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History of Apple: how Apple came to lead the tech industry

Nik Rawlinson | Aug. 20, 2015
Our History of Apple begins with a look at Apple's not so humble beginnings, follow the Apple story with us.

Yes, the Apple II (or 'apple ][' as it was styled) was a true innovation, and one that Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson credits with launching the personal computer industry.

The trouble is, specs alone are rarely enough to justify a $1300 spending spree. Business users needed a reason to dip into their IT budgets and it wasn't until some months later that the perfect excuse presented itself: the world's first 'killer app'.

The first app on an Apple computer: Visicalc

Dan Bricklin was a student at Harvard Business School when he visualised 'a heads-up display, like in a fighter plane, where I could see the virtual image [of a table of numbers] hanging in the air in front of me. I could just move my mouse/keyboard calculator around on the table, punch in a few numbers, circle them to get a sum, do some calculations'

Of course, we'd recognise that as a spreadsheet today, but back in the late 1970s, such things only existed on paper. Converting them for digital use would be no small feat, but Bricklin was unperturbed. He borrowed an Apple II from his eventual publisher and set to work, knocking out an alpha edition over the course of a weekend.

Many of the concepts he used are still familiar today - in particular, letters above each column and numbers by the rows to use as references when building formulae. (Wondering how it compares to Numbers today? Here's our Numbers review.)

The technological limitations inherent in the hardware meant that it didn't quite work as Bricklin had first imagined. The Apple II didn't have a heads-up display and although the mouse had been invented it wasn't bundled with the machine. So, the heads up display became the regular screen, and the mouse was swapped out for the Apple II's game paddle, which Bricklin described as being 'a dial you could turn to move game objects back and forth... you could move the cursor left or right, and then push the "fire" button, and then turning the paddle would move the cursor up and down'.

It was far from perfect and working this way was sluggish, so Bricklin reverted to using the left and right arrow keys, with the space bar in place of the fire button for switching between horizontal and vertical movement.

VisiCalc was unveiled in 1979 and described as a 'magic sheet of paper that can perform calculations and recalculations'. We owe it a debt of gratitude for the part it played in driving sales of the Apple II and anchoring Apple within the industry.

Writing in Morgan Stanley's 'Electronics Letter', shortly before its launch, analyst Benjamin M Rosen expounded his belief that VisiCalc was 'so powerful, convenient, universal, simple to use and reasonably priced that it could well become one of the largest-selling personal computer programs ever... [it] could some day become the software tail that ways (and sells) the personal computer dog'.


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