Somewhere in a home office rests a new Pentium computer, purchased for a small fortune. Not far away is a G3 Macintosh, equipped with the latest in high-performance technology. Yet between the two sits the real workhorse: a 20-year-old Apple II, a computer that's beaten the odds and stayed alive, thanks to a community of dedicated users.
In today's marketplace, computer equipment is often outdated within three to six months of purchase. To stay competitive and compatible, constant upgrading is necessary. The quests for an effective $1000 computer, or the fabled $500 "Internet box," remain elusive. But go to any flea market or garage sale and chances are there's an Apple II available for less than the cost of a mouse. When properly equipped, the wheelbarrow becomes an 18-wheeler, suitable to most tasks without any of the glitter of modern machines.
The Apple II is the brainchild of Steve Wozniak, who designed the original machine and founded Apple in his garage in 1977. Various models have existed, from the IIe to the IIc to the II+. In 1986, the IIgs was introduced, a 16-bit machine that could run the software of its 8-bit brethren, but also its own league of new software.
Despite competition from other early computers, such as the Atari, Amiga, and Commodore, the Apple II had a strong presence. "It got into the business place with a piece of software called VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program," recalls Ron Dagenais. Dagenais, who operates Computer Systems & Software in Searstown Mall of Leominster, Mass., has been an authorized Apple dealer since he opened the store in 1979. "And then there was payroll and inventory software. Also, schools standardized on the Apple II. The computer was, and still is, adequate for grades K-4." Even today, it is often used to establish a cheap network: rather than ask for a $2000 computer from administration, teachers can find Apple II's for as little as $20.
In 1993, Apple Inc. stopped manufacturing the computers, favoring the Macintosh, an entirely different system not compatible with the II. Yet the lack of official support has not stopped people from using it.
Whereas once the Apple II was heavily supported by user groups – people in a town banding together to share problems and solutions – most groups today have absorbed their Apple II support into the Macintosh, essentially eliminating the former. Yet those few user groups still knowledgeable about the supposedly-obsolete machine offer free technical support and huge libraries of free software.
The disappearance of such groups has not killed the community of Apple users, but forced them to relocate; like many modern organizations, they have banded together online. Be it on the Internet or a commercial service such as Delphi, not a day goes by when a problem isn't solved, a glitch corrected, a new user introduced to the basics, or a new piece of software is released. Apple II users are reaching out on a global scale, strengthening the few of them left with whatever cooperation possible.
Last week, Avila College in Kansas City became the site of a computer expo dedicated to the Apple II. KansasFest began in 1989 as A2-Central Developer Conference, but the programming focus has since lessened. This year, 50 people from as far away as Hawaii, Australia, and the Netherlands, ranging in age from nineteen to ninety, came to see product demonstrations, give sessions on obscure ways to use the Apple, and enjoy the company of a small but strong community.
Several programs were unveiled at KansasFest, creating new uses and filling needs. Among them was Eric Shepherd's WebWorks GS, a HyperText Markup Language (HTML) editor, making the creation of web pages easy. The Byte Works presented GSoft Basic, a IIgs-specific form of the Basic programming language. Also released were updates to Marinetti, a tool for connecting to the Internet using the SLIP/PPP protocol; Spectrum, a potent telecommunications program; and GraphicWriter III, a desktop publishing program.
This year's KansasFest included a HackFest, a competition to see who could write the "coolest" program, from scratch in 12 hours. I entered using the new GSoft Basic as my language. When I hit a snag, Mike Westerfield, author of the program, was on-hand to show me the ropes and correct bugs – both mine and his, in the language itself – as needed.
The unlikely equivalent in the IBM world would be showing Bill Gates a Windows 98 bug, and having him fix it – on the spot.
It's just another example that it's not so much the computer itself which is so significant, as it is the community. The people are programmers, writers, and users who do what they can to support each other because they enjoy doing so.
Max Jones, publisher of the Juiced.GS newsletter, commented: "It's remarkable to see so many people from so many diverse lifestyles and so many parts of the world come together for a common purpose: to celebrate the Apple II and the wonderful community that has grown up around it."
Other activities included the traditional opening barbeque feast at K.C. Masterpiece, a strange tie contest, and a roast, at which a major contributor to the Apple II community is honored by having his name dragged through the mud, with a few embarrassing stories along the way. This year's victim was Tony Diaz, without whom Alltech Electronics would probably not support the computer with a variety of essential hardware. Diaz also owns a private Apple II museum, which includes many prototypes and other things which officially never exist.
Many attendees were not using Apple II's, but Macintoshes equipped with Bernie II the Rescue, a program which allows virtually all Apple II software to be run on a PowerMac. As dedicated as the cult-like following of the Mac, which holds only 4% of today's market, is, the Apple II following is even more so.
From indoor frisbee to the sharing of steak and song, the Apple II is as much about the people as it is the computer. Two years ago at KansasFest, in the wee hours of the morning, three programmers, from Australia, England, and New Jersey, met and found themselves in an Avila dorm room talking about the Internet. A year and much collaboration later, they released Spectrum Internet Suite, the first and only graphical web browser for the IIgs.
Although dead to the masses, the Apple II continues to be the computer of choice to many. As long as people have fun using it and interacting with others of similar interests, it will remain useful while still growing.
This article is copyright (c) 1998, 2002 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission. Original Publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 01-Aug-98