Programmers Are Racing to Save Apple II Software Before It Goes Extinct

We're living in a golden age of Apple II preservation.

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Mar 24 2017, 12:00pm

As technology evolves and each new gadget usurps the last, devices exist in a protracted twilight when their software and hardware can be preserved before they're lost forever. The Apple II, the computer released in 1977 that made the Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) famous multi-millionaires, is in its twilight.

Now, a group of crackers are working together to save every Apple II program possible—there's tens of thousands floating around—before the proper hardware no longer exists or the floppy disks lose their magnetic charge and their data. They have the machinery, and they've coded their own software; for the first time, cracking the anti-piracy protections on Apple II software and copying it exactly is downright easy.

According to archivist Jason Scott, who works for the Internet Archive, we're unlikely to see such a confluence of circumstances again. So, he's heading up a call-out for anyone and everyone to physically send him their old Apple II floppies so they can be preserved and uploaded to the Archive for all to enjoy with the site's emulator. (If you have any or know of a stash, email apple@textfiles.com.)

This is necessary now, Scott said when I spoke to him, because many of the Apple II programs that have already been preserved aren't the originals. Apple II programs had some intense anti-piracy measures—basically tripwires made of code—and so old-school crackers would snip out code to make the programs work. Now, we have the ability to make exact, byte-by-byte copies of original software.

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"The big titles are available in some form, even if they're not pristine and original," Scott said. "But it seems a shame to not leverage this opportunity to get better versions, and to get a clearer view, and do a bit more work."

The leaked and cracked version of some Apple II games, like Ballblazer, were as popular as the official releases, Scott said, meaning most folks might have never experienced the "real" version of the game. There's also reams of educational software, locked down with insanely overwrought anti-piracy protections, that have never been given any love.

"The holy grail is someone whose dad ran a software store, and then just shoved everything in a barn once it closed," Scott said. "I'd love to get my hands on that."

The key to the project is software written by pseudonymous Apple II cracker "4AM" called Passport. Passport is an easy way to copy unprotected Apple II programs, and some that are. But when Scott comes across a disk that's particularly difficult, he hands it over to 4AM. 4AM has written his own program in assembly language—code that interfaces directly with a device's hardware—to "silent crack" programs. This means that every byte is preserved, without any modifications from the cracker.

The end result is a .zip file that can be loaded into an emulator on any PC. Over the last few decades, emulating the Apple II has matured to the point of replicating the original machine's quirky CPU cycles. Some emulators even attempt to replicate the fuzzy warmth of an old CRT monitor with a modern and crystal-clear LED screen.

Scott and the anonymous crackers he's working this are just starting out—he's been sent dozens of boxes already—and the road will likely be long and incredibly tedious. They also have no official support from Apple itself. But the work is incredibly rewarding already, he said, and will benefit a future generations of nerds brave or stubborn enough to pick up the baton.

"We're not the end-piece," Scott said. "We'll do all this work, and then we'll die, and then some 22-year-old Italian kid is going to put it all together and make a perfect archive."

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