It is important to preface this discussion by pointing out that in many cases, unless a customer was simply dissatisfied with his choice of a computer and decided to change to something else, many users tended to focus entirely on their platform. They would not look to see whether they could do something easier on a different computer; rather, the goal was to find a solution with what was at hand. There was often a pride in the computer one had chosen, a pride that would even go so far as to dismiss other computers as inferior. I am certain that I have held that position over the years; I was convinced that the Apple II was the best, and even when there were certain clear advantages in the IBM PC platform regarding memory, processor speed, and volume of available software, I stubbornly held to my bias (after all, I had a lot of knowledge and money invested in the Apple II and did not care to change to something I didn’t know as well). This kind of attitude was the source of many of the computer “religious” wars of the 1970s and 1980s (and still exists today in the PC versus Mac camps).
As I mentioned last time, I have chosen to not profile the IBM Personal Computer that was released in 1981, because it held a unique position in computer history. It took its design cues from a number of existing computers, including the Apple II and the early S-100 bus computers (by including expansion slots). However, it was technically not a major advance over its competitors of the day. The major advantage it had was that it came from IBM, and for many people, especially those in the business community, IBM was computers. There may have been toys that came from these little companies that could perform some useful functions, but a computer sold by IBM was worth bragging about to friends.
With that advantage out of the gate, and a lack of credible competition from other companies (including Apple), the IBM PC established a new microcomputer standard. The advent of clones and the hegemony of the MS-DOS operating system eventually pulled this standard away from IBM and gave it to Microsoft, who still holds it to this day.
Regarding the early systems that I profiled: First of all, each of these other systems were distinct from the original Apple II primarily because they were targeted at a lower price point than the Apple II. The Apple II with 4K sold for nearly $1300; that is about twice the cost of the two competitors that were released the same year (the TRS-80 and the PET). The same applies to the systems released over the next five years as I outlined above; they sold for a low of $299 (VIC-20) and a high of $999 (Atari 800). This was a disadvantage to those who wanted an Apple, but may have legitimized it as a more serious computer.
A second difference between the four companies represented here was in their origin. Apple Computer was begun with the express purpose of selling computers (initially the Apple-1). Commodore got into computers as an evolution from its business machine and calculator business. Tandy Radio Shack and Atari took on the personal computer as an extension of their core business (electronics in general at Radio Shack, and digital games at Atari).
Thirdly, the target customer for each company was somewhat different, and likely changed over time. When the PET, Apple II, and TRS-80 first appeared in 1977, it was necessary for them to take on a number of roles to advance their business. They had to convince people that a computer was a valuable purchase by making sure useful software was available (word processing, home checkbook, etc). Games were a secondary purpose of the computers, something to do when it was not being used for “important” stuff. As the software market grew, so did the types of things for which people wanted to use their computers, and this somewhat differentiated the potential target market. There was clearly a segment of the computing population whose focus was the games, another segment who demanded more and better productivity and business software (especially after the advent of VisiCalc), a segment that focused on education of children, and yet another segment of owners who wanted to write their own software.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the major distinctions between these early computer platforms.
RAM: Despite the high cost of RAM, the Apple II was capable of a full 48K at the time it was first released. The PET and TRS-80 were not fully expandable out of the box, regardless of the cost of RAM. By 1979 RAM prices had decreased to the point where the Apple II Plus came with a standard 48K without a premium price, and with the purchase the Language Card another 16K could be added. The VIC-20, released a year later, came with only 5K (but could go up to 40K). The 1982 release of the Commodore 64 was the only of these that came with the maximum RAM as a base capacity, until the Apple IIe came out in 1983. Advantage: Apple II (initially) and Commodore 64.
Expansion: The easily accessible eight expansion slots in the Apple II were a significant advantage. On the other hand, the socket used on the motherboard for paddle or joystick was definitely primitive when compared with options available for the other platforms (except for the TRS-80, which had no game controller attachments, at least none that I can discover). The Atari had the best joysticks, and the VIC and C64 were made to allow use of Atari-style joysticks. Advantage: Atari and VIC/C64.
Peripheral attachments: Out of the box, neither the Apple II nor the TRS-80 could be directly attached to a printer (before printer cards for the Apple II slots became available, early printing efforts included hacks to use the game socket to send data to a printer). The TRS-80 was unable to do any printing until the Expansion Interface became available. The PET, Atari, VIC and C64 had ports for printers and other devices. Advantage: Commodore and Atari
Video: The Apple II was the earliest of these computers to offer color output. Although the PET and TRS-80 were monochrome, they did come standard with a video monitor (an additional cost for the Apple II). Like the Apple II, the Atari, VIC and C64 had color output, which could go to either a television (via an RF modulator) or to a monitor.
Text output was limited to uppercase only on the TRS-80 and Apple II. The PET had the ability to switch to a dual-case mode, as well as offering access to custom characters in RAM.
Text density on the screen differed somewhat, but was overall quite similar (with the exception of the VIC-20):
|rows x columns
|char per screen
|25 x 40
|24 x 40
|16 x 64
|24 x 40
|23 x 22
|25 x 40
All but the VIC-20 were usable for serious word processing, and several could go to higher density text with hardware modifications. The Atari, VIC, and C64 had the advantage of color text and background; the Apple II could not do that unless the hi-res screens were used (which took a significant amount of memory away from programs). (Recall that the IBM PC, released in 1981, could do color text and backgrounds in 80 columns).
