Apple II turns 30

If Apple is willing to take the big risks that helped shape technology as we know it, we may wake one morning to find that it's 1977 all over again

The news out of Cupertino, California, was mostly dour last week, as Apple announced that it was delaying the delivery of the next version of its OS X operating system by four months so that it could complete work on the iPhone cell phone.

That news elicited groans from the legions of Apple and Mac fan sites. They have been eager fans of early Leopard test builds, especially as the OS is still reportedly plagued by a number of high profile bugs in applications such as QuickTime and Safari , and because rumoured "big features" have yet to see the light of day, making Leopard a modest improvement over the previous OS X release, dubbed "Tiger," which came out in 2005.

The delay will also mean that Apple misses the opportunity to debut the update at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June.

Apple's uncharacteristic stumbling over OS X might seem even more awkward come Monday as the world's thoughts turn back 30 years to a long-distant computer conference and a triumphant moment in the life of a company that has seen big wins and big losses: the introduction of the Apple II computer at the first ever West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco.

Born 30 years ago, the Apple II was not created in a garage as myth would have it. Apple II was a follow-up to a market flop, the Apple I. The failure of that first effort was a blessing. The added time, plus new semiconductor technology that became available in the interim between Apple I and Apple II, made it possible for co-founder and resident engineering genius Steve Wozniak to rework the machine's design. Apple II stood out with a color display, eight expansion slots, a documented and user-accessible logic board, sound, and game controller ports. Apple II had more in common with commercial arcade games than with competing home computers of the day. That's no coincidence; Wozniak and Jobs worked together on Atari's Breakout game, and Breakout was one of Apple II's signature games.

Apple II's aesthetics showed the first evidence of Steve Jobs' influence. Like competitors' systems at the time of its release, the initial Apple II used a cassette recorder for storage and sometimes called for the use of arcane debugger-like commands for simple tasks. But Jobs' notion that an unimposing enclosure and high-quality documentation would make the product accessible to ordinary consumers clicked. Apple II almost immediately became the box to beat in the home market, and it maintained that status even after IBM mixed its starched shirt attitude, office equipment background, and revered name to create the very impersonal but very successful PC in 1981.

Apple continues to make systems that make new and seasoned users, kernel hackers, and commercial artists feel at home while they're working. Apple is the constant brunt of derision for its adherence to the original Apple tenet that is the reason for its success: Technology should be equal parts leading edge and enjoyable to use. Some things are sadly lost to time; Intel-based Apple computers are no longer supreme inventions in the tradition of Apple II. And, following the success of the iPod, Apple's attentions are now spread across devices, software, and services. But who knows? If Apple is willing to take the big risks that helped shape technology as we know it, we may wake one morning to find that it's 1977 all over again.

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Tom Yager

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