ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

A Piece of Apple II History Cracks Open —

The world of Apple II “cracking” has always held an interesting fascination for me – the thinking involved, the magic of tracing programs, and of course the “crack screens” that pirates would add to declare their victory. (Here’s a massive gallery of them that I collected.) I interviewed long-retired Apple II crackers for the BBS documentary, discussing everything from methods to the historical context in which they did this.

If this is your first time hearing “cracking” in this context, I’ll very quickly explain.

A program would come on a floppy disk, and the program, ostensibly, would fill that entire disk. It would also have “copy protection” threaded in the code – routines that would be resistant to copies being made, or even modify how the floppy drive would function to prevent copying. It was quite an art.

It was also an art to go through this code, examine how this programming worked, and modify the whole shebang enough to allow easy copying. In an ideal world, the program would also be modified from an entire floppy disk (I mean, 140k, come on, who has time for that) into a single small file.

Along the way, pride would ensue, with “crack screens” consisting of who cracked the program added to the front. The ballast of inconvenient parts would also be discarded, with title screens, program functionality, and even entire program assets thrown over the wall.

That’s cracking, as it was.

4am is an individual cracking as it is now, and it’s most interesting indeed.

What 4AM has been doing for the past year or so is re-cracking long-dormant Apple II programs with a new goal – to educate and to preserve. This has produced hundreds of new insights into Apple II history, some of which are seeing the light of day for the first time.

This weekend, I’ve now made the vast majority of 4am’s cracked programs playable at the Internet Archive. Some of these disks have never, as far as can be determined, been imaged or copied before in any meaningful way. (Primarily educational programs.) They are rare specimens. They were rare specimens.

In some cases, these programs were out there in the wild, but the “cracked” versions, missing images and pieces of code, were all there were. Now they’re basically complete.

And these are what are called “silent” cracks – they’re cracked so they are more simply copied, not modified with brags and added graphics. It’s as if you’re trying them out the day they hit your Apple II, 30 years ago.

I saved the best for last, for the kind of person who sees the real value in this.

Not content to crack the disks, and modifying the programs in a way that they live as they once lived, 4am meticulously and carefully walks through the entire process of cracking each program. The code, the tracing of boot flow, the missteps, and even the internal thought processes that lead to the solved mystery. They’re magical. And every 4AM item has one.

(Just click on the “Text” file of any item’s file list to read these breakdowns. Here’s one, and here’s another one.)

Some of the common complaint that comes in with the software collections I’ve been helping herd onto the Internet Archive is that the “cracked” version is what’s up – but in some cases, that’s all we’ve got left of the programs. Now, thanks to people like 4AM, we have something more.

Long may they crack.

Some of the items in the collection are not playable in the browser – this is a limitation from the Internet Archive’s Emularity system and not the floppy disk images – they boot fine, just not online yet.

All of the screenshots in this entry link to playable versions of those programs.


Categorised as: computer history | Internet Archive

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  1. Michael says:

    In cases where you have both a silent crack and a loud one (so to speak), will visitors have the choice of either version if they’re both compatible with Emularity?

    • Jason Scott says:

      The 4am collection is the 4am collection – no other programs have been removed or merged into it, so anything sitting elsewhere in the archive’s software collection and playable in the Emularity is out there.

  2. Ryan Russell says:

    Though I know you’re aware, you don’t say it explicitly here.. for a program that had copy protection, it’s going to often need to be cracked to run in the emulator, right? Same reasons it was supposed to be hard to copy the floppy, is going to make it hard to rip it and have it run properly with an emulated drive. I wonder how many you have that don’t run because they still need to be cracked.

    • Jason Scott says:

      The ones in the 4am collection all run fine in emulators. The browser emulator can’t swap disks, which is the hold up.

      Emulators handle copy protection better than you think.

    • buricco says:

      Only some really complex protection schemes can’t currently be handled by existing disk formats or emulators. I still have to deal with stuff like Spiradisc that I need precracked before I can do my ports, while some of my other ports were done directly from uncracked disk images.


  4. ChrisG says:

    Something on this entry crashes my Debian Wheezy machine hard (heh – so much for “stable”). Monitor just displays graphic noise and I have to reboot. Viewin on my Mint machine without any difficulty. Sort of like the past reaching out in revenge.

    • ChrisG says:

      Purely coincidence. Cause was a driver / graphics card issue with a Debian update. Lubuntu very happy.

  5. That’s great. I thing the same should be done official or not for “more recent” programs. Indeed, a few years after a program is released, serials/activation servers/.. are gone and so, installing/launching a lot of today’s programs’ will be a pain in the future. Serials/Keygens/Cracks websites should be backed up. Maybe they should not be offered to the public yet but they should be backed up for the future.