Today in Apple history: Apple II brings color computing to the masses

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Apple II
The Apple II was groundbreaking for its day.
Photo: Computer History Museum

April 17: Today in Apple history: Apple II debuts at West Coast Computer Faire with color graphics April 17, 1977: The Apple II debuts at the West Coast Computer Faire, positioning Apple at the forefront of the looming personal computer revolution.

The company’s first mass-market computer, the Apple II boasts an attractively machined case designed by Jerry Manock (who will later design the first Macintosh). It also packs a keyboard, BASIC compatibility and, most importantly, color graphics.

Fueled by some marketing savvy from Steve Jobs, the Apple II makes quite a splash at the San Francisco Bay Area’s first personal computer convention.

Apple II puts Cupertino in the spotlight

After forming the previous year, Apple already had passed several important milestones by April 1977. The company had seen one of its three co-founders quit, launched its first computer and officially incorporated.

However, the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire served as a massive “coming out” party for Apple. In the days before the internet, this event featured all the big players in the burgeoning PC industry. It drew thousands of interested customers — many of whom became early tech devotees.

Apple showed off its new corporate logo at the computer fair for one of the first times. The multicolored design by Rob Janoff featured the outline of an apple with a bite taken out of it. The instantly iconic symbol replaced an earlier Apple logo by former Apple co-founder Ron Wayne).

Steve Jobs introduces the Apple II

Right from the start of his career, Jobs realized the importance of a good product introduction. With no special media event to introduce the Apple II, he used the West Coast Computer Faire to perform the same function. (Interestingly, the event took place at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, which Apple returned to for its fall media event in 2015.)

Apple occupied the four booths directly facing the building’s front entrance. The strategic positioning made Apple the first of 175 companies at the Faire that customers saw when they arrived. At a time when money was short, Apple splashed out on a backlit Plexiglass display featuring the new logo.

The eye-catching setup showcased a dozen Apple II computers for visitors’ inspection. Unbeknownst to customers, these were unfinished prototypes, since the actual computers wouldn’t be ready until June.

A major money spinner

The Apple II, the company’s second computer, became an enormously important product line. The year it debuted, it brought in $770,000 in revenue. That figure increased to $7.9 million the following year and a massive $49 million the year after that. Apple continued producing some version of the Apple II until the early 1990s.

This computer brought a number of important players into the world of high tech, including Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and John Carmack, the legendary coder behind smash hit games Wolfenstein 3DDoom and Quake.

The Apple II also queued up Cupertino’s first “killer app” — spreadsheet program VisiCalc.

While Apple later moved away from the Apple II product line (much to the annoyance of co-founder Steve Wozniak), this machine put Apple on the map. And the West Coast Computer Faire is where the world got its first glimpse.