The Computer History Museum has scored a major win: the rights to republish the original source code, and related documentation, for the Apple DOS operating system bundled with the Apple II microcomputer.

Launched in 1977 as the company's first true mass-market product, the Apple II was a smash hit. Although it generated considerable interest at launch, its price put it up against systems which supported external floppy disk drives - something the cassette-only Apple II couldn't match. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak designed a cheap drive controller for demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1978, but the company still needed software to drive it.

Apple's solution was to contract out for a disk operating system, hiring Shepardson Microsystems programmer Paul Laughton to write the software required in just seven weeks for $13,000. A tall order, it was nevertheless a task Laughton achieved allowing Apple to launch the add-on disk drive and Apple II DOS 3.1 upgrade in June 1978 - turning the Apple II from a toy into a real alternative to mainstream micros.

As with the company's more recent products, the source code for the operating system has been closely guarded - despite the fact that it has been a few decades since Apple DOS was shipped with any of its products. Now, however, the Computer History Museum has signed a landmark agreement with Apple to publish the full and unexpurgated source code for the first time - along with technical documents, drive design specs, original contracts for the development of the software and even meeting minutes discussing last-minute bugs and potential future enhancements.

The collection, provided by Paul Laughton to the museum in collaboration with DigiBarn Computer Museum founder Dr. Bruce Damer, is a fascinating insight into Apple's early days - and a potential goldmine for vintage computing enthusiasts looking to enhance the Apple DOS software themselves. The code, however, isn't being made open source: Apple is retaining full copyright, with reproduction - much less the creation of updated or enhanced derivatives for distribution - being prohibited without written permission.

The full documentation, source code and a history of Paul Laughton and his work on the project can be found over on the Computer History Museum website.

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