In every industry, on every scene, there is a know-it-all, a person who has the news before the news. You know who they are. Industries and environments require connectors – people who facilitate relationships between others. Social media gives the impression of putting us at each other’s fingertips, but 35 years ago this was done through magazines and phone calls. And at the center of the Apple II software universe was Margot Comstock, a woman almost unknown today, but who was so important at the beginning of the Apple II era that, according to Ruin creator John Romero, his nickname was “The Glue”. Margot Comstock passed away on Friday, October 7, 2022.
Comstock was not a developer, designer or programmer. She was a journalist. In 1980, she and her husband, Al Tommervik, took over the editorship of a small marketing publication called soft talk, owned by the publisher Softape, and renamed it the magazine for Apple II enthusiasts. As a diary, softtalk was a magazine that challenged the amateur computer journalism industry and defined the social terrain of the early Apple II software era—which contained one of the largest software libraries—expressing the pinnacle of what was possible. works with your own computer.
“softtalk is not a programming magazine,” she declared in the magazine’s opening editorial, a surprising announcement in 1980, when most computer magazines, such as Byte and Creative computing, were focused on programming. Comstock wrote it softtalk would privilege “journalistic style over technical data” while “piqu[ing] curiosity and intrigue[ing] the intellect of anyone who owns an Apple.”
Comstock promises it softtalk “it was not a programming magazine” was not cute
Comstock promises it softtalk it wasn’t “not a programming magazine,” it wasn’t nonsense: it was a salvo aimed at a new class of consumers struggling to turn the Apple II and TRS-80 into everyday technology. From Byte launched its first issue in September 1975 with an article on integrated circuit reuse, computer ownership has always been seen as a monotonous technical hobby. But during the late 1970s and early 1980s, consumers wanted easier entry points into computing, while hardware and software manufacturers wanted access to larger markets. This meant that computing had to go beyond hackers and hobbyists.
positioning softtalk for the rest of us, not home hobbyists, it was a reflection of Margot and Al’s non-technical knowledge. before the establishment softtalkthe couple worked as newspaper deliverymen in the publishing business – Al was a copy editor at Diversity, Margot, a freelance textbook editor who trained as a writer for aviation magazines. These are professional backgrounds that help explain softtalkopenly friendly tone; unlike some of the magazine’s founders, the two were accomplished writers.
They bought their first Apple II with the big profit from Margot’s successful performance in the game. Password More. There, she defeated the competition in the segment in cooperation with Loretta Swit (“Hot lips” Houlihan from MASH). Although the couple never progressed beyond BASIC programming, their Apple II quickly became the basis for new community and conversation networks. Margot and Al seemed to have set up softtalk for people like them: people who are more enthusiastic about the social and cultural elements of computing than the technical ones.
If you loved the Apple II culture, softtalk it was yours Border. The magazine got its initial boost when Comstock sent the first year’s subscription to the magazine free to all 32,000 members on Apple’s customer list and mailed it free to any Apple II owner who provided their serial number. This is a low bar, and in some cases not even an entry line is guaranteed softtalk has become the de facto forum for the third-party industry community for the Apple II. The magazine closed in 1984, brought down by Shakeout Software which destroyed much of the industry. However, for a few years Margot was the central operator of the national network.
Talkative, charming, and full of barely contained enthusiasm, Comstock and his magazine proved to be an important place for those early companies, connecting new software publishers with their first major distributors, securing advertising deals, sharing news, and giving company founders a sense of influence and importance. The magazine’s “Tradetalk” section posted news of the latest hires and layoffs with a sense of self-amusement (a proto-Twitter if there ever was one). softtalk published dozens of letters to the editor in each issue, far more than any other enthusiast magazine, nurturing a typically mechanical section of editorial content on a growing magazine-like community bulletin board. And magazine bestseller lists, based on sales reports from actual dealers (rather than what publishers claimed to have submitted), allowed the industry to be recognized as an industry.
“With her earnings from the show, Margot Comstock could have taken a vacation or added a new deck. Instead, she chose one of the toughest jobs in an industry where no one understood the potential.”
All this has made Margot and Al some of the most trusted judges in the industry. They were so famous that Richard Garriott included them as minor characters in the town of Tommersville The last II. Doug Carlston, co-founder of Broderbund, a software company that published PrintMaster and Mavis Lighthouse and games like Persian prince and Carmen Sandiegosaid that through softtalk, the duo “brought our small industry together, gave us a boost and a place to share news and ideas.” Carlston remembers the duo’s “brilliantness and humanity”.
Margot’s excitement for the world of Apple remained in her past softtalkthat’s the highlight. In 1987, she participated in a Smithsonian group interview along with other Apple II icons, including Carlston, Sierra On-Line co-founders Ken and Roberta Williams, and Sirius Software’s Jerry Jewell.
With each question asked, she bounces lightly on the couch, full of comments; he does the entire interview barefoot, bending his feet and speaking with animated gestures. In a 2015 interview with documentary filmmaker Jason Scott, almost 30 years later, the spirit of the same woman is clearly present – her sharp eyes, her delighted smile, her hands moving as she talks about a past life. Scott remembers her as “a wonderful presence and full of pride in the work she did, and happy people remembered her; Anyone who thinks the computer is more than a device should be grateful for his influence.”
“With her earnings from the show, Margot Comstock could have taken a vacation or added a new deck,” Scott said. “Instead, she chose one of the toughest jobs in an industry where no one understood the potential. She spent four years recording software and computers from a perspective that was sorely needed and still sounds great decades later.”
I also met her only once, in 2013, on my first research trip to Silicon Valley, when I was working on a project about Sierra On-Line. We met at an Applebee’s in Santa Rosa. She scolded me for drinking Diet Coke (chemicals) and scolded me for wanting to record the interview instead of being prepared to take handwritten notes. She found my age of 31 incredible, as well as the idea that someone who had never used an Apple II would care about her work. The conversation was not much. She was one of the first people I had formally interviewed as a historian, and I was too inexperienced in my interviewing skills to know how to ask the right questions or how to put a woman of her wisdom and experience at ease. . But she was patient and kind, and enthusiastically gossiped about those days. I always intended to do another interview one day, but that day never came, and now I can’t. She was such a generous and titanic force in the Apple II industry that I dedicated my next book to it The Apple II Era: How the Computer Got Personalfor her – a dedication that must now become “in memory”.
The Life and Legacy of Margot Comstock is an opportunity to celebrate the immense contribution she left on the pages of computer history softtalk and reassess our assumptions about what stories matter in the history of computing. Although popular accounts often stumble over recounting the incredible feats of young men who became heroes of their industry—like Carlston, Williams, and Garriot—few remembered how much work went into creating an industry. Between the folds of history goes the quiet work of building forums, nurturing relationships, bridging social gaps, and technical and written translation that makes complicated and opaque technology accessible and exciting to newcomers. The Apple II era was your world, Margot Comstock—and we benefited from it.