In every industry, in every scene, there’s that person who knows everybody, the person who has the news before there’s news. You know who they are. Industries and scenes require connectors — people who facilitate relationships between others. Social media gives the impression of putting us all within reach of one another, but 35 years ago, it was managed through magazines and telephone calls. And at the center of the Apple II software universe was Margot Comstock, a woman practically unheard of today but who was so important in the early Apple II era that according to Doom creator John Romero, her nickname was “The Glue.” Margot Comstock passed away on Friday, October 7th, 2022.
Comstock was not a developer, designer, or programmer. She was a journalist. In 1980, she and her husband, Al Tommervik, took over the editorial management of a small marketing publication called Softalk, owned by the publisher Softape, and rebranded it as an Apple II enthusiast magazine. As a periodical, Softalk was a magazine that both challenged the computer hobbyist journalism industry and defined the social terrain of the early Apple II software era — which contained one of the largