Centossa – The Apple II That Never Was

I have seen a few reviews of my Sophistication & Simplicity book appear on Amazon.com, and I appreciate the kind words that have been posted so far. Interestingly, one of the commenters marked the book down because of the chapters about peripherals, etc, that were interspersed with the story of the various models of the Apple II; he felt that it interrupted the flow of the story. Not sure how that could be resolved without a major redesign of the book, but to each his own…

The other comment by this reviewer was that the book did not make comments about a computer called the Apple IIsi, and he had wanted to learn more about this model of Apple II. Therefore, I thought I’d write here to address this question.

The “Apple IIsi” is one of the more obscure parts of the Apple II story. The only existing picture and description of which I am aware is a single photo and short description in the 1997 book AppleDesign: The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group, created by Paul Kunkel and Rick English. According to the book description, the authors were granted access to information about Apple’s products and prototypes. Part of the Amazon listing for this out-of-print book specifically states that it “covers all the goods made and sold by Apple, and also discusses concepts for products that never made it to production” (emphasis mine). As you read the following discussion, keep that last part in mind.

I own a copy of this book (although I am currently unable to locate it in the disarray that my basement currently displays), and can state that it does not include every product made by Apple (even Jonathan Zufi’s new book Iconic does not try to include a picture of every single thing Apple built and sold). As I recall, the photo and minimal caption that accompanied the Apple IIsi in this book was the only mention of anything related to the Apple II series.

I have elected to hold off on putting a picture here until I can locate my own copy of the AppleDesign book. The only photo I can find on the Internet on a web site, Stories of Apple.net. The picture on that web site, taken from the book, appears to be the sole image that exists of this “Apple IIsi”.

So, what is this mysterious Apple II of which so little has been said? According to the Stories of Apple.net web site, Jean-Louis Gassée took over as head of R&D at Apple after Steve Jobs left the company in September 1985.  In 1988, Gassée is supposed to have planned the industrial design of a successor to the Apple IIGS, and utilized Ken Wood and Robert Brunner of the Palo Alto studio Lunar Design to bring it about. (Wood and Brunner were later involved in the design of the first PowerBook in 1990.)

According to the AppleDesign book, this Apple IIsi project was code-named “Centossa”. From the photo, it has the same shape as the Apple IIGS, but has a shorter “shelf” on the front. Cut into the front right is a slot for a 3.5 inch disk drive, much like the position of the disk drive on all models of the Macintosh in that era.

What was going on with the Apple II during the time when Gassée took over R&D? Recall that the Apple IIGS was originally released in the latter part of 1986. Two years later, 1988, would have been a reasonable time for an update to the physical design of the IIGS. The year 1988 saw the release of the revised memory expansion Apple IIc and IIc Plus, the Apple II SCSI Rev C card, and Apple IIGS System Software 3.2 and 4.0.  In August of the following year, the ROM 03 Apple IIGS was announced. Hardware updates beyond the ROM 03 motherboard improvements would have been appropriate, and certainly it was within Apple’s power to release a IIGS with a built-in 3.5 inch drive.

One of the important things to remember about this Centossa project was that it almost certainly never got beyond the discussion stage. It was discussed on the podcast Open Apple, episode #7 in August 2011, when hosts Ken Gagne and Mike Maginnis contacted Apple II hardware expert Tony Diaz to specifically ask about the Apple IIsi. He confirmed that the picture in the AppleDesign book likely represented no more than a wooden prototype to show what the product could look like. There was no real Centossa or Apple IIsi beyond being an external design on paper that made it to a physical model.

One of the problems with the design that Gassée’s team produced was the location of the disk slot on the right. Look at this photo of the Mark Twain version of the Apple IIGS that was nearly announced in September 1991 (and which was dramatically closer to a real product than Centossa ever was):

Mark Twain, front
Mark Twain, front – Photo credit: Tony Diaz

In this version, the disk slot was on the left side of the computer. This location makes far more sense than it would to put it on the right side, where it would block access to some of the slots on the motherboard. On the Mark Twain, the 3.5-inch disk drive sat on top of a SCSI hard drive, and a redesigned power supply sat in the back, all on the left side. Even with this redesign, a couple of the classic IIGS slots had been removed, in order to make it all fit. This Centossa design would have made it necessary to put both the power supply and disk drive on the right, to keep slots accessible. Perhaps from an industrial design stand point this was an acceptable change, but it was a radical adjustment for the Apple II family, which (aside from the IIc) had always had its power supply on the left).

