[Each Monday for the next few weeks, this blog will present written profiles and vignettes from KansasFest 2010, written from that year’s perspective. These excerpts compose a larger feature story written for a general audience looking to be introduced to the Apple II and KansasFest, while also offering community members and alumni a memorable retrospective of the event. Enjoy!]
On the surface, KansasFest looked like a typical computer convention, if smaller in scale. A few dozen software developers, hardware hackers, and enthusiasts from across North America arrived at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. Over the course of one week in July, this academic setting served as a camp in which they educated each other and themselves on the latest developments in their field by giving presentations, selling merchandise, and engaging in programming contests.
The illusion of normalcy began to break down upon an examination of the hardware being used. Where you’d expect an overclocked behemoth with the latest cutting-edge upgrades was just the opposite: an Apple II, a thirty-year-old artifact running at a single megahertz and with no more than four megabytes of memory — literally 0.1% of what today is considered the minimum to get any real work done. Attendees traded files not on slick USB thumb drives, but on 5.25-in. floppy disks that hold only 140 kilobytes. It would take both sides of 14,980 floppies to equal the capacity of a single DVD.
The Apple II, Apple’s first mass-produced personal computer, was sold from 1977 to 1993 and established the company as a powerhouse among consumers in business and education alike. The machine was eventually discontinued in favor of the incompatible Macintosh line, yet a small but vibrant "retrocomputing" community continues to support and enjoy the Apple II to this day, including at the 21st annual KansasFest.
Mark Simonsen did not expect to find himself in the middle of the Midwest in the middle of the summer, telling his life story to a room full of strangers. When he received the invitation to KansasFest, his first response was, "How did you find me?"
It’s not that he’d kept a low profile. In a twenty-year career as a serial entrepreneur, Simonsen has bought, built, and sold companies for Gibson Musical Instruments, Monster.com, and Sonic drive-in restaurants. His most recent acquisition, iPreserve, is a media restoration company that’s about to expand internationally.
Yet such high-profile offline dealings haven’t left much of an online trail: do a Google search on Simonsen’s name, and you won’t get many hits. But one of them is his LinkedIn résumé, where if you scroll back to his first job in 1982, you’ll find the role that has brought him to KansasFest: Owner, Beagle Bros Microsoftware, Inc. It was there that Simonsen produced some of the Apple II’s best-known programs.
"I wanted to spend every waking minute programming the Apple II," Simonsen told the audience during his keynote speech, kicking off the week-long conference. He’d been introduced to the machine while taking a business class at Brigham Young University. Accustomed to the unwieldy mainframe computers found in the computer science department, Simonsen found the Apple II immensely more enjoyable to use. He immediately bought his own but was disappointed to find that, without an expensive hardware accessory, its monitor could display only 40 columns of text. Simonsen’s frugality and creativity combined to create a program that managed to squeeze 70 characters onto the screen.
After selling that first program to software publisher Beagle Bros, Simonsen was invited by owner Bert Kersey to move from Arizona to California to create more utilities for the Apple II. Beagle Bros went on to make a name for itself with programming tools such as Program Writer, Beagle BASIC, and ProntoDOS, as well as productivity utilities that included Platinum Paint and TimeOut, which expanded the capabilities of Apple’s own AppleWorks office suite.
Kersey, impressed with Simonsen’s versatility, sold the company four years later to Simonsen, who continued publishing software until Apple ended production of the Apple II line in 1993. Shortly thereafter, the company’s alumni reclassified the entire Beagle Bros software catalog, making it free and legal to distribute.
Simonsen moved on — but the Apple II community did not. Almost twenty years later, Beagle Bros software is still in use, and its users wanted to meet the man behind the legend. Of the seven Mark Simonsens on LinkedIn, they found the one who matched their historical records, and an invitation was extended.
So Simonsen went down to his basement and blew the dust off some boxes. There he found an extensive archive indicative of his programming origin: the receipt for his first printer; the rejection letters for his first program; and the magazine where he first found an advertisement for Beagle Bros, prompting him to try again.
At KansasFest, Simonsen was surprised to find people still using the Apple II. Participants in the HackFest programming contest stayed up all night writing code to make the computer do things it was never intended to do. It was reminiscent of Simonsen’s own youth, prompting memories he hasn’t thought of in years.
"The happiest time of my career life was programming the Apple II," he recalled to the audience before concluding his speech. "This conference has inspired me. It really makes me want to do some more 6502 programming. I am going to turn all three [of my] Apple II’s back on."
iPreserve, still in its fledgling stages, can’t run unsupervised for long, so Simonsen left KansasFest on Thursday, missing the event’s final 72 hours. But the community hadn’t heard the last of him. The next day, Simonsen emailed everyone:
"I’m sitting here at work doing important things but wishing I was still at KFest! I’m having withdrawals … I was surprised by the range of ages and number of young people. It was a pleasure to meet you and everyone else at KFest!"