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DigiBarn Features: Interview with Wendell Sander (father of the Apple III)
by David Ottalini

Wendell Sander, father of the Apple III
Photo and article courtesy of and copyright by David Ottalini, All Rights Reserved

An Interview with Wendell Sander, Ph.D.
By David Ottalini
Originally published in The /// Magazine
November, 1986 Issue, pgs 8-11

Prologue (2002)

To most observers, The Engineering Department would appear to be just another one of those Silicon Valley computer businesses you read about in Business Week or Info World. It's physically located in Campbell, California, in a modern one-story office building that's light tan in color. And many of its employees even jog at lunchtime, just like employees at other Silicon Valley offices do.

I'm not sure if Dr. Wendell Sander, the President and Chairman of the Board jogs, but I know that his mind seems to be "running" at a fast pace on a number of interesting projects, some of which might just find their way into our beloved Apple ///!

Why the interest in a "dead machine"? Well, Wendell Sander just happens to be the "Father" of our ///, the man who actually designed it. And as you will see, during our conversation it was obvious he (and some of his colleagues) still have a place reserved in their hearts for our wonderful computer. In fact, there are still a few ///'s being used at the Engineering Department even now.
It's interesting to note that Wendell Sander was Apple's 16th employee. He was originally hired to work on the Apple // before being given responsibility for the /// project. I won't dwell on its history here but would suggest "Fire in the Valley" as an excellent source of information about the development of the /// and its problems at Apple.

As you might imagine, Dr. Sander has some definite ideas about what happened to the Apple /// during its brief lifetime. And he was most open in this interview about what was wrong, and right, with the Apple /// project, not to mention Steve Jobs' impact. He also discussed with me some of the things his new company is doing now.

Projects not only for Apple, but other companies as well. The most exciting is an IBM XT emulation card for the //. And as readers of The /// Magazine well know, with enough interest, the Little Blue Card could very well find its way into the /// sometime next year.

This interview was conducted with Dr. Sander in early September 1986 at The Engineering Department in Campbell, California.

///: Tell me about The Engineering Department.

The Engineering Department is really a collection of virtually all ex-Apple people. I should point out that we have three of the five original engineers who worked with Apple here. And our backgrounds range from the CPU design which I was responsible for for the Apple /// and many of the early revisions of the Apple //. I was responsible for or designed most of the early Apple // peripherals that were done.

And Dick Huston is here who did most of the early firmware projects for the peripherals and the early operating systems and then he was on the SOS team and finally wrote ProDos. So we have a lot of the old Apple engineering represented. (Author's note: The developer of Selector ///, Steve Smith is also working for The Engineering Department.)

Our objective is to do product design. The fact that we are doing a card (the Little Blue Card) for the Apple // is simply one project that we decided we wanted to fund ourselves. But in actuality, that is less than half of our activity and our other activities include contracts with Apple and other individuals and corporations.

///: What other areas is the company interested in?

We are interested in and do work in entertainment electronics.

One of our people, Dick Huston, before we started this, worked with a group that developed a video-disk based game that is highly interactive. So we have interests in entertainment areas and home electronics areas of all types.

///: How big is your staff?

Full and part-time about 15 people now. They're virtually all engineers except one person who is providing financial support and we do have one person who does marketing on a half-time basis.

///: How much interest has there been in Little Blue Card from the ///

Positive in general. We've gotten a lot of response from the Apple /// people. There have been postings on Bulletin Boards and things of this sort and we do get two-three letters per day from Apple /// owners who are interested in the Little Blue board for the ///.

That is a project that we have some personal interest in here, but havn't put as a high priority. We are interested in putting our Apple // and Apple //e version out first and then go on from there.

///: Is a /// version a possibility?

It's not a terribly difficult task, that's why it's kind of intriguing. It would be a matter of doing a relay out of the board. There's certainly adequate board space in an Apple /// and there would have to be some modifications to the software but they would be relatively small.

We have the people who know what those have to be. It's a fairly straight-forward task but it does take time and energy and at this point we can't make commitments as to how we will proceed. We have to concentrate on getting the // product out first.

///: One of the /// vendors (Sun Systems) has indicated an interest in working
with you on this.

It's a matter of priorities right now. Getting our work done, getting our first one out, because we do need to get the the // and //e versions out before anything else can be done.

///: Do you like working outside of Apple?

Yes. In my case, I was essentially retired for two or three years. I was doing some consulting. But putting in time for another company is less interesting than actually getting projects and seeing them through to completion. And this is easier to do in a smaller environment where we can take a specification and work within it and we only have to communicate with each other about it. It goes more rapidly and we see our way to the end more rapidly and that's a much more satisfying kind of work.

