Anyone working in enterprise information technology knows about vendor conferences: Cisco Live, Dell-EMC World, NetApp Insight, and so on. Not being much of a conformist, this summer I attended the 29th annual KansasFest in celebration of the Apple II.
Yes, you read that right. About 100 people gathered at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, MO from July 18-23 to pay tribute to the 40th anniversary of Apple's venerable series of 8-bit computers that sold from 1977 to 1993.
The big question is, why?
Such events focus on both nostalgia and education. Imagine an antique car show, but with all the cars available for driving and owners spending their time taking classes in maintenance and repair techniques.
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"I think retro computer events like the Vintage Computer Festivals, and full-blown conferences like KansasFest, are a wonderful opportunity for folks who lived through the microcomputer revolution to gather together to celebrate that exciting time in history," said Michael Packard, who recently released a new Apple II game called Alien Downpour. Packard said he's not aware of any familial relationship to David Packard, of HP fame, where Steve Wozniak worked while designing the Apple 1.
"A lot of folks have an affection for the computers we grew up with—Apple II, Atari, TRS-80, Commodore 64, etc. We mis-spent our youth with those machines. Quite a few of us have returned to those machines older, wiser, and more appreciative of what they were. I think it's a blast to get together with other folks who shared similar experiences figuring the machines out and seeing what we could do with them," Packard continued. "Computers were fun then. It's fun to gather with other folks with similar experiences and similar interests re-exploring those machines today. There's a connection between us, and these gatherings are like family reunions."
Presentations at KansasFest covered a huge range of topics and are archived for public viewing. Antoine Vignau and Olivier Zardiniof of Brutal Deluxe Software gave the keynote, covering their careers in the Apple II software field in France. Their most famous programs (nobody said "apps" in the 1980s) included Cadius for disk imaging; You, DustHead! for cleaning disk drive heads; and Merlin32, an Apple II cross-assembler.
John Brooks presented his roadmap for improving Apple's ProDOS operating system. John Morris showed his progress with a product called AppleSauce to connect an Apple II disk drive to a modern PC using USB. Quinn Dunki shared her expertise in high-resolution sprite programming. Evan Wright demonstrated a text-adventure authoring tool that he wrote. Mark Pilgrim lectured about disk cracking ... "Don't copy that floppy" is a 1980s software industry slogan many readers can now laugh about. Beagle Bros. developer Randy Brandt of Appleworks fame attended for a fireside chat presentation. I gave a talk about using an Apple II to program 1980s LEGO robots, from a decade before Mindstorms existed, using assembly, BASIC, and LOGO.
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Not all visitors to KansasFest work in technology. Kate Szkotnicki is a home economics teacher in Virginia. "I love to go to conventions for things that I'm interested in, like anime and science fiction, so the idea of an Apple II convention fascinated me. In 2015, I watched the live streams of sessions, and that was what sealed the deal, I knew I had to get myself to Kansas City. The idea that I was not the only one who was still carrying a torch for the computers I grew up with made me feel... warm and fuzzy inside," she said.
Szkotnicki used her KansasFest session to teach attendees how to put an Apple logo on shirts, bags, and other materials. "Technique can also be used for other computer logos, but why would you want to?" she joked in the conference schedule.
"I have a poster in my classroom with the rainbow Apple logo on it, and have made classroom signs on the Apples. I have a lesson plan where I introduce students to Apple II educational software—I'm going to do a presentation on my Apples for my colleagues," Szkotnicki explained. "I'm very open about my love for my Apples, and everyone gets it. We all have our own niche nerdiness, so this is just mine."
There are similar gatherings in other states. Consider upcoming events such as the HP Handheld Conference in September (Nashville), Tandy Assembly in October (Chillicothe, Ohio), World of Commodore in December (Toronto), and the Vintage Computer Festival series (of which I'm deeply involved) next appearing in September (Chicago) and then February (Seattle).
Randall Kindig, producer of Tandy Assembly, understands the vintage computing community's needs and why they extend beyond just online correspondence.
"Events like Tandy Assembly are primarily to bring people together that have the same interest and let them spend a weekend to enjoy their hobbies. Many of us are too busy to spend as much time as we would like with our hobbies due to work, families, etc., and events like this give us the excuse to dedicate a day or a weekend with no distractions," he observed. "It also allows people to actually interact face-to-face with others that share our passion in the hobby. While Facebook, Twitter, forums, etc. are great ways to stay in touch with others in the hobby, there's no substitute for direct interaction with a real person and having a conversation about your favorite computer."
"I think these events can continue for as long as there's enough people who are interested in this hobby," said Indiana-based Kindig, who's known throughout the vintage computing hobby for his Floppy Days podcast. "We all know that eventually, the ravages of time will make it more and more rare for these old computers to function in their original state. However, there are lots of modern replicas and upgrades to old computers, as well as maintenance that can be performed to the machines to keep them running longer."
Looking to the future, Kindig said, "It always amazes me when I see someone in their 20s or 30s that's interested in these old machines, since they obviously could not have grown up with them like many of us did. As long as that infusion of new blood continues and there's an interest, these shows can go on for many more years."
- Apple II's classic chip is reborn: This time as a Twitter-controlled processor (TechRepublic)
- How these communist-era Apple II clones helped shape central Europe's IT sector (ZDNet)
- Apple's first 40 years: An oral history from inside the loop (CNET)
- Selling the Apple II: Three true stories (CNET)
- 'Last Jedi' trailer made on Apple llc will take you to 1984 (CNET)
- Job description: iOS developer (Tech Pro Research)
Evan became a technology reporter during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers" in 2015 and is executive director of Vintage Computer Federation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. His vices include running and Springsteen.