You need only look in your pocket to find evidence of how far computers have come. From the monolithic vacuum tube mainframes of yesteryear to the dizzyingly complex smartphones we now take for granted, the evolution of our computational devices is as fascinating as it is rapid. But the technology wasn’t dropped into our laps overnight, it’s taken a great deal of iteration and the odd breakthrough to reach this point. As it is with most things, sometimes a look back is important to keep things in perspective.
THE TRANSITION TO TRANSISTORS
Primordial computers, such as the UNIVAC, were massive machines that required entire rooms, or even buildings, to house all the components. The need for such floorspace actually had nothing to do with the power or complexity of these systems, it was because of all the vacuum tubes that they needed to house. This all changed with the introduction of the transistor. As if overnight (it was actually decades between the invention of the transistor in 1948 to the introduction of the first microprocessors in 1971), central processors went from massive, room-sized cabinets to chips smaller than an adult human finger. With the release of the Intel 4004, a race to miniaturize the technology began. When the MOS 6502 CPU hit the market in 1975 at a small fraction of the price of competing processors, the home computer market was ready for the big time.
Like most new technology, early home computers started their lives mostly in the hands of hobbyists. Sold in kit form, early computers came in the form of packages of components that had to be assembled by the user. In those days, things like keyboards, monitors, or cassette drives were optional or not supported. These systems were often only capable of a small amount of programming, done through a series of lights and switches.
The Apple I was one such kit computer, though it came more complete than your typical kit. Designed by Steve Wozniak, the original Apple was nothing more than a circuit board complete with a few dozen chips. Users had to come up with a case to house it, a power supply to run it, and a monitor to view the BASIC language interface. There was initially no way to actually store any of the data or programming done on the system until a tape drive was released later on.
THE 1977 TRINITY
By 1977, personal computers were finally ready for the mainstream. That year saw the release of the Commodore PET, the Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Apple II. Rather than the kit computers of the previous years, each of these came fully assembled with everything you’d need to become a command-line cowboy; case, monitor, and keyboard all included.
The Apple II actually launched with a couple disadvantages; it was more expensive and it didn’t have its own tape drive, requiring users to calibrate tape recorders to save their data. On the other hand, it was the only one of the three that could output in colour and could be hooked up to any home television through an RF connector. The following year also saw the release of a 5¼” floppy disk drive that addressed some of the issues that cassette drives normally encountered. A year after that saw the release of Apple’s first “Killer App,” VisiCalc, an early, but robust, spreadsheet program.
The Apple II would live on through revisions such as the Apple II+ and the popular Apple IIe. The entire line was finally discontinued in later 1993, having sold alongside the now ubiquitous Macintosh line of computers.
APPLE LIVES ON
While the Apple II was one of the most popular computers of the microcomputer era, the Commodore 64 absolutely destroyed it in the marketplace when it was released in 1982. During that decade, IBM inadvertently opened up the market, and IBM PC-compatible systems started taking over. When the 90’s finally rolled around, the microcomputer was basically dead, and the operating system centric PC market had begun to take hold.
Apple, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to change their methods, and to this day release systems that follow the philosophies of microcomputer days: proprietary and controlled. The market leans heavily into the more open descendants of the IBM PC-Compatibles with Windows dominating the world of desktop operating systems, but that doesn’t mean that Apple’s approach isn’t working. They are, after all, one of the richest corporations in the world, and that’s probably more important than market share.