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Soul Machine

No hard drive, no problem: Apple II diehards fight off the encroaching army of high-end Wintels.
Jeremy Eaton

Todd Mikosh and the other Apple II diehards clump stubbornly in the hallway, rocks in a stream of Macintosh users. The Mac people -- lots of them, dozens, maybe a hundred -- flow past toward the big conference room and the Houston Area Apple Users Group's main presentation, something about hot new Web-design software. Todd and the other Apple II guys don't seem remotely interested.

Once upon a time, when the world was young, Apple II guys ruled the Houston users group. The Apple II was born in '77; HAAUG formed a year later, a club in which enthusiasts could meet other people alive to the beauty of the Apple II's motherboard. The Apple II guys were "hackers" in the innocent days before computers had security to be breached; back then, the word was praise, meaning that you knew your way around a programming language. A hacker didn't dream of IPOs and stock options; a hacker dreamed of writing cool code and giving copies to his buddies.

Guys like that loved the Apple II, a machine designed by a hacker to impress other hackers. Steve Wozniak, a gentle, bearded hippie geek universally known as "Woz," wowed his buddies with novelties like keyboards and monitors. That other, more famous Steve -- Woz's partner, Steve Jobs -- made sure that the Apple II was neatly packaged in a plastic case, so that it looked more like an electric typewriter than a hobbyist's tangle of wires and boards. Jobs saw the little computers as the start of a revolution, not to mention the foundation of a billion-dollar company. But Woz was a hacker's hacker, a goofy genius more interested in jokes and video games than in money; he drifted away from Apple Computer Inc. in the mid-'80s. To his fans, his departure signaled the end of the company's innocence, the beginning of the end for the Apple II.

In '84 the company launched the Macintosh, touted as "the computer for the rest of us" -- that is, for those of us who can't write our own programs, who turn pale at the thought of installing our own chips or typing commands such as PEEK and POKE. The Mac famously introduced the world to "windows," "icons" and "the mouse," and to the idea that what you saw on your word-processing screen was what you'd get when you printed the document. When you booted a Mac, you saw a picture of a little smiley-faced computer. Hackers considered it the Apple II's cute, dumb little brother -- and they were outraged that the Mac was usurping the Apple II's rightful position.

Apple stopped advertising Apple IIs, and stopped recruiting firms to write new software for it. Finally, in December '92, Apple stopped making the machine altogether. Still, the loyalists remained faithful, their rallying cry "Apple II forever!" At the Houston users group meetings, Mac people would ask, "Why don't you guys give up?" The stalwarts would wave to their racks of free software, or rave about their machines' reliability, the joys of a "mature system." They joked, "You'll take my Apple II when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers."


People who spend a lot of time with their Apple IIs tend toward extremes. They grow either round or skinny; they become either very serious or very silly. It's as if they were themselves binary creatures, either ones or zeroes, on or off, but never somewhere in between. Todd Mikosh is the skinny, lighthearted kind of Apple II fanatic, all elbows, knees and jokes. At work, he runs UNIX, an operating system he considers inferior to the Apple IIs -- but then, he gets paid for that.

Todd bought his first Apple II in '89. It was a brand-new top-of-the-line GS model, the ultimate graphics machine of its day, and he adored it. He was less a hard-core hacker than a tinkerer; he preferred to collect other people's software than to write his own. But he was definitely an Apple II guy: a techie who delighted in RAM disks, who saw elegance in an animated game that required a mere 4K, who'd crash his system on purpose, just for the fun of repairing it.

When it seemed clear that Apple was abandoning the Apple II, Todd joined the resistance. For a while he bought Apple II software he didn't need just to keep the commercial market alive. (He owns 13 different programs for word processing.)

But by the mid-'90s he noticed that nobody was making new stuff for the Apple II anymore. Even AOL, which in its infancy served only Apple IIs and Macs, lost the faith. Todd spent hours on the phone, waiting for a chance to convince a service rep that he'd received the wrong interface, that he used an Apple, but not that kind of Apple. For his trouble, he'd receive a Macintosh disk in the mail.

Finally he abandoned hope and bought a new PC, one of those dull Wintel machines that everyone else in the world used. He gave his GS to a computer-less friend, and almost immediately began to miss it. The new Wintel box was faster, sure, and he could buy tons of software, but what it offered in compatibility, it lacked in soul.

So when he spotted two GSs abandoned in the parking lot of an Alief high school, he rushed to their rescue. He couldn't believe the computers had been left in the rain -- "It was like seeing an infant in the Dumpster" -- but he wasn't surprised that they still worked.

He stuck the Wintel box in his closet, and awarded its desktop place of honor to the sturdier of his trash-picked GSs. He kept the other for spare parts.

"The world's going to go on without me," said Todd. "Fine. Let it go."

The Apple II ranks grow thinner every month. Only five of the faithful came to the Houston users group meeting in March, and that was a good showing. "It's Old Iron Week!" crowed Mike Brouillette, the Apple II software librarian, when he saw the fifth drift in.

Officially the little band had gathered for "Apple II Q&A and Support with the Apple II Library." But Mike hadn't bothered to bring the software library from home; he didn't have anything new, and he knew the stalwarts already have the programs they want. Likewise, there wasn't much in the way of Q&A; when you've used the same computer for more than ten years, you run out of questions to be answered.

But there was support, only not the technical kind. The Apple II guys regaled each other with tales of their hacker glory days; they united in their hatred for the great anti-Woz, John Sculley, the CEO who axed the Apple II. They said that they "rage against the machine," meaning the corporate machine that valued marketing over technical elegance. They raged that their machine had been betrayed, abandoned in favor of computers that are not tools but appliances.

Todd, always the joker, maintained that they all suffered an addiction as shameful as alcoholism or drug abuse. "Hello," he said, in good A.A. form. "My name is Todd, and I'm an Apple II user."

The other Apple II guys smiled. They had no intention of kicking the habit.

Related Links

The Houston Area Apple Users Group
A history of the Apple II
?ber-hacker Steve Wozniak's home page
The Apple II web ring

Comments? Sweet Apple II memories? Send them to lisagray@mac.com.


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