Jan 30, 2021
I’ve been struggling with how to cover a few different companies, topics, or movements for awhile. The lack of covering their stories thus far has little to do with their impact but just trying to find where to put them in the history of computing. One of the most challenging is Apple. This is because there isn’t just one Apple. Instead there are stages of the company, each with their own place in the history of computers.
Today we can think of Apple as one of the Big 5 tech companies, which include Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. But there were times in the evolution of the company where things looked bleak. Like maybe they would get gobbled up by another tech company. To oversimplify the development of Apple, we’ll break up their storied ascent into four parts:
We’ll start with the early days, which I think of as one of the four key Apple stages of development. And those early days go back far past the days when Apple was hocking the Apple I. They go to high school.
Jobs and Woz
Bill Fernandez and Steve Wozniak built a computer they called “The Cream Soda Computer” in 1970 when Bill was 16 and Woz was 20. It was a crude punch card processing machine built from some parts Woz got from the company he was working for at the time.
Fernandez introduced Steve Wozniak to a friend from middle school because they were both into computers and both had a flare for pranky rebelliousness. That friend was Steve Jobs.
By 1972, the pranks turned into their first business. Wozniak designed Blue Boxes, initially conceived by Cap’n Crunch John Draper, who got his phreaker name from a whistle in a Cap’n Crunch box that made a tone in 2600 Hz that sent AT&T phones into operator mode. Draper would actually be an Apple employee for a bit. They designed a digital version and sold a few thousand dollars worth.
Jobs went to Reed College. Wozniak went to Berkely. Both dropped out.
Woz got a sweet gig at HP designing calculators, where Jobs had worked a summer job in high school. India to find enlightenment. When Jobs became employee number 40 at Atari, he got Wozniak to help create Breakout. That was the year The Altair 8800 was released and Wozniak went to the first meeting of a little club called the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975 when they got an Altair so the People’s Computer Company could review it. And that was the inspiration. Having already built one computer with Fernandez, Woz designed schematics for another. Going back to the Homebrew meetings to talk through ideas and nerd out, he got it built and proud of his creation, returned to Homebrew with Jobs to give out copies of the schematics for everyone to play with. This was the age of hackers and hobbyists. But that was about to change ever so slightly.
The Apple I
Jobs had this idea. What if they sold the boards. They came up with a plan. Jobs sold his VW Microbus and Wozniak sold his HP-65 calculator and they got to work. Simple math. They could sell 50 boards for $40 bucks each and make some cash like they’d done with the blue boxes. But you know, a lot of people didn’t know what to do with the board. Sure, you just needed a keyboard and a television, but that still seemed a bit much.
Then a little bigger plan - what if they sold 50 full computers. They went to the Byte Shop and talked them into buying 50 for $500. They dropped $20,000 on parts and netted a $5,000 return. They’d go on to sell about 200 of the Apple Is between 1976 and 1977.
It came with a MOS 6502 chip running at a whopping 1 MHz and with 4KB of memory, which could go to 8. They provided Apple BASIC, as most vendors did at the time. That MOS chip was critical. Before it, many used an Intel or the Motorola 6800, which went for $175. But the MOS 6502 was just $25. It was an 8-bit microprocessor designed by a team that Chuck Peddle ran after leaving the 6800 team at Motorola. Armed with that chip at that price, and with Wozniak’s understanding of what it needed to do and how it interfaced with other chips to access memory and peripherals, the two could do something new.
They started selling the Apple 1 and to quote an ad “the Apple comes fully assembled, tested & burned-in and has a complete power supply on-board, initial set-up is essentially “hassle free” and you can be running in minutes.” This really tells you something about the computing world at the time. There were thousands of hobbyists and many had been selling devices. But this thing had on-board RAM and you could just add a keyboard and video and not have to read LEDs to get output. The marketing descriptions were pretty technical by modern Apple standards, telling us something of the users. It sold for $666.66.
They got help from Patty Jobs building logic boards. Jobs’ friend from college Daniel Kottke joined for the summer, as did Fernandez and Chris Espinosa - now Apple’s longest-tenured employee. It was a scrappy garage kind of company. The best kind.
They made the Apple I until a few months after they released the successor. But the problem with the Apple I was that there was only one person who could actually support it when customers called: Wozniak. And he was slammed, busy designing the next computer and all the components needed to take it to the mass market, like monitors, disk drives, etc. So they offered a discount for anyone returning the Apple I and destroyed most returned. Those Apple I computers have now been auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars all the way up to $1.75 million.
