RETROCOMPUTING An Apple II in a Wristwatch By Tom Owad
Emulating a classic Apple
computer in the Palm OS.
I’ve occasionally heard
claims, usually as a tribute to our
technological advancement, that a
modern digital wristwatch has more
power than some old mainframe or the
space shuttle, or some other system
involving early computer technology.
The Apollo Lunar Module seems to be
the most popular comparison. While
it’s difficult to compare a watch to a
navigation system, I think you’d be hard
pressed to find a wristwatch with 4KB
of RAM and a real-time multitasking
On the other hand, it’s easy to understand the
awe of wearing a computer on your wrist that’s
more powerful than that used to land on the Moon.
One wristwatch that can reasonably make such a
claim is the Fossil Abacus Wrist PDA. With a 66MHz
Motorola DragonBall based on the 68000 core and
8MB RAM, it’s not dissimilar to a personal computer
from the early 90s.
The operating system is Palm OS 4. 1, which
is very well suited for a PDA. What I’m looking
for, however, is not a PDA but a general-purpose
computer — the technology of yesteryear shrunken
to miniature using modern technology.
What I really wanted was a Macintosh on my wrist,
but the technology isn’t quite there yet (at least
not for the $50 an Abacus Wrist PDA costs). I did,
however, find an emulator for the Apple II that runs
on Palm OS. Appalm ][ ( palmapple.sourceforge.net)
is intended for full-sized Palms, but the Wrist PDA
does claim it can run most Palm applications, so I
decided to give it a try.
Photograph by Tom Owad
I copied the files to the watch and launched
Appalm. The screen immediately went black and
a line of miniature white text appeared at the top:
“Apple //e”. I clicked on the Palm menu and loaded
the test disk image. The disk successfully booted to
the menu screen, full of text. The Apple IIe typically
had a 12" to 14" monitor. The Wrist PDA has an LCD
that’s barely 1" in diameter. The tiny white text on
the black background was almost impossible to
read. Angling the screen so I could make out the text,
Zoom in on Zork: When you install the Appalm ][ emulator on
a Palm wristwatch, you might need a microscope to read it.
I successfully loaded a benchmarking program
and ran the Memory Read test. It came in at 168
seconds on the wristwatch, compared to 112 on
the real Apple IIe.
Satisfied that this would not be an appealing platform for arcade games, I decided to try something
simpler: Zork! Within minutes, I was “standing in
an open field west of a white house, with a boarded
front door.” At least that’s what I think it said. By
this time I was getting a headache from squinting
at the small text, so I removed the wristband with a
spring bar remover and placed it under a microscope
at 20x magnification.
At this magnification, each pixel was clearly visible,
but I had to shift the watch to read the entire screen.
My eyes no longer hurt, though, so I decided to
stick with the microscope for my game of Zork.
Between the microscope and the pen-based data
entry (you write over the top of the Apple II screen
using Jot or Graffiti to enter text), the game is
tedious but nonetheless fully playable and serves
as a curious testament to the advancement of
technology. Launch the classic 1970s game Lunar
Lander and you can use the 66 MHz DragonBall on
your wrist to pretend it’s 1969 and you’re piloting
the Apollo Lunar Module.
Tom Owad ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Macintosh consultant in York, Pa., and the editor of applefritter.com. He is the
author of Apple I Replica Creation (Syngress, 2005).