Amongst the systems introduced in 1977, graphics capabilities were somewhat better on the Apple II in general. Its low-res graphics were on par with the TRS-80, but the Apple II offered them in 16 colors. The PET had many custom graphics characters in ROM that neither of the other two systems offered. Hi-res graphics that were dot addressable on the Apple II were unmatched until the arrival of the Atari 400 and 800 in 1979. The VIC-20 had also had graphics advantages over the Apple II, and the C64 was more-or-less on par with the Atari.
Advantage: depends on what the computer was to be used for. If games were the focus, the Atari, VIC, and C64 were clearly ahead. If text-based work was desired, all of these systems were workable, with the Apple II in second-to-last place because of its inability to do lower case natively, and the VIC in last place because of its low text density.
Data storage – Cassette: Sadly, this is an area where I really am envious of what was available on other computers of the day. I really believe that Woz short-changed Apple II users in the code he wrote for managing cassette data. The PET and TRS-80 allowed named files on the cassette storage, and reading and writing data with cassettes was more reliable. Woz made the Apple II cassette routines compatible with those from the Apple-1, but there were only about two hundred of those computers sold in the first place. Had there been more room in the ROM space, the cassette routines could have been beefed up. (However, had that happened, there might have been less urgency to create the Disk II.)
The cassette interface on the PET and TRS-80 was made an integral part of the system, with the computer actually able to control the drive. On the Apple II it was done via standard audio connectors, it was affected by volume control settings on the playback (LOAD) from cassette, and also required pressing the buttons on the cassette drive to control the drive.
Data storage – Disk: The advantage of the Apple II here is in the amount of data that Woz was able to store on a single disk, using his unique encoding methods. He pushed the disk capacity to over 100K per disk when most other offerings were not much better than 80K per disk.
Apple DOS was also pretty straightforward, especially when compared to the commands for PET disks. A disk catalog could be displayed in a single command, LOAD and SAVE worked much like it did for cassettes (adding a file name, of course). Data file management was also similar; READ and WRITE acted the same as INPUT and PRINT.
TRS-DOS, at least in its later versions, had a significantly better system for data file management than was offered in Apple DOS. Variable data was written to the disk in its encoded form, which allowed for more efficient storage and organization. It could be stored as integer, floating point, single and double precision numbers, and so on. Apple DOS, and even ProDOS in the 1980s, never matured beyond how it managed data when DOS 3.1 first was shipped. Advantage: TRS-80
Sound: Of the three computers released in 1977, only the Apple II offered sound, and that was only single-bit, simple sounds. It was state-of-the-art at the time, and with time talented programmers managed to get music, even two-voice music out of it. When Atari entered the game in 1979, it brought along its experience in arcade games, and made much better quality sound possible. Commodore did the same thing with the VIC-20 and especially with the C64. Advantage: Atari, VIC, C64.
The limitations in the Apple II platform were present for several reasons. First of all, Wozniak designed the Apple II with some specific ideas in mind. He wanted to improve on the design of the Apple-1, add additional memory and input/output options (the slots), plus he wanted to make it possible to do the game Breakout in software. This gave the parameters for the lo-res graphics, the colors, and the single-bit sound, as well as the game paddle inputs. Had Woz wanted a computer to keep track of database files, or for word processing, likely he would have focused more on the text display (supporting upper and lowercase) and data storage (a more robust software interface for cassette storage). But without the color and sound, it is hard to say whether or not the Apple II would have had as much of an impact on the market as it did.
For its time, the Apple II did a lot, and did it well. Its relatively higher price was a barrier for some customers to get started with it, but once that barrier was crossed, it offered a lot of power and abilities that were not matched on the other platforms available at the same time.
Most of the other computers offered a lower price to get started, and still had add-on peripherals available when desired. And the later entries (Atari, VIC-20, and C64) were clearly aimed at the low end of the market, at those who wanted to play games. The C64 was so successful that it actually sold more games than were sold for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Certainly it succeeded in setting a record for lifetime sales of a single computer model.
So, out of all of those companies who sold a more capable, less costly product than the Apple II, how did they fare? Jack Tramiel of Commodore aggressively cut prices on the VIC and C64 to grow and maintain market share. Commodore was able to do this partly because they did all of their own chip design and manufacturing (they owned the 6502), but the consequence was that it crashed the low-end market, and ultimately pushed several other players (such as Texas Instruments and its TI-99/4A) out of the market. Commodore itself tried to shift its focus from its 8-bit computer line to the Amiga, which did well for a while but could not compete successfully with the PC and Macintosh market, and by 1994 the company had to declare bankruptcy.
Radio Shack did its best to advance its 8-bit computer products forward from the original TRS-80, even going to the point during the 1980s to create some MS-DOS compatible computers. However, the profit margins for successful sales became so narrow that the company got out of that aspect of its business, and sold its computer manufacturing operations in 1993.
Atari struggled to move into 16 bit computers also with their ST series, and also tried to compete against Nintendo in the console market, but failed to gain a sufficiently successful foothold in either arena to survive. By 1996 it had merged with another company and was effectively out of the hardware game.
Apple survived, but not because of the Apple II line. As much as I would have been loathe to admit it back in 1993 when they discontinued the last remaining member of that family, the Apple IIe, it clearly was the Macintosh that was the future of the company. The Mac carried them through the 1990s, despite poor management decisions made by the company, and the Mac ultimately brought the company back from the brink of its own demise after Steve Jobs was brought back in 1997.
In the next post, I want to consider some alternate scenarios for Apple’s timeline.