///: Have you found Apple easier to work with now that the management has

I don't think there's been a whole lot of difference. Remember we've seen Apple from the time where we were all sitting in one room to where it is now a very, very large corporation. At this point and for the last number of years, working with Apple is working with a large corporation that has its advantages and disadvantages. They are a large, solid company that when you send them a bill you know they are going to pay the bill; you don't have to worry about that. But on the other hand, the decision-making process in such a large organization is much more complex and goes through more bureaucracy than it does in a small organization, so it has its pluses and minuses. I don't think Apple is significantly different than other large companies in that respect to deal with.

We have an advantage because many of us here know many people inside or are known inside, so it's easier for us to make contacts.

And we probably have a bit more credibility because of our backgrounds than someone who is trying to come in cold. So I won't say that we don't have an advantage working with them that way.

///: They seem to be making a real effort to listen to users these days.

They go through phases. All companies go through phases and growing pains. In the early days, one of its fortes was that Apple could be responsive. And it could, because it was small. As it gets large, it gets more difficult to respond and it takes time to get the mechanisms in place where it can listen again, so it's easier to do when they aren't growing so fast, I'm sure. And the marketplace has changed so radically, it's remarkable to me that anybody can follow it. It's still an extremely fluid market. Things seem to go in waves.

There was the education wave, when the IBM PC came in there was the wave of the PCS. And now desktop publishing is the wave and everybody is into desktop publishing and the Macintosh seems to be the forerunner in that. So each person gets their turn on the wave, it looks like.

It's also been interesting to watch the difference in strategy to clones. Apple has always been very aggressive in that respect. IBM has not. They may not have been quite as able to for many reasons including they're a bigger company and have to be careful about how they get aggressive legally. But Apple has taken that as one of their forefronts, and it has probably helped them today as a company because they aren't faced with the same problem as IBM is where the bottom part of their market is being eroded away. You could argue whether that's good or not for the end customers, but IBM has tended in their large machine market to try and make an advantage for the end user because then they have portability and uniformity and all those wonderful advantages. It's really kind of interesting to watch this all go by.

///: Do you like the way Apple is going, bringing the // and Macintosh lines
closer together?

They are trying to make the software more equivalent and look more alike and I think that's definitely the right direction. The Macintosh-kind of software approach aimed at the user is what is making it. For all the comments and pluses and minuses and arguments about many of Steve Jobs' philosophies, "By George it had to be this way and look this way", I think the current success of the Macintosh, much of the success of that philosophy has to be credited to him.

He was right in many ways. So, I think bringing that concept and philosophies across to the Apple // are very important.

It's important to remember that computers are primarily program runners and what you want to do is have a machine that runs a large body of very useful programs. And exactly how you run them and what you run them with is less important than your ability to run them well. And this has many implications in terms of ability to create these standards and things of this sort. It's very difficult because you create a new machine that does not run any of the standard bases, it's very difficult to create a standard.

The Macintosh is truly remarkable because even in the face of the IBM being perceived as a sort of standard it was able to create itself a new software standard and that is quite a remarkable success story.

And that software philosophy being carried across to the entire Apple line absolutely makes sense.

///: As the Father of the Apple ///, what do you think Apple has learned from
its problems?

Well, I think the ///'s problems, there were probably several. It was probably introduced into the marketplace six to nine months too early largely because there was a great worry within Apple for a long time that the Apple //, that its demise was just around the corner. I think maybe they've learned the Apple //'s demise is not just around the corner! There was this concern that "Wow, if we don't get this thing out next month, Apple // sales are liable to go down and we're really dead, we're in big trouble."

So there was probably too much push to get it out. That caused it to have some early reliability problems it would not otherwise have had. They were primarily mechanical and as a result, to a large extent, of growth pains in the company. We were growing, becoming a large manufacturer and there were supportive quality activities, component selection and things like that had not grown up with the company when it should have. Therefore we were not in a position to do adequate component qualification and things of that sort, and it caught up with us. I think if we had had another six to nine months those problems would never have appeared in the marketplace.

Secondarily, when those problems were corrected, by essentially a wholesale replacement of the existing (motherboard), the fact that that was done was really never highly publicized. There were some really dramatic efforts for Apple to follow up on its commitments on those things and the problems were genuinely corrected totally in the marketplace and yet (the word) never got out there very well. So maybe they learned a little about the fact that you beat your own drums sometimes when you do things like that.

///: Were there too many restrictions placed on you, while you were designing
the ///?

I think we didn't know enough about what we were doing. In retrospect, it's clear we should have maintained total backward compatibility with the //, which we did not necessarily perceive as being essential. Because we were still coming out of the world where, well you design a new machine and you wrote new software for it and it was a new machine and nobody worried too much about the old stuff. That was an inaccurate perception. So we should have had complete Apple // emulation in it. And at the time the //e was introduced there should have been a /// with complete //e emulation introduced at the same time. I think if those had taken place, it would have been perceived as a more fully compatible product and big brother product and would have had more clout.

