updated 01:00 am EDT, Tue April 17, 2012
Computer debuted at retail later that summer
Thirty-five years ago, the public got its first look at what has since been called "the most visionary of the early personal computers -- the one based on the clearest idea what a PC should be, and where it should go," writes Harry McCracken for Time online. The machine he refers to was the Apple II, being demonstrated at the West Coast Computer Faire on April 16th and 17th, 1977 by Apple co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.
The Apple II would go on to get a retail release in the summer, and would swiftly be joined by two other models that, like it, were "plug and play" in comparison to systems that had come before: the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, and the Commodore PET 2001. The Apple II sold for nearly $1,300 at retail, about $5,000 in today's inflation-adjusted dollars.
The event was eventually dramatized for the 1999 TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, though not with strict historical accuracy (scene below). Jobs had, even back then, the marketing savvy to position Apple's booth near the entrance in order to catch the most curious of the 12,000 attendees right away, before they saw any other machines. The new model was a huge professional jump forward from the previous year's caseless, primitive Apple I.
The overall Apple II line (which incorporated several different versions) lasted from 1977 until 1993 and became a staple of the early efforts of educational institutions to modernize. Even in the face of competition from its own company in the form of the Mac, the Apple II series continued and is still fondly remembered by those who worked with them throughout the 80s.
It was seen by many as the first personal computer model people would actually want to have in their homes, though later models from other companies emerged to take some of Apple's share away from both business (primarily from the IBM PC) and the home (with the introduction of competing consumer computers like the Atari 800, the Commodore 64 and VIC-20 and eventually Windows systems). The original Apple II eventually sold over 300,000 units over the course of four years, though the system did not come with a monitor (and was often connected to a portable television) and was equipped with only 4KB of RAM (upgradeable to 48KB) and floppy drives were extra.
The unit contained a large number of innovative technologies, including a switching power supply to reduce heat (designed by Rod Holt) and native support for color graphics and direct control of the disk drives (though, strangely, no original support for lower case letters) and, much like the iPad today, was assembled largely by hand in its early days (including eight slots for expansion cards). The latter Apple IIc, Apple IIgs and other models slowly but surely eliminated the problems of the original model and built on its success.
As is normal for Apple, no mention of the anniversary is seen on the company's web site. Apple has a tradition of looking forward and rarely looking back that precludes commemorating its past. The ability of the Apple II, and Apple, to break through public intimidation regarding computers through friendly-but-elegant design and strong functionality resonated with consumers, however, and played a significant role in creating the personal computer industry. [via Time]