I finally read Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s great memoir this week — prompted by the tsunami of media commentary on the resignation of Steve Jobs (you know, the other guy). It got me thinking about what an incredible impact stuff made or sold by those two Steves has had on my life over the past three decades.
I was a sophomore in high school when I bought my first Apple II. It cost $1200 at the Computerland of Fairfield, Connecticut — my life savings, including all my loot from years of drawing caricatures at community fairs, plus a loan from my kid sister.
I remember opening the box, lifting the computer out of those custom-molded foam packing pieces. The tactile thrill of owning an Apple began before I’d even plugged the thing in. I knew it was going to change my life.
I hooked it up to an old TV and a cassette recorder, and I was up and running.
Weekends and after school (and sometimes instead of school), I progressed from typing in BASIC game program listings from the red book that had come with the Apple (Breakout was the best), to inventing my own games — first in BASIC, then in 6502 machine code, using the built-in mini-assembler. I pored through the red book, trying to understand its secrets.
As soon as I could afford it, I increased the Apple’s 16K of RAM by adding another row of chips, and then another. Each enhancement unlocked new capabilities: hi-res graphics, then two-page hi-res. Newer, more sophisticated games like Apple Invader (a pixel-perfect copy of the coin-op Space Invaders, programmed by the mysterious M. Hata) pushed the machine’s limits beyond what I’d imagined possible. I realized the games I’d programmed so far hadn’t scratched the surface of what it could do.
I brought my Apple to college. Tricked out with a dot-matrix printer, 5 1/4″ floppy disk drive, lower-case adapter chip, and new word-processing software that could hold up to four pages in memory, it replaced a portable Smith-Corona typewriter as my go-to device for writing papers. I was the only kid in my dorm who had such an awesome system. I used it to earn extra cash typing other people’s papers for a buck a page.
Between classes (and instead of them), I used it to make a game called Karateka.
The Karateka royalties bought me a brand-new 512K Macintosh computer, through a special student-discount arrangement Apple had with Yale.
Macs started popping up all around campus that year. It was still unusual for a student to actually own one — the only other guy I knew who had one was David Pogue, down the hall — but anyone could use the ones in the computer rooms, and a lot of people did.
The Mac had a tiny, but amazingly high-resolution screen, with a mouse-driven graphical interface that gave it a totally different vibe from other computers. It was a device that even non-techies felt comfortable using. And it could hold 100 pages of text in memory. The Mac changed playing games and typing papers on computers from a fringe activity into part of mainstream college life.
I loved my Mac. It was a shiny new toy — good to write papers on, fun to show off to friends — but I didn’t consider it a machine for serious programming. I wasn’t enough of an engineer to pop the hood and figure out how it worked and what all the chips did, the way I’d done with the Apple II. It was too sophisticated.
Besides, the installed user base of Macs in 1985 was miniscule compared to the Apple II. As a game programmer, it didn’t make business sense for me to switch.
So my new Mac took its place alongside my main working system — which I’d by then upgraded to a newer Apple IIe with 64K of RAM, two disk drives, color monitor and joystick. That was the computer I used to program Prince of Persia.
I hadn’t anticipated that, due to my combination of obsessive perfectionism and occasionally dilatory work habits, Prince of Persia would take me four years to finish. By the time I was done, the Apple II was obsolete.
Ironically, it was the Mac version that saved my new game from oblivion. While the Apple market was dying, the rise of desktop publishing had created a new market of Mac owners hungry for games to play on their high-resolution color screens. They embraced Prince of Persia and made it a hit.
Today, like almost everyone I know, my daily life is inextricably bound up with Apple products. I’m typing this in a café on a MacBook Air, with an iPad and iPhone in my shoulder bag, and more Macs and iProducts on view at the tables around me than I can count.
Devices that in ten years will seem as quaint as my 1978 Apple II does now.
But oh, man, it was a thing of beauty.