The Apple II
They knew they were on to something. But a lot of people were building computers. They needed capital if they were going to bring in a team and make a go at things. But Steve Jobs wasn’t exactly the type of guy venture capitalists liked to fund at the time.
Mike Markkula was a product-marketing manager at chip makers Fairchild and Intel who retired early after making a small fortune on stock options. That is, until he got a visit from Steve Jobs. He brought money but more importantly the kind of assistance only a veteran of a successful corporation who’d ride that wave could bring. He brought in Michael "Scotty" Scott, employee #4, to be the first CEO and they got to work on mapping out an early business plan. If you notice the overlapping employee numbers, Scotty might have had something to do with that…
As you may notice by Wozniak selling his calculator, at the time computers weren’t that far removed from calculators. So Jobs brought in a calculator designer named Jerry Manock to design a plastic injection molded case, or shell, for the Apple II. They used the same chip and a similar enough motherboard design. They stuck with the default 4KB of memory and provided jumpers to make it easier to go up to 48. They added a cassette interface for IO. They had a toggle circuit that could trigger the built-in speaker. And they would include two game paddles. This is similar to bundles provided with the Commodore and other vendors of the day. And of course it still worked with a standard TV - but now that TVs were mostly color, so was the video coming out of the Apple II. And all of this came at a starting price of $1,298.
The computer initially shipped with a version of BASIC written by Wozniak but Apple later licensed the Microsoft 6502 BASIC to ship what they called Applesoft BASIC, short for Apple and Micorosft. Here, they turned to Randy Wiggington who was Apple’s employee #6 and had gotten rides to the Homebrew Computer Club from Wozniak as a teenager (since he lived down the street). He and others added features onto Microsoft BASIC to free Wozniak to work on other projects. Deciding they needed a disk operating system, or DOS. Here, rather than license the industry standard CP/M at the time, Wigginton worked with Shepardson, who did various projects for CP/M and Atari.
The motherboard on the Apple II remains an elegant design. There were certain innovations that Wozniak made, like cutting down the number of DRAM chips by sharing resources between other components. The design was so elegant that Bill Fernandez had to join them as employee number four, in order to help take the board and create schematics to have it silkscreened. The machines were powerful.
All that needed juice. Jobs asked his former boss Al Alcorn for someone to help out with that. Rod Holt, employee number 5, was brought in to design the power supply. By implementing a switching power supply, as Digital Equipment had done in the PDP-11, rather than a transformer-based power supply, the Apple II ended up being far lighter than many other machines.
The Apple II was released in 1977 at the West Coast Computer Fair. It, along with the TRS-80 and the Commodore PET would become the 1977 Trinity, which isn’t surprising. Remember Peddle who ran the 6502 design team - he designed the PET. And Steve Leininger was also a member of the Homebrew Computer Club who happened to work at National Semiconductor when Radio Shack/Tandy started looking for someone to build them a computer.
The machine was stamped with an Apple logo. Jobs hired Rob Janoff, a local graphic designer, to create the logo. This was a picture of an Apple made out of a rainbow, showing that the Apple II had color graphics. This rainbow Apple stuck and became the logo for Apple Computers until 1998, after Steve Jobs returned to Apple, when the Apple went all-black, but the silhouette is now iconic, serving Apple for 45 years and counting.
The computers were an instant success and sold quickly. But others were doing well in the market. Some incumbents and some new. Red oceans mean we have to improve our effectiveness. So this is where Apple had to grow up to become a company. Markkula made a plan to get Apple to $500 million in sales in 10 years on the backs of his $92,000 investment and another $600,000 in venture funding.
They did $2.7 million dollars in sales in 1977. This idea of selling a pre-assembled computer to the general public was clearly resonating. Parents could use it to help teach their kids. Schools could use it for the same. And when we were done with all that, we could play games on it. Write code in BASIC. Or use it for business. Make some documents in Word Star, spreadsheets in VisiCalc, or use one of the thousands of titles available for the Mac. Sales grew 150x until 1980.
Given that many thought cassettes were for home machines and floppies were for professional machines, it was time to move away from tape. Markkela realized this and had Wozniak design a floppy disk for the Apple II, which went on to be known as the Drive II. Wozniak had experience with disk controllers and studied the latest available. Wozniak again managed to come up with a value engineered design that allowed Apple to produce a good drive for less than any other major vendor at the time. Wozniak would actually later go on to say that it was one of his best designs (and many contemporaries agreed).
Markkula filled gaps as well as anyone. He even wrote free software programs under the name of Johnny Appleseed, a name also used for years in product documentation. He was a classic hacker type of entrepreneur on their behalf, sitting in the guerrilla marketing chair some days or acting as president of the company others, and mentor for Jobs in other days.
