This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Computer Era Begins?


April 16, 1977: Debut of Commodore PET & Apple II

Computer folk lore claims that on this day the computer era begins in earnest. The showdown was at the first Computer Faire in San Francisco. Apple shows off its $1298.00 Apple II. Commodore its $595.00 PET 2001.

Image from the 1977 Computer Faire

Image from the 1977 Computer Faire

Steve jobs working the floor

Steve jobs working the floor

The Apple II Home machine featured a 6502 processor, 4kb RAM, 16kb ROM and for the first time… TA DA, a home computer with color graphics.


Apple II

The Commodore PET also used the 6502 processor, and 4kb RAM with 14kb ROM, including a cassette drive.

Commodore PET

Commodore PET

Ironically, Commodore had earlier rejected purchasing the Apple II from Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, as they wanted to build their own computers. Both computers used the same processor, the MOS 6502, but the companies had two different design strategies and it showed on this day.

MOS 6502

MOS 6502

Apple wanted to build computers with more features at a higher price point. Commodore wanted to sell less feature-filled computers at a lower price point. The Apple II had color graphics, and sound. The Commodore PET used a monochrome display.

Jobs at the 1977 computer fair

Jobs at the 1977 computer fair

Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the fair

Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the fair

Two features really helped Apple’s sales take off, especially for business use.

One was the use of expansion slots. Apple had eight expansion slots, the PET didn’t offer this kind of flexibility or expansion possibilities. Dozens of expansion cards were made by Apple and other manufacturers to add to the Apple II’s capabilities.

These included:image6

  • memory expansion
  • floppy disk controllers
  • PASCAL and CP/M emulator cards
  • parallel, serial, and SCSI cards
  • processor accelerators
  • video cards

tech30dBut what really made sales of the Apple II take off was its new killer app, VisiCalc.

VisiCalc was a spreadsheet program similar to Microsoft Excel. If you’re familiar with Excel then you know the value and power of being able to add columns and rows of data and instantly get results. This was unprecedented, the first affordable program to perform such an amazing feat, something which corporate accountants previously spent hours laboriously calculating by hand.

VisiCalc transformed the Apple II into a serious business machine. It was released on the Apple II before any other system due to Apple’s rather large memory size, since the Apple II could support up to 48K of RAM.

VisiCalc was the first so-called “Killer App”. Many businesses bought the Apple II computer for the sole purpose of running VisiCalc.

jobs22175Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs and Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak from the indie biopic, jOBS.


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