design. I like to think outside the known methods and realized in my head that just taking a digital number and feeding it to the TV the right way, would show up as colors.”
The Apple II’s ability to generate a color video signal was a huge achievement and a distinguishing characteristic of the product from the very beginning. It even defined marketing for the company itself. “Think about it, our first logo was in 6 colors,” says Wozniak, referring the to famous Apple logo with six colored stripes.
Is There Anything You’d Do Differently?
Over the past 45 years, Wozniak has given thousands of interviews about the Apple II, and it can be hard to break new ground with interesting questions. So for fun, we asked Wozniak: If you could go back in time and change one thing about the Apple II design, what would it be?
“I would change nothing,” he replied. “My advice to myself would be to rob a bank,” he said jokingly. “Then I’d have had a few other options from the start, like lowercase characters.” (The Apple II platform only supported uppercase characters until the Apple IIe in 1982 due to Woz’s original cost-saving design.)
Although Wozniak designed the Apple II circuitry and architecture himself, the Apple II as a complete product wasn’t a one-man show. For example, Rod Holt designed the power supply and Jerry Manock designed the Apple II’s plastic case. The role Steve Jobs played in the development of the Apple II comes up often in historical accounts, so we asked, “Would you have done anything differently if Steve Jobs had not been involved with the Apple II?”
“Steve Jobs was not involved, so I’d have done nothing different,” Wozniak said initially, referring to the electronic design of the Apple II. But then Wozniak described Jobs’ essential role in getting Wozniak’s computer into the hands of paying customers.
“Steve Jobs took a computer design into a shippable product,” says Wozniak. “He was great at business and marketing. I was very shy and had very few friends, and Steve Jobs respected my engineering abilities, so he was my best technical friend. Others suggested I take the Apple II to a product with them or others, but I’m too loyal, and Jobs was the only one I would do it with. He had been turning designs of mine into money and fun for 5 years before the Apple II.”
Understanding The Apple II Today
Since so much time passed since the launch of the Apple II in 1977, a new generation of Americans has grown up without direct exposure to the Apple II. So we asked Wozniak: Is it important for people to know about the Apple II in 2022?
“I’m not sure how important it is for the masses,” he replied. “A person interested in astronomy would look back at the great steps in that field. Those interested in the inner working of today’s computers would look back too. Also, there is a ‘retro’ market, as in other fields.”
“The Apple II is understandable,” he adds. “That’s why early products get a lot of attention. A single person can see into the Apple II design.”
We’ve also been pondering if there is anything the Apple II did well that modern computers don’t—something we’re exploring in more detail in another article. So we asked, “Is there anything we can learn from the Apple II design that we’ve forgotten?”
“Pairing was zero-step,” said Wozniak. “If you plugged a board into slot 4, it was known as ‘4’.” He also mentioned the Apple II’s radically open nature, free of customer restrictions. “You, the user, were in control yourself and owned it.”
45 years later, Wozniak is grateful for his success with Apple, which he didn’t do for the money: He wanted the respect of his peers. “My intent was not to start an industry or company,” he says. “It was to have other digital engineers respect my engineering, looking at my designs and code. I did want to get this great computer to others, to be honest. How great Apple became is important to me, but so is being an IEEE Fellow, where I’m respected by other engineers.”
As for the Apple II’s legacy, he’s proud that it is still partially a technical one, inspiring the next generation of engineers. “It’s great to see people creating Apple I and Apple II replica kits today. Our future is with youngsters who get interested in computers and building early on.”
Happy birthday, Apple II!