From Hobbyists to Capitalists
Here’s the thing - I’ve always been a huge fan of Apple. Even in their darkest days, which we’ll get to in later episodes, they represented an ideal. But going back to the Apple 1, they were nothing special. Even the Apple II. Osborne, Commodore, Vector Graphics, Atari, and hundreds of other companies were springing up, inspired first by that Altair and then by the rapid drop in the prices of chips.
The impact of the 1 megahertz barrier and cost of those MOS 6502 chips was profound. The MOS 6502 chip would be used in the Apple II, the Atari 2600, the Nintendo NES, the BBY Micro. And along with the Zylog Z80 and Intel 8080 would spark a revolution in personal computers. Many of those companies would disappear in what we’d think of as a personal computer bubble if there was more money in it. But those that survived, took things to an order of magnitude higher. Instead of making millions they were making hundreds of millions. Many would even go to war in a race to the bottom of prices. And this is where Apple started to differentiate themselves from the rest.
For starters, due to how anemic the default Altair was, most of the hobbyist computers were all about expansion. You can see it on the Apple I schematics and you can see it in the minimum of 7 expansion slots in the Apple II lineup of computers. Well, all of them except the IIc, marketed as a more portable type of device, with a handle and an RCA connection to a television for a monitor.
The media seemed to adore them. In an era of JR Ewing of Dallas, Steve Jobs was just the personality to emerge and still somewhat differentiate the new wave of computer enthusiasts. Coming at the tail end of an era of social and political strife, many saw something of themselves in Jobs. He looked the counter-culture part. He had the hair, but this drive. The early 80s were going to be all about the yuppies though - and Jobs was putting on a suit. Many identified with that as well.
Fueled by the 150x sales performance shooting them up to $117M in sales, Apple filed for an IPO, going public in 1980, creating hundreds of millionaires, including at least 40 of their own employees. It was the biggest IPO since Ford in 1956, the same year Steve Jobs was born. The stock was filed at $14 and shot up to $29 on the first day alone, leaving Apple sitting pretty on a $1.778 valuation.
Scotty, who brought the champagne, made nearly a $100M profit. One of the Venture Capitalists, Arthur Rock, made over $21M on a $57,600 investment. Rock had been the one to convince the Shockley Semiconductor team to found Fairchild, a key turning point in putting silicon into the name of Silicon Valley. When Noyce and Moore left there to found Intel, he was involved. And he would stay in touch with Markkula, who was so enthusiastic about Apple that Rock invested and began a stint on the board of directors at Apple in 1978, often portrayed as the villain in the story of Steve Jobs. But let’s think about something for a moment. Rock was a backer of Scientific Data Systems, purchased by Xerox in 1969, becoming the Xerox 500. Certainly not Xerox PARC and in fact, the anti-PARC, but certainly helping to connect Jobs to Xerox later as Rock served on the board of Xerox.
The IPO Hangover
Money is great to have but also causes problems. Teams get sidetracked trying to figure out what to do with their hauls. Like Rod Holt’s $67M haul that day. It’s a distraction in a time when executional excellence is critical. We have to bring in more people fast, which created a scenario Mike Scott referred to as a “bozo explosion.” Suddenly more people actually makes us less effective.
Growing teams all want a seat at a limited table. Innovation falls off as we rush to keep up with the orders and needs of existing customers. Bugs, bigger code bases to maintain, issues with people doing crazy things.
Taking our eyes off the ball and normalizing the growth can be hard. By 1981, Scotty was out after leading some substantial layoffs. Apple stock was down. A big IPO also creates investments in competitors. Some of those would go on a race to the bottom in price.
Apple didn’t compete on price. Instead, they started to plan the next revolution, a key piece of Steve Jobs emerging as a household name. They would learn what the research and computer science communities had been doing - and bring a graphical interface and mouse to the world with Lisa and a smaller project brought forward at the time by Jef Raskin that Jobs tried to kill - but one that Markkula not only approved, but kept Jobs from killing, the Macintosh.
Fernandez, Holt, Wigginton, and even Wozniak just drifted away or got lost in the hyper-growth of the company, as is often the case. Some came back. Some didn’t. Many of us go through the same in rapidly growing companies.
Next (but not yet NeXT)
But a new era of hackers was on the way. And a new movement as counter to the big computer culture as Jobs. But first, they needed to take a trip to Xerox. In the meantime, the Apple III was an improvement but proved that the Apple computer line had run its course. They released it in 1980 and recalled the first 14,000 machines and never peaked 75,000 machines sold, killing off the line in 1984. A special year.