Also, the product name “Apple IIsi” is problematic. It is strongly suggested that the Mark Twain computer, had it been released, would have been called the Apple IIGS Plus. That name makes perfect sense. Using IIsi as a moniker would not work at all, unless the computer that was being visualized was completely different from a IIGS. And if that was the plan, why make the computer otherwise look like a IIGS?

When I learned that the Apple IIsi shown in AppleDesign was no more than a mockup and never even made it to the prototype stage, I decided it was unnecessary to include anything about it in my book. After all, since it never really existed, what could I say about it? Where would it fit in the Apple II story? There would be little more than a line or two about it …

… and here I’ve gone on for over one thousand words discussing it. Well, who knows? If there ever is a second edition to Sophistication & Simplicity, perhaps I’ll add these above speculations. And perhaps if someone who worked at Apple in the late 1980s who knows the story wants to contact me, I can put down more than just speculation. Anyone know the email address for Gassée?

(Check at 35:20 in the video)

11 Comments on “Centossa – The Apple II That Never Was

  1. It could be said that even the Apple IIc had the power supply at the left side: that’s where the internal DC-DC onverter was located.

  2. Not his email, but his Twitter ID is @gassee.

    And it’s Jean-Louis Gassée, not Gassè (not just the missing e but also the wrong accented e).

  3. The Computer History Museum posted a video of a chat given in 2007 by Bob Brunner and Jerry Manock. At the 35:20 mark, Brunner mentions the IIsi and shows the picture from AppleDesign. He only stays on it a few seconds and is vague, saying that it never shipped and “only made it to tooling” and then moves on. It was this clip that motivated the call to Tony during Open Apple.

  4. Manufacturing terms have slightly different meanings for different companies and industries obviously, but the second definition for “tooling” at Dictionary dot com is “b. the planning and arrangement of tools for a particular manufacturing process.”

  5. In AppleDesign book , the word “concept” is often used in description / comment of the pictures. i.e Apple IIs page 100 , and page 109 concerning the Apple II GS.

  6. Tooling means you are making the tools required to build the product in a production environment. This is usually done after a prototype is built using custom methods.

  7. I worked on the Mark Twain. It has a 20 MB hd and a 3.5 floppy built in with an external scsi port on the back. Up until about a year ago I had serial number 47 in my attic. The reason that it was killed was that the first year projected sales were 70k units and there were 70k LC II’s sitting in the warehouse. The fear was that MT would canobolize these sales. This battle, the IIGS lost, and so ended an era.

  8. I would disagree with Tony’s assessment (above) that the casing is a merely a crude wooden mock-up. Judging by the photograph in the book, it is clearly an ABS plastic injected case mold, and finalized to the point where we see very fine access cut outs for a LED, floppy and even an Apple badge. Also note the official “Apple IIsi” name is machine silk-screened on, something even the Mark Twain prototypes lack. Whether a prototype motherboard had been built at this stage is questionable, but it is clear Apple was serious about this project. I’m betting, at least on paper blueprints somewhere, a rudimentary computer design exists along with a set goal of planned features.

    It should also be pointed out, this isn’t the only prototype Apple II concept that never made it past the development stage. There is the “Apple IIp”, a successor of sorts to the Apple IIc, which would have had a built-in LCD screen, battery, hardisk, a case handle and included AppleWorks pre-installed.

    The Mark Twain prototype is what frustrates me the most. I knew of its existence way back in 1990, when a seeded prototype was given to LCSI (Logo Computer Systems Inc) here in Montreal, Canada. The interesting thing is the information leaked to me back then, not only described bit-for-bit what we know of the Mark Twain today, but several more advanced features not present (e.g. an enhanced VGC and Ensoniq, plus speedier 65C816). Either the original design was scaled back due to costs/internal politics, or someone was pulling my leg. Either way though, I cannot imagine the ROM 3 or Mark Twain (as was discovered) is the best Apple engineers could think up over the six year lifespan of the Apple IIGS. I’m quite sure there are lost designs and prototypes not yet discovered.

    • Thanks for the comments and relating your experience!

      I agree that this does not seem to be “the best” that the engineers could come up with; however, internal politics that mandated the company’s future was Macintosh made it impossible to spend the time or money on advancing the Apple II architecture. As a better IIGS (or IIsi or whatever) would have cannibalized sales of the Mac, these efforts were, sadly, doomed from the start.

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