In the last few days, many articles have been written about Steve Jobs's contributions to the electronics world. They tend to focus on recent product introductions from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) including, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPad. Those are sensational products; but, in my opinion the authors' memories are too short. The articles do not give proper recognition to Jobs's first big hit: the Apple II.
In 1978 I was working for EMM Semi, a pioneering 4K SRAM manufacturer. Yes, 4K! In June of that year I went to the National Computer Conference in Anaheim, Calif. It was a big-iron show. The main hall featured exhibits by IBM and the Seven Dwarfs, (Burroughs, Control Data, General Electric, Honeywell, NCR, RCA, and Sperry Rand) as well as minicomputer manufacturers such as Digital Equipment Corp. and Data General. Microcomputers were only allowed, very grudgingly, in a much smaller, dingier hall across the street. None of the big-iron people thought microcomputers were a real market.
I remember counting something like 140 small microcomputer manufacturers at that show. Because almost every microcomputer manufacturer had a proprietary operating system, there were nearly as many OSs. The Wintel partnership was far in the future. Microcomputers used so little memory that the total system cost for using SRAM was less than for DRAM. Even though the cost per chip was much lower for DRAM, the lower cost for the few chips required did not cover the cost of the DRAM refresh circuitry. Today, that seems laughable.
Because SRAM was the memory of choice, EMM Semi's 4K SRAM sales grew exponentially during the first few years of microcomputer sales. EMM Semi was at the National Computer Conference to show off its latest SRAM, an 8K SRAM. (The fate of that product is another story.) To properly display the 8K SRAM in the EMM Semi booth in the microcomputer hall, one of the EMM Semi engineers had procured an Apple II. Since it had only been introduced in June 1977, this had to have been a very early Apple II. He had replaced 8K of the Apple II's SRAM with the new EMM Semi 8K SRAM. He had then put a piece of Plexiglas in a rectangular opening cut in the Apple II's top so the EMM Semi 8K SRAM could be seen installed.
I had not seen the Apple II with the 8K SRAM installed before arriving at the show for booth duty. When I reached the booth, I was in for a shock. The booth was surrounded, people were packed in; but no one was paying any attention to the EMM Semi 8K SRAM. They didn't care. They wanted to see the Apple II and play with it.
The Apple II was like nothing else in the microcomputer hall. The other microcomputers were rectangular brown or white boxes. They looked as if they had been designed by engineers. No surprise -- they had been. They looked like sample boxes. They had no pizzazz. No sizzle! The Apple II had both. I knew I was looking at the future when I saw the Apple II and the reaction to it.
The Apple II revolutionized the microcomputer industry. It appealed to consumers, not engineers. It led the way in ease of use, features, and expandability. It was the genesis of the mass-produced personal computer industry. Other microcomputer companies fell by the wayside. The IBM PC followed. But, by the end of production in 1993, somewhere between 5 and 6 million Apple II computers had been shipped, making Apple the leading microcomputer manufacturer of that time.
The Apple II was Steve Jobs through and through (with help from the "Woz," of course). It was his first big success. To me, it remains his biggest.