I Bought an Apple II, Dropped Out of School and Never Looked Back
It was the summer of 1981. I was supposed to go back to college in the fall, but instead I went rogue and spent my saved-up tuition money on an Apple II computer with 4KB of memory.
Looking back, I honestly don’t remember what made me think that was actually a good idea at the time, but I do recall the original setup cost me around $2,500, and that didn’t even include a disk drive.
I used a cassette tape recorder for storage and an old black-and-white TV with an RF modulator for my monitor — that was the recommended configuration for starving students like me.
I think we had every flavor of Lego ever sold.
As a kid, I was always building things. Together with my three brothers, I think we had every flavor of Lego ever sold. Eventually I moved on to Erector Sets and then, Radio Shack kits. I loved Radio Shack. They had a battery of the month club and at one point they were sending me seven free battery coupons every month because they could never spell my name right.
I was captivated by my new Apple computer.
I was captivated by my new Apple computer. I taught myself BASIC and passionately studied the hardware manual that beautifully described every circuit.
More RAM, Please
My toy programs were getting bigger and bigger and I was soon running out of memory. I upgraded to 16KB, and then to 48. Saving my programs to cassette tape was driving me nuts, so I bought a floppy disk drive. And the characters on my cheap TV monitor were way too fuzzy, so I sprang for a real CRT monitor.
I was addicted. All of my money was going straight to the two Steves — Jobs and Wozniak. Every paycheck got me one step closer to the perfect system.
Steve, You’re Killing Me
My tipping point came the day I decided to add a printer. I saved up $1,000 and headed down to the local Apple store in Santa Barbara to buy a Paper Tiger dot matrix printer along with the add-on board to connect it to the computer.
Damn. They wanted $185 for that stupid little board; nearly one quarter of the price of the printer itself. And believe me, I had spent enough time at Radio Shack to know there wasn’t much more than a few dollars worth of parts on it.
It was right then I decided I’d design and sell a competing card.
This was war! It was right then I decided I’d design and sell a competing card. Surely lots of people felt the way I did when I saw the price of this tiny little card. And since Woz had so meticulously documented everything right down to the source code for the BIOS (basic input output software) in 6502 assembly language, I had all the information I needed to design a fully-compatible board. Game on.
A few months later I had a prototype up and running in my bedroom. It was a simple design; just eight chips, four capacitors and one connector — just like the board in the photo above.
I didn’t have access to a component layout system, so I turned my glass-top coffee table into a makeshift light table and painstakingly laid out the circuits by hand over the course of several days.
I also needed driver software which would live on the 2716 EPROM (2KB of erasable programmable read only memory) chip. I borrowed a tool from work to burn the code into the EPROM, and every time I had a bug or wanted to make a change I had to erase it and start all over by shining a UV light through the chip’s window.
I was pretty much up to speed on 6502 assembly language by that time so this didn’t pose much of a problem; but never the less, tedious.
Strangely, my biggest fear wasn’t whether or not I could make a board that worked; but rather, whether I could do so without blowing up my only computer in the process. After all, mistakes happen, and that would have been truly sad. Fortunately, that never happened.
My Bedroom Production Line
I was friendly with the sales reps who sold components to us where I worked full time at ComDesign, so it was easy for me to buy in bulk. I initially bought parts and packaging for 100 boards and assembled them by hand in my apartment on weekends.
Suddenly I had a real company! I was officially a first-time founder — not counting my morning paper route as a kid. I named the company Mitec, registered my trademark, and began selling boards out of the trunk of my car to local computer stores throughout Southern California.
My price: $69
I was now in direct competition with Steve Jobs and his $185 printer cards, and sales were starting to take off. Of course, I doubt either of the Steves even knew I existed, and I’m quite sure my weekend sales gig never made a dent in their bank accounts. But I was having fun and that was all that mattered.
I eventually worked my way down to Tarzana, California; about an hour or so south of where I was living in Santa Barbara. I had noticed a store in that area named Micro Business World which was taking out full page ads in Byte Magazine listing hundreds of computer gadgets and peripherals in type so small it was hard to read. Surely, they needed my boards. It was there I ran into a guy named Marvin.
He was selling Apples by the truckload, and I literally mean real trucks —
Marvin was the owner of Micro Business World. It was pure luck he happened to be in the store that weekend. He was twice my age, drove a bright red Ferrari and never without a cigarette. As we started talking I soon found out he was selling Apples by the truckload, and I literally mean real trucks — and lots of printers to go with them. Score!
Marvin quickly became my best customer. I would drive to Tarzana as often as I could and it wasn’t long before I was telling him about some of my other big ideas. And then one caught his attention — hard drives.
I had mentioned that there was this new company named DMA Systems that had opened up shop down the street from where I was still working full time. They had this insane raw storage device that had 5MB of fixed internal storage combined with a 5MB removable cartridge.
Wouldn’t it be cool to attach those monster-size drives to an Apple or IBM PC?
In my youthful naive mind, all we’d need to do was build a case with a power supply, design SCSI interface boards to connect to the computers, and hack the MS DOS and Apple DOS operating systems to understand storage beyond floppy disks.
Yeah, not exactly simple, but somehow I had the clear vision in my head.
10MB may not seem like much now, but back in 1981 it was the equivalent of 60 floppy diskettes. But more importantly, the introduction of hard drives would totally change everything relating to what you could do with personal computers in that era.
The IBM PC had only just recently been released and nobody was crazy enough yet to hang a $4,000 drive on a $2,500 personal computer.
Well, we decided to be that kind of crazy. I quit my job, Marvin bankrolled the project and we launched Genie Computer; my second company. We rolled my printer card into Genie so we even had a little bit of revenue while I worked on our drive products.
At the peak of things we were taking out double-page spreads in Byte Magazine.
We sold our 5+5 drives for $3,995, and at the peak of things we were taking out double-page spreads in Byte Magazine and had very little competition.
Our customers included banks, Wall Street firms and insurance companies; all looking to go mainstream with personal computers throughout their organizations but were severely limited by the size of their data. Price was not a barrier for this crowd. We couldn’t make these things fast enough — until IBM eventually introduced the XT with a 10MB internal drive.
I’ve since gone on to start a number of other companies in my long and crazy career, and I have Steve Jobs to thank, along with his insanely-expensive printer cards, for motivating me to become a founder — one of the best decisions I ever made.
And yes, my Mom has long-since forgiven me for squandering my tuition money on an Apple II and dropping out of school.