The Apple IIgs was a 16-bit Apple II with a Mac-like user interface. Why did Apple make something like that? Let’s take a look at the Apple IIgs vs Macintosh to understand what the differences were, and what Apple was thinking when they did it.
The Apple IIgs used the WDC 65c816 CPU, which was a 16-bit extended version of the venerable MOS 6502 CPU that Apple used up until the Apple IIe. It ran at 2.8 MHz. It was a close relative of the CPU in the 16-bit Nintendo SNES. The 65c816 ran faster than the earlier chips and could address up to 8 megabytes of memory.
The Macintosh used the Motorola 68000 CPU or one of its variants. The 68000 was a very advanced CPU for its time, with 32-bit internal processing and a 16-bit data bus, kind of like an Intel 386SX. Later models, starting with the 68020, were fully 32-bit. The 68000 could address megabytes of memory, and its clock speeds started at 8 MHz. By the mid 1990s, Apple was using 68030 and 68040 CPUs running at 25 and 33 MHz. These chips held their own or even outperformed Intel 486 CPUs running at comparable speeds.
The Motorola 68000 series of CPUs was powerful but expensive. Early 68030-based Macs cost thousands of dollars. Businesses and higher education could and would pay that price, but Apple needed something that could sell for less if it didn’t want to abandon the home and educational markets behind.
When it came to the Apple IIgs vs Macintosh, the CPU was the biggest difference. The CPUs weren’t compatible, and the Mac’s CPU was twice as powerful at worst, and scaled up from there. Way up.
The Mac, of course, was the first commercially successful computer to use a mouse and a graphical user interface. Motorola’s 68000 CPU was powerful enough to run a GUI and provide an acceptable degree of responsiveness.
The Apple IIgs was fast enough that it could also handle a GUI. Apple supplied a very Mac-like GUI for the IIgs and, in fact, tried out different ideas on the IIgs before implementing them on the Mac. Ironically, the Mac-like IIgs ended up helping Apple move the Mac forward in the late 1980s.
This is where the Apple IIgs vs Macintosh gap narrows. If you could use one, you could use the other.
The Apple IIgs used the same Apple Desktop Bus connector for keyboards and mice as second-generation Macs did. The IIgs also used 3.5-inch disk drives, and specifically used the same drive as the Mac. This lowered development costs, and allowed people to take some hardware with them as they upgraded, even if they couldn’t take their software along.
The Apple IIgs gave Commodore fans computer envy, certainly. But, like many mid-80s computers, more people talked about the IIgs than bought it. The Apple IIgs sold around 1.5 million machines, which was less than the widely panned Commodore 128. I won’t go so far as to call it a flop, because selling 1.5 million of anything in the 80s was a lot harder than it is today. But it wasn’t a raging success either.
The Macintosh took its sweet time to catch on as well, but it had the advantage of newer, faster CPUs coming along every few years. This meant no single model of Mac had to carry Apple forever. Apple could just introduce a new machine, add it to the line,, and cut prices on it when the new model came out.
Apple IIgs vs Macintosh: Why did Apple promote the Mac harder?
Some people argue that Apple should have promoted the IIgs more heavily, then shifted to the Mac when the world was ready for it. The problem with that is everyone always thought next year was going to be the year for the 68000 revolution. Literally every year from 1985 onward was supposed to be the Mac’s year. The IIgs was an interesting transitional technology but promoting it too heavily would have hurt the Mac.
To some extent, that’s why Apple was content to pit the Apple IIgs vs Macintosh and let it live or die on its own without promoting it heavily.
Why not transition? After all, Apple changed CPU architectures several times, going from Motorola 68K to PowerPC to Intel x86.
The problem was that the Motorola 68K series of CPUs, as powerful as they were, couldn’t emulate the 65816 at full speed. When Apple did introduce an Apple II compatibility option for the Mac, it actually contained the Apple II hardware on a plug-in card.
In 1987, the IIgs was a better home computer than any Macintosh. But Apple wasn’t chasing the home market. They wanted the education and business market. The IIgs was fine for primary and secondary education, but higher education and business needed more power and was willing to pay for it.
Apple made a number of missteps in the 1990s and certainly balkanized the Mac product line too much. But when it came to transitioning the home and education markets from the older Apple II line to the Mac, I think Apple handled the IIgs well.