Tinkering with an Apple IIc

My Mac Museum is mostly Macs but I do branch out a bit in certain areas. I have a pretty good collection of iPods, a solid collection of Palm Pilots, and even a couple of Apple II’s. One of them is an Apple IIc that I bought a couple of years ago. I really like the IIc because it’s small(ish) like a laptop and reminds me of my middle school years in computer class. I found one in good condition with a color monitor but no software. I have a bunch of Mac software but no Apple II software.

No worries, Google to the rescue. It turns out that there is a whole cottage industry devoted to keeping Apple II’s alive and integrating them with modern technology. I bought a box of 5.25″ floppy disks and a USB-to-serial adapter and prepared myself to… let the IIc sit on the shelf for almost two years. I finally decided to take it off the shelf, plug it in, and get it moving.

As I said, I don’t have any Apple II software, or at least any that works on a IIc. I have a couple of disks for a IIe but they won’t work on the IIc. I needed a way to get Apple II software onto a 5.25″ floppy disk. Ironically Macs (even old ones) are not very compatible with Apple II’s. In order to write a 5.25″ floppy from a Mac you need one that can take a rare (and expensive) Apple II card and plug in an official Apple II disk drive. Luckily for me, the IIc has a built-in disk drive and can be booted off of its serial port using an application called ADT Pro.

ADT Pro is really impressive. It allows you to boot an Apple II over a serial cable, ethernet, or even a pair of audio cables. Once booted it launches an Apple II version of ADT Pro that lets you format disks and transfer disk images from your machine onto the Apple II’s disk drive.

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It took me a little while to get it all working. I tried it on my MacBook Pro for almost an hour with no success: ADT Pro wouldn’t recognize the serial adapter. After reading about driver issues with later versions of OSX and assuming that USB-C might be part of the problem, I decided to use an older machine. I grabbed the black MacBook that I recently purchased and fired it up. It’s 11 years old but can still connect to WiFi and runs Mac OS 10.6, which doesn’t have driver issues. The newest version of Chrome supported on 10.6 is about two years old but it’s recent enough to browse the internet and download software.

Once I had everything downloaded and installed I followed the instructions and was formatting disks before I knew it. In about an hour I created disks for classics like Number Munchers, Word Munchers, Apple Works, and ProDos. I even played an entire game of Oregon Trail!

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Using the IIc was a lot of fun. All of the Apple II’s we had in middle school were attached to green screens so I never saw one in color. It’s really neat to play games on mine in color. The monitory even switches between color and black and white with the click of a button. Pretty cool.

 

Sally can have Dysentery in color OR black and white

The IIc was released in 1984 (mine is from 1986) and is totally different from a Macintosh. It has no graphical user interface and runs a command line system similar to MS-DOS. Early computers are interesting compared with systems today – simpler in some ways, more complicated in others.

Take application management, for instance.  Many software disks include a copy of the ProDOS operating system and boot directly into the application. Pop in the disk, turn on the machine, wait 15 or 20 seconds, and your application is running. ProDOS only runs one application at a time full screen so there is no task switching, memory management, or window management to worry about. You don’t even have to quit anything unless you need to save data.

Storage is a bit more complicated. Most Apple II’s rely solely on floppy disks for data storage. You boot the machine, it loads as much of the application as it can into memory, and you swap disks in and out to load more data as needed. Applications with a lot of features such as AppleWorks, need multiple disks to run. One boots the machine and lets you choose what you are going to do and another contains the program. You use a third to store your data. You’ll swap disks numerous times throughout your session.

The UI is mostly text-based (except for a few programs that can work with a mouse), requiring different combinations of open apple this and open closed apple that to execute commands. There are some attempts at graphical UI (like “folders” in AppleWorks) but nothing like windows in Mac OS or even pull down menus from later versions of MS-DOS. The visual representation of documents is limited as well. AppleWorks, for example, provides the ability to bold, italicize, and underline text but the formatting isn’t represented on screen; carats representing the start and end of the formatting display instead. This is why the bitmapped screen that enabled WYSIWYG editing on the Macintosh was so revolutionary.

The ProDOS operating system is fairly limited and only provides commands to list directory contents, create/rename/delete/lock/unlock files and directories, run programs, and save binary files to disk. It can’t even format a disk, leaving that for application programs to implement. It is heavily dependent on the hardware design of the Apple II, expecting certain ports and features to be available at specific slot numbers. While the Apple II is “easy” compared to other systems of its time, it requires a much closer knowledge of the bare metal than computers today.

I only spent four or five hours with the IIc and ran less than 10 applications on it so I am most certainly misrepresenting its capabilities at least a little. It was still pretty fun. I’m impressed with how nice the color graphics looked, how quickly the machine boots (15-20 seconds off of a floppy drive), and with how much functionality can fit on a 140k disk. It represents a simpler time when computers were taking the world of word-processing and calculation by storm in business, education at school, and casual gaming at home. There was no internet (only BBS) and the majority of your computer users were geeky guys with big glasses and pocket protectors. Oh the days…

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