A New Book about ‘The Apple II Age’ Celebrates the Users
“More software is available for this computer than for any other machine in the world.”
That’s a quote from a 1984 computer buyer’s guide about the pioneering Apple II, cited in a new book titled The Apple II Age: How the Computer Became Personal. In the book, author Laine Nooney explores those fruitful seven years before Apple released its first Macintosh computers in 1984, when uses cases for these new-fangled “microcomputers” were still very undefined and fluid.
Nooney makes the heartfelt case that the Apple II’s most compelling story “isn’t found in the feat of its engineering,” or in the personalities of Wozniak and Jobs, “or the way it set the stage for the company’s multibillion-dollar future.” Instead, it’s about all those brave and curious people, the users, who came “Not to hack, but to play… Not to program, but to print… The story of personal computing in the United States is not about the evolution of hackers — it’s about the rise of everyday users.”
And you can trace their activities in perfect detail through the decades-old software programs they left behind…
It’s a fresh and original approach to the history of technology. Yes, the Apple II competed with Commodore’s PET 2001 and Tandy’s TRS-80. But Nooney, an assistant professor of media industries at New York University, notes that by 1983 Apple II computers had over 2,000 software programs available — more than any other microcomputer. So this trove of programs uniquely offers “a glimpse of what users did with their personal computers, or perhaps more tellingly, what users hoped their computers might do.”
Looking back in time, Nooney calls the period “one of unusually industrious and experimental software production, as mom-and-pop development houses cast about trying to create software that could satisfy the question, ‘What is a computer even good for?'”
The book argues that the era generated “a remarkable range of answers,” proving that home computing “was an object of remarkable contestation, unclear utility, futurist fantasy, conservative imagination, and frequent aggravation for its users.”
The book’s jacket promises “a constellation of software creation stories,” with each chapter revisiting an especially iconic program that also represents an entire category of software. VisiCalc‘s ground-breaking calculator software represents “Business” applications, with the story of Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston ending up legitimizing the Apple II as a powerful workplace tool. And the “Games” category is represented by Sierra On-line’s first illustrated text adventure, Mystery House, written by Roberta Williams and programmed by her husband Ken.
In May, Vice republished an excerpt from the book. Nooney describes the “roiling debate over copy protection” in 1981 — and how software publishers threatened a boycott against a computing magazine that had published an ad for Locksmith software (which bragged that it “copies the ‘uncopyable'” — including copy-protected disks). Nooney writes that “in long-forgotten software like Locksmith, we find a history of computing precisely about how people could use their computers, and a surprisingly human one at that.”
But the book ultimately focuses more heavily on the lessons that can be learned from what programmers envisioned for these strange new devices — and how the software-buying public did (or didn’t) respond…
It’s a surprisingly challenging perspective. “We’ve been told, over and over again, in countless forms and by myriad voices, that personal computing was, from the moment of its invention, instantly recognized as a revolutionary technology and eagerly taken up by the American public,” Nooney writes. “This is not true.” Instead, chapter six cites a market report that suggests only 6 million of America’s 84 million homes in 1983 even had a personal computer. By the late 1990s, still barely one-third of US households had purchased a computer (according to figures Nooney cites from the U.S. Department of Commerce).
“This is not television, which went from 4% to 89% of U.S. households in a decade,” Nooney emphasized in an online interview last week. “Computers were a hard sell. This wasn’t the cellphone.” So instead the earliest emergence of personal computing in America was “a wondrous mangle,” Nooney writes, saying it turned into an era where “overnight entrepreneurs hastily constructed a consumer computing supply chain where one had never previously existed.”
But at one point Nooney even talks of “rewiring our assumptions about personal computing.” In the epilogue Nooney describes the book as “a heist, tailored to rob as many people as possible of their much-cherished faith in computing’s primordial innocence by showing how compromised, fraught, and indifferent, to all of us, this history actually is,” forcing “a reckoning with why our fantasies of history take the shape they do…”
Nooney warns there’s a larger message: that computing “has always been a story of contexts, rather than triumphs.”
During last week’s interview with Internet Archive, Nooney issued this warning about how we handle our collective past. “The minute you try to own it — you rob it of its truth.”
Mining Old Data
It’s a long-standing fascination for Nooney, who is also participating in an ongoing project with Microsoft Research’s Kevin Driscoll. They’ve teamed up to data mine letters published in an influential early 1980s magazine dedicated to software for the Apple II — Softalk. Nooney’s personal web site points out that the dozens of letters generously published each month show the community’s camaraderie — and its “diversity of authorship… Together they form a window into a tight-knit early computing community.” But Nooney’s book also cites more scholarly results in chapter 6: the finding that 1980 to 1984 saw a very clear transition from “programming to products.” (That is, a shift away from hard-core computing hobbyists…)
This shows the kind of unique research that fed into the preparation of the book itself. And in its Acknowledgements section, Nooney also specifically thanks the online Internet Archive for its larger-than-usual role. Shortly after the book-writing began in 2020, lockdowns began to respond to the pandemic, and the Internet Archive’s resources were “in so many ways the reason this book exists.” Among its online offerings were archives of Softalk magazine issues from more than 40 years ago, along with other hobbyist publication from the Apple II age in the late 1970s. Nooney calls their existence “testament to the devotion and goodwill of a small, furiously dedicated community of retrocomputing enthusiasts…”
The magazines were not just scanned, but also transcribed through optical character recognition for easier searching. Nooney argues that in general, the breadth and scope of the Internet Archive leads to the production of new and different kinds of scholarly works. In fact, copies of the software mentioned in the book are hosted on the site — which Nooney says was invaluable. Along with some interviews conducted over Zoom (or by phone), all the research could be completed in time for the book’s publication.
Nooney finally dedicated the book to Margot Comstock, Softalk magazine’s editor and co-founder (who died last year at age 81). The book’s index shows Softalk magazine mentioned on dozens of pages, while the dedication says Comstock’s “passion for the Apple II left behind the trace that made this book possible.”
In an article for the Verge, Nooney called Comstock “one of the most important women in Apple’s history… who was so important in the early Apple II era that according to Doom creator John Romero, her nickname was ‘The Glue.'” The article praises Comstock as one of those people performing “the other work it takes to make an industry.
“Between the folds of history is the quiet labor of building forums, cultivating relationships, bridging social gaps, and doing the writerly and technical translating that makes complicated, opaque technology accessible and exciting to newcomers.”
Maybe Nooney’s book can accomplish some of the same things with its fresh look at the early days of home computing — and the way that it spotlights new areas for exploration. For its original perspective, the book has already drawn an enthusiastic blurb from Claire L. Evans, author of Broad Band: the Untold Story of the Women who Made the Internet.
Evans praises the book’s “rich cast of software visionaries,” while adding approvingly that it also “complicates and enriches the men-in-garages Silicon Valley mythology we all know…”
And Evans ultimately calls the book “a gift to all curious technophiles.”