KFest 2015 is coming!

That annual Apple II conference is only a month away, and yes, I’ve got another music parody for it:

Come down and help me make it better with live action!


Elsewhere on the web…

Two podcasts caught my attention and enjoyment recently. There are a number of podcasts I enjoy, but these two were particularly interesting, from an Apple II history point of view.

First of all, Welcome to Macintosh (yes, I know, whaaaaaat?) done by Mark Bramhill is a podcast primarily about more modern Mac issues. But episode #3 “Trip to alphaSyntauri” from April 2, 2015, is all about the famous synthesizer made to work with the Mountain Hardware Sound Card for the original Apple II. The episode gives the history of how a keyboard synthesizer was built to use with this card, and became one of the first inexpensive synthesizers available to the public.

The podcast is well done, and actually sounds like something I would hear as a segment on a National Public Radio program.

The second podcast is from ANTIC, The Atari 8-Bit Podcast. I never had an Atari computer to play with, but this podcast makes me feel like I should have. The hosts do an amazing job of getting interviews with luminaries in the Atari world, and what I hear is usually interesting, despite the lack of Apple II connection. Episode 29 features David Cramer of the Western Design Center, which is still to this day manufacturing and selling the venerable 6502, 65c02, and 65816 microprocessors. The discussion does involve the Apple II and IIGS to some extent, and well worth a listen.

BASIC is Golden

One of the first things I did when I first had access to an Apple II Plus back in 1981 was to enter programs in Applesoft BASIC, typed from a listing in Nibble magazine. With time and the help of technical info I learned from All About Applesoft from Call-A.P.P.L.E. I learned how to play with this programming language on a deeper level. I was eventually able to redo a program for printing labels for IV meds at the hospital where I was training, and used that wonderful “&” extension to add assembly language routines to simplify parts of the program.

Though I had originally learned FORTRAN in college, I was able to extend this knowledge to BASIC, and had a lot of fun doing so. And it is all thanks to the original creation of this language fifty years ago (as of June of this year), I and all of the others who dove headlong into the microcomputer revolution had a way of creating programs.

When I heard of this golden anniversary, I was inspired to come up again with a parody song. Sorry that these songs are based on such an old pop tune, but hey, it was what I heard when I was in high school. Thanks Microsoft (for what became Applesoft), Apple (for selling the Apple II), and Steve Wozniak (for designing the Apple II, and incorporating his own BASIC into it)!

How many of these keywords did you use when you wrote programs in Applesoft??

Me and You and Our Apple II
by Steven Weyhrich

(parody of Lobo’s, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo“, from 1971)

I remember to this day
DIMensioning an array
And how it worked through the loop
Using FOR and NEXT
Dynamic RAM made that hardware go
The Woz design ensured that’s so
Oh how I wish I was
Back at the prompt again

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I wished I could find some FRE mem …

I managed variables and all
And created hi-res shapes
For a game that would win
That contract job, it gave me work
And then they paid me for what it was worth
Another box of disks and
Back at the prompt again

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I’d love to replay that great game

I’ll never forget that day
I saw that Mac with its cute display
The clicks and its icons
Were fascinatin’ to my brain
And though its been thirty years or so
That old II’s bugging me to go
I’ve gotta boot it up and get
Back to the prompt again

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I wished I could find some FRE mem …

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I’d love to replay that great game

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I wished I could find some FRE mem …

When The Apple II Was New

I’ve been so busy recovering from birthing my book (the stitches have come out, thank you) that I have not paid attention to anniversaries. I was reminded by the post on Cult of Mac yesterday (here) that it was on June 10, 1977 that the full Apple II system with case was first shipped.

Apple II, Panasonic RQ-2102 cassette, and TV
Apple II, Panasonic RQ-2102 cassette, and TV – Photo credit: Carl Knoblock, Phil Pfeiffer

This computer was nearly twice as expensive as the competitors that would be available for purchase later in the year (the Commodore PET 2001 in August, and the TRS-80 Model I in November), but offered expandability right out of the box that neither of those competitors could provide without a retrofit or redesign.

Okay, if you’ve read this blog in the past, you know of my opinion about the significance of this computer, but let me reiterate: It established Apple as a company, and turned on a fire-hose of cash that funded the next several years of stumbles with other products (the Apple III, Lisa, and original 128K Macintosh). It was such a significant player that the company had to intentionally hobble it in its later years, so it would not pull customers away from the Mac.

The Apple II also set the stage for the appearance of computers on desktops for years to come. The popularity of the beige color was copied endlessly by other competing products that were released, well into the 1990s, when the term “boring beige box” came into its own. Yes, the Apple II was indeed beige — but it was the first to be beige.

Wozniak’s design was also unique in being the ideal hacker’s platform. Here I do not mean “hacker” in the sense of one who maliciously breaks into other computer systems with the intent of stealing or vandalizing. Rather, this refers to “hacker” in its original sense, that of one who could create new things, be it software or hardware, that brought functionality to the Apple II that went beyond what Woz originally envisioned. The eight slots allowed hardware expandability that other platforms did not as easily offer, and many of those add-ons were accessible by amateur programmers through its built-in BASIC and powerful 6502 assembly language.

All said, the release of this computer was a significant event in computing history. Happy 37th birthday, Apple II !

Oriental Apples

In part 13 of the History on this web site (and in Chapter 15 of Sophistication & Simplicity, available at fine booksellers everywhere), there is a short section discussing Apple’s first foray into sales targeting the Far East. The Apple II j-Plus was a slightly redesigned Apple II Plus, with a character ROM chip modified to display Japanese Katakana characters with the appropriate POKE to $C05C to activate them.

A reader of this web site who lives in Hong Kong, Wyatt Wong, recently sent me an email asking why I didn’t mention anything about a Chinese “language card” for the Apple II in this part of the History. I had not heard of it before, and so he helped educate me about this hack that let Chinese-speaking (and writing) individuals use an Apple II in years past. Further information came from Lim Thye Chean of Singapore.

While in school in the 1980s, Wong was exposed to a Far Eastern Apple II clone. Like those from Japan, the use of this Apple II required some knowledge of English to do programming or to use the large library of software available from the United States. Yet, there was desire to make it work for the numerous Chinese logograms used in that written language, and hackers in that part of the world worked to create a solution that would work for this computer. The result was referred to as the Chinese language card.

The Giantek Technology Corporation of Taiwan was founded in 1982, and produced English-Chinese terminals for Taiwan and mainland China. In 1983 the company came out with the Giantek Chinese Interface Card for the Apple II, officially called  the Zon Ding Chinese System, or simply Han Card (Han means “Chinese”). Despite the “Chinese language card” name used to refer to it, this was not a RAM card like the 16K Apple Language Card. It was much more complicated.

Giantek Chinese Interface Card, photo credit ubb.frostplace.com
Giantek Chinese Interface Card, photo credit ubb.frostplace.com

According to a discussion about it on comp.sys.apple2 back in 2002, at least one version of this system involved a pair of cards connected together by a 14-pin ribbon cable. One of the cards was equipped with its own Z80A CPU, and most commonly was installed in slot 3 or 4. This card held six EPROM chips labeled ROM-1 through ROM-6, and in the discussion, it was speculated that the card was actually its own computer (just as the Microsoft SoftCard was a computer on a card to run CP/M), and that the ROM chips were used to store the Chinese characters to be displayed. 

The card utilized the Apple II hi-res screen to display the Chinese characters. Wong recalls that it required either a modified version of Apple DOS, or another application that ran on top of DOS. This was necessary to make it possible to allow entry of the Chinese characters from the keyboard. This Giantek card used traditional Chinese, specifically either Cangjei or Simplified Cangjei (not to be confused with simplified Chinese, which was most commonly used in mainland China).

To enter a traditional Chinese character, the typical method was to type a QWERTY character, then type up to five additional characters from the keyboard to create the desired Chinese character. The twenty-four Roman letters A through W, plus Y on the keyboard were used in the Cangjei method. Z was not used at all, and X was reserved for entry of difficult Chinese characters.

Other non-US versions of the Apple II dealt with languages that had a limited alphabet, and so were more suitable to map to a standard US keyboard. It is not surprising that Apple did not at that time specifically service the Chinese market, as the language was considerably more complicated than other places in the world. I do find it interesting to see how Wozniak’s open design on the Apple II made it possible to work with the Chinese language long before there was any graphic-interface computers available to do the job.

Point To Point

At a recent gathering to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh, a video recording was taken of a conversation between Dan Kottke, Rod Holt, and Steve Wozniak discussing the preparation of the original Apple II prototype. In the video, Kottke expresses his surprise that Holt, a photographer, never took any pictures of the Apple II prototypes, and neither did Steve Jobs.  There are apparently no photos of the Apple II during its design process.

Woz also clarifies that his prototyping method in those days was to use point-to-point soldering, rather than the more commonly used wire-wrapping technique. In the latter part of the video, he discusses how he put the pieces together and soldered them, on both the Apple-1 and the Apple II.

Macintosh Forever? Uh-oh…

<snarky mode enabled> Jason Snell, writing for MacWorld today about the 30th anniversary of the launch of the original 128K Macintosh, gave a quote by Phil Schiller. He said:

“There is a super-important role that will always be,” Schiller said. “We don’t see an end to that role. There’s a role for the Mac as far as our eye can see. A role in conjunction with smartphones and tablets, that allows you to make the choice of what you want to use. Our view is, the Mac keeps going forever, because the differences it brings are really valuable.” (emphasis mine)

Based on our past experience with the Apple II, I would give the Mac just a few more years before it is gone. “Apple II Forever” was the theme at the launch of the Apple IIc in April 1984, and forever lasted only nine years before they pulled the plug.

Macintosh forever
Making life better and better
Macintosh forever and ever
Bringing the rainbow to you
Macintosh forever!

<snarky mode disabled>

Actually, I don’t want that to happen, because I use my MacBook Pro on a daily basis, and want to continue to do so. But I just couldn’t help but make that connection to an old nit to pick.

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)

Spotted In The Wild

It’s exciting to see something that has involved so much work, long term and short term, come to pass. But it’s even more exhilarating to see others share in it.

I’ve had a number of Twitter and Facebook posts from people who were saying they planned to order the book – even before it was a proper pre-order. And now some of those books have been received, and the enthusiasm has led some to take photos. Paul Hagstrom (@yesterbits) took a cool photo:

yesterbits (Paul Hagstrom)

The original photo was of an Apple II standard (pre II Plus) model, but the book cover did not show anything specific enough that would have made that difference obvious.

Another Twitter-er, @neko_no_ko, posted a photo of the book on his Apple III Plus:


But the topper was an an unboxing video posted by the prolific Ken Gagne, editor of Juiced.GS and webmaster for a number of websites. On his Gamebits channel on YouTube, he has had videos of the unboxing of a Wii U, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, videos that have had a healthy number of views. I would not have thought of my book as a topic worthy of unboxing, but here it is:

Thanks to all for your support and interest!

My God, It’s Full of Words!

It’s December 2nd, and although Amazon still has the book listed as for “pre-order”, I want to confirm that it really does exist. My supply came in a box from UPS today. They insisted on posing for a picture: