June 10, 1977: Apple Computer Inc. ships its first Apple II computer.
A hulking beige mammoth with 4KB of RAM (upgradeable to a whopping 48KB), the Apple II was the computer that defined Apple for a generation of fans. Retailing at $1,298, it cost the equivalent of a handful of MacBook Pros today — even though it seemed a total bargain at the time.
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First Apple II ships
Unlike its Apple I predecessor, the Apple II was polished and mass market. It featured a keyboard, BASIC compatibility and, most notable of all, color graphics.
Despite being the company’s second computer, the Apple II was responsible for a number of firsts at Apple. It was the machine that turned Apple into a million-dollar company (yes, million — not billion). The year the Apple II debuted, Apple turned over $770,000 in revenue. The year after that, the computer’s success brought in $7.9 million, and the year after that $49 million.
That’s not all.
VisiCalc, a ‘killer app’ for the Apple II
It was also the computer that created Apple’s (and arguably personal computing’s) first “killer app” in the form of VisiCalc. The world’s inaugural spreadsheet, VisiCalc turned personal computers from cool-to-have toy into must-have business accessory. (And they say it’s only now that Apple’s getting into the enterprise market.)
The Apple II was the first computer of many influential people in tech. Among them was Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the first chair of the Mozilla Foundation. Speaking about the Apple II in the kind of reverent tones a person only uses for their first love, Kapor told me for my book The Apple Revolution about selling his stereo for cash and driving to New Hampshire, where there was no sales tax, to buy one of Apple’s hot new computers.
It was additionally the computer responsible for Apple’s focus on industrial design, with designer Jerry Manock recalling to me that he was hired to create “a nice balance between manufacturability and human factors.” While Manock would later go onto design the first Mac, the Apple II is in many ways an equally iconic machine. It paved the way for the look and feel of later Apple creations.
Apple marketing comes of ageFinally, the Apple II was the machine on which Apple cut its marketing teeth. To sell it, Steve Jobs sought out advertising copywriters who hadn’t previously worked on computer campaigns as a way of doing something different.
“It was interesting to watch, but it wasn’t really clear to us what we were seeing,” says Bill Kelley, the copywriter behind the first Apple II adverts, recalling his first demo of the machine.
After the initial ads showed a sexist scenario in which a woman slaved in the kitchen while her husband typed on the Apple II, Jobs received a furious letter from a woman in Oregon, complaining about it. Future commercials for the machine reversed the equation, and started a trend for Apple ads that subvert viewer expectations.
Ultimately, the Apple II was a superb machine. It stands as a triumph of collaboration between Apple co-founders Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who would never again work so well together. The computer benefited from great peripherals like the Disk II 5 1/4-inch floppy drive and superb software ranging from games to productivity tools. The Apple II changed the face of computing years before the Mac, iPhone or iPad or Apple Watch were gleams in the eye of anyone in Cupertino.
The product line continued until 1993, with Apple selling between 5 million and 6 million computers in the process.
Happy birthday, Apple II!
Do you have fond (or not so fond) memories of the Apple II? Share them with us in the comments!