Apple II clones

Last Updated on April 7, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

In the 1980s, IBM wasn’t the only company with a clone problem. Apple II clones were less common, but a surprising number existed.

Some people know it was Apple’s lawsuit against clone maker Franklin Computer that established that software could be copyrighted.  But that wasn’t the end of Apple II cloning in the United States and it certainly wasn’t the end of Apple II cloning abroad.

According to a now-defunct web site, there were a staggering 168 different known Apple II clones.

Why cloning was possible

In the 1970s and 1980s, Apple used off-the-shelf components in its Apple II line. That meant anyone could buy the same chips, just like the situation with IBM cloning. Some cloners made improvements. Others lifted the circuit board design completely. Some even copied the casing, down to the trademarks.

The difference with Apple was that Apple did provide much of the software. Cloners could go to Microsoft and get the Basic interpreter, but Apple made the rest of the operating system. Apple wasn’t interested in selling it to anyone else. So cloning it legally was difficult. Many cloners didn’t care.

But since Apple did use off the shelf parts, cloning the Apple II was easier than cloning the Commodore 64. And the way Apple priced machines left room for cloners to undercut their prices and still turn a profit.

Cloning in the United States

Apple II clones
This VTech Laser 128 was the only completely legal Apple II clone. VTech took steps to avoid legal action. Cloners outside of the United States usually didn’t need to bother.

Franklin Computer took a calculated risk and just copied the software. That ended up not working. Apple didn’t completely sue Franklin out of business, but came close.

Not long after Franklin left the market, the VTech Laser 128 appeared. It seems to be the only completely legal Apple II clone ever made. VTech did a clean-room implementation of the ROM, and got Microsoft to sell them the same Basic interpreter they sold Apple. It sold at Sears and appealed to people who wanted Apple compatibility at a Commodore price.

Another interesting Apple II clone was the Mimic Systems Spartan, which plugged into a C-64 to turn it into a C-64/Apple II+ hybrid.

Apple II clones abroad

I also know there were some clones made in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, but I know little about them other than they existed and that an ilicit hacker culture developed around them. The Pravetz 82 was one example. I vaguely remember reading about it decades ago, but no longer have the book or article that talked about Soviet hackers. There was little that Apple could do to stop the Soviets and their allies from cloning their machines.

A similar situation existed in South America. Apple may or may not have been able to sue. But winning in a courtroom in a U.S.-hostile country was even less likely.

The clone that wasn’t a clone: Bell and Howell

Bell and Howell marketed a computer for a time that at first glance looks like an Apple II clone. But Bell and Howell had an agreement with Apple to sell real Apple IIs under the Bell and Howell brand. This allowed schools to purchase Apple IIs more quickly since virtually every educational institution had an existing agreement with Bell and Howell. It was an easy way for Apple to streamline the purchasing process in its early days. This machine is painted black rather than beige and co-branded. The so-called Darth Vader Apple II is popular with collectors today.

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