I suppose it’s appropriate that my birthday wishes to the IIGS are a month late. It was released in September 1986 but I didn’t own one until 1999 — nearly seven years after Apple discontinued it. My feelings about the machine, like my memories, are a bit distant and confused. In 1985, Commodore introduced to great fanfare the Amiga and all of my “Commie-loving” – that was an insult back in the day. The Soviet Union was still a thing that existed and might destroy the world at any given moment – “Commode-ore” friends went wild, wasting exactly zero minutes tracking down me and my “crApple” II buddies (see what we did there? With the crap and the Commodore and the… yeah… hey, it was funny to us) to rub our faces in it and wave around their copies of the premiere edition of AmigaWorld magazine as they mocked us: “Can your crApple II do this?” “How do you like them Lo-Res Graphics now, rainbow boy?” “Warriors, come out to pl…”
Wait. Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite as, “Lord of the Flies,” as all that but they did have a point and damn, did those animations put out by the “Bernie” chip look smooth. (Or was it “Denise”? I can never keep all those chips straight.) Our clever jabs about no slots, cheap plastic build and god-awful keyboards lost a bit of their sting that sad day. Not to mention the pathetic load times on that disk drive of theirs. Yeesh… Anyway, we took it all in stride. We knew it wouldn’t be long before Apple came roaring back to reward the faithful fanboys for our devotion and knock the socks off everyone with the latest machine. Of course they would. Rumors of a new II had been popping up in A+ and Nibble magazine for months now that it would be amazing and better yet, the great and powerful Woz himself was said to have designed it… or worked on it… or guided development. Whatever, it would be nothing short of miraculous and then we could tell those Commie and Atari fanboys what was what. In the meantime, we had to content ourselves with daydreams and whiled away the hours coming up with lists of what the new specs might be – all of them much improved over the Amiga, naturally. One of our artistically inclined friends even came up with sets of drawings based on what we’d read, visualizing what the “IIx,” as it was still dubbed, might look like, hoping it would come soon. And come it did, eventually and what we got was… well…
Back then, when I wasn’t at band camp, I whiled away the long California summer hours in the local Egghead discount software store, drooling over the shelves of Apple titles, all neatly wrapped in shiny cellophane and carefully arranged, their price tags a reminder that I couldn’t afford any of them but I guess it was enough to be close to them or something. I would hang out and try to chat up the retail employees about the latest game rumors or tips I’d picked up in the new issue of Computist and generally make a nuisance of myself until they gave me something to do, just to shut me up. At first, I would help out setting up demo computers or test out the newest titles for them and I would carefully interject thoughtful corrections and details into any conversation a salesman might be having with a potential customer. All of this for free, mind you. Hey, the salesmen were busy and I knew they didn’t always have time to learn every little detail and I was happy to point out their mistakes to the customers.
Can’t imagine why that would have been … what was the word Tony used? Oh yeah – “infuriating.” “Snot-nosed punk,” was also mentioned in passing.
Shortly thereafter I was shifted to the help out in the stock room, re-wrapping the boxes after everyone had made pirated copies of the latest games, and unpacking UPS crates as they came in from the software companies. So when the set of boxes emblazoned with the rainbow Apple logo showed up one day, I got to help unload them from the truck. My heart was pounding – this was it! Had to be! Of course, everyone else wanted to see as well, crowding around as the thing was unpacked. I was pushed to the side and they kicked me out of the store promptly at closing so I didn’t get to see as they set it up after hours. The next morning, I rushed back to make sure I would be first in line when the place opened up. My father, mostly curious what all my excitement was about, tagged along.
And there it was! At last! Sitting on the demo desk, running through some animations and playing sounds that I’d never heard from a computer before: rich, full chords of music; loud, realistic blasts of a cannon as an action game segment was displayed. And the graphics? Gorgeous! Lickable, even! I was enthralled and made sure to approach with the appropriate amount of reverence and respect. ‘G’ and ‘S’ stood for graphics and sound, and boy did it ever live up to the letters. I marveled over the new case design, oddly familiar yet new and beautiful and fresh. I wanted one so badly, I could taste it. Apple really got it right and I was going to make sure the C-64 sucking, ST-owning jerks I called friends were going hear about it. They’d regret ever doubting Apple. Or me.
My father was… less than impressed. He’d been looking over the little sales data chart Egghead was handing out and his eyes kept going back and forth between the machine and the list, brow furrowed. Hours later, after he finally managed to drag me away (much to the relief and joy of the Egghead staff) as I was chattering effusively at the local IHOP while we ate our eggs and pancakes, and making vague threats about the end of the Commodore and Atari empires in the very near future, he stayed quiet.
“So when can we get one?” I finally dared to ask. “I bet if you call them today, we could have it here by next week.”
Without looking up and in one single, horrible moment, he killed off my little dreams. “We’re not getting one.”
I was dumbstruck. How could he even suggest this heresy? “What? Did you see that computer? It’s amazing! And it’ll run all the software we already have-”
He shook his head and then laid it all out for me: “It’s a dead-end. It’s too much like the Mac, and it’s in color and sounds better.”
“So that’s good, right?”
“No. Think about it. Apple is all about Macintosh right now. It’s slow, monochrome, no expansion possibilities, no software for it, overpriced and still not selling well. Then along comes this other machine: color, seven slots, supports all your Apple II software. Just a better machine. No way they’re going to support something that’s better if it doesn’t say ‘Macintosh’ on it. Probably why they used the slow processor, too. ‘6502 compatibility’ my ass. Put a 68000 in there and there’s no reason to buy a Macintosh. Sorry, I’m not getting stuck with a machine that I can’t buy software for because – you mark my words on this – they’re not going to advertise it, not going to release anything and it’ll be dead in a year.” He went on a bit but I’d stopped listening.
I was devastated. And he was right, mostly. The IIGS managed to hang on through a couple of revisions and minor upgrades, and lasted until the end of 1992, well beyond my father’s predicted short lifespan. It even got a GUI shell called GS/OS that looked a whole lot like the Macintosh Finder. But company support for the platform was anemic at best. Apple ran few print and TV ads that even mentioned the IIGS by name and pushed it at elementary schools, where they were set up to run as fast Apple IIe’s. Very little software was written to take advantage of the new capabilities and in the end, my Commodore and Atari friends got the last laugh as it never ran faster than a pathetic 2.8 MHz (at least without an expensive, third-party accelerator board), well behind the other 68000-powered computers in its class, the Amiga and the ST.
There was another upgrade in the works, one that got far into development and maybe even close to release, known as the “ROM 4” or “Mark Twain” to torment the loyal fanboys and girls with what might have been. Pictures of the few existing prototypes can be found on the web. The 6502 was decades old by then and it would be unfair not to give credit to Western Design Center for squeezing every last drop out of potential out of the architecture with the 65C816, the heart of the IIGS, but by then its limits were a well-known end point around which there was no easy getting. Apple’s only interest in the II at that point was as a revenue stream to continue propping up the slow-selling Macintosh line, it’s hypocritical “Apple II Forever!” battle cry notwithstanding. Mac finally got color in 1987 and, perhaps coincidentally, sales began to trend upward as Apple moved away from the “toaster” design, the hallmark of the first Steve Jobs era. And once Macintosh could stand on its own two legs, that was pretty much it for the Apple II.
So, happy birthday, IIGS. I didn’t know you back then but I hear you were…. interesting.