///: It's interesting that the Mac Plus came out with a hierarchical file system
(HFS) that the /// had from the very beginning...

Yes, the /// software was exceptional. It really set the standard. Even to some extent the MS-DOS was, if you look closely at it, many of the concepts that were developed in SOS were carried through in MS-DOS. So it really has to be rated as a very important event in software for micros because it was the first really solid operating system. I still think it is probably one of the most professional and best done. That is in the sense of being able to get modules in and out of it and adapt to it and add to it and expand on it, SOS is still probably better than any of the popular operating systems on micros. So, that's certainly true that it set a standard.

In fact, many parts of the /// lived on in the //e. I worked (on the //e project) and many of the concepts done on the /// were carried across to get the 80 column mode; many of those aspects showed up in the //e design.

///: Is the new Apple //gs what the /// should have ended up being?

I can't comment on that.

I think the fact that Apple is coming out with a new generation of //s is what is important to recognize. They perceive the line as having breadth and depth to carry on. I really believe the //e is going to have an amazingly long life in the educational world. The education world is not one that easily changes horses.

///: ProDos compatibility has really helped the /// a great deal, hasn't it?

That has helped the ///. Several of us here still use the /// quite a bit. Frankly, we mostly use AppleWorks and carry the file systems. And the /// EZ Pieces and the fact that that program is transmittable between the two has been a great advantage too because it provides a common media of dealing with text files.

Also, I think your Basic on the /// is, I like it the best of the Basics that I get to work with.

///: What about Steven Jobs and his attitude about the ///? Did he kill the
/// or was it simply the marketplace?

I think the marketplace had moved on. I wouldn't lay that on Steve Jobs. Steve, there's no question he was doing the Macintosh, that was his primary focus and as far as he was concerned it was the most important thing Apple was doing. And if he had to brush other things aside to make Macintosh go forward that was fair game to Steve.

But that's not necessarily a bad sign for the manager of a group trying to make a successful product. It is very hard to create a new software standard. The task the Macintosh had to accomplish was extremely difficult in the marketplace and so he was very much pushing that way and at the same time he had perhaps disproportionately more clout than a usual product manager might have because of his history and position in the company. So it may have had some influence. But at the time the /// was dropped, it was not selling that well and the marketplace had by and large moved on. I would not lay that on him as well.

///: Are you surprised that /// owners are as loyal as they are to that machine?

I actually find it very interesting. There is a tremendous loyalty there. I think there's a little bit of that in many orphan machines. The /// seems unusually strong that way. It's interesting and a valuable lesson for people when they see a machine going orphan because there's such a panic about it because there tends to be quite a long lifetime. I think that's very true also of the people doing support designs and support programs. There's actually a good marketplace that can be developed that I think people miss because they think "Well, that's a dead end" and very often it really is not.

If anything, if you are willing to take the trouble to specialize in some of those type of machines, you can make a very good living and you're not in such a "slug-it-out" competition where it's a more stable and more long-lived environment to live in. I really think people are making some mistakes in there. That looks like a good place to be.

///: So overall, you are optimistic about the future of Apple?

They look very strong. As I say, its gone in a cycle. It's really quite interesting, the IBM as a PC company has tended to have flattened and Apple is on a rise so to some extent things seem to have swung.

And a lot of it has to do with, much of Apple's future is tied in to the Macintosh world. You have to understand that companies like that have to work on their future products and that technology is probably their longer-term wave. I think that they have managed to establish leadership in desktop publishing is going to be an extremely important factor in their growth because what its going to do is move them into businesses, particularly small businesses.

And once they're in place it's very difficult to dislodge. So most small businesses are going to have a PC and a Mac both. That's the way it's going. And I think desktop publishing is going to be as pervasive as the optimists say because we use laserwriting and Macintoshes extensively for everything here. And for all practical purposes, any office that is using a typewriter is going to find that as soon as the first competitor is putting out letters on laserwriters that they are in an untenable position.

It's the same reason you didn't use a manual in the office. You always had an IBM Selectric because your letters had to look as good as your competitors. And the same thing is going to happen with laserwriters. They are going to become a necessity in every office and the result is going to be a massive demand for desktop publishing. So that leadership position is probably the most important thing in Apple's future.

The Apple III with Monitor III

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See Also:

Our large collection of Apple computers and other artifacts

DigiBarn page on the Apple III

Washington Apple Pi resources on the Apple III

DigiBarn interview with Daniel Kottke on the design of the Apple III

Old-Computers page on the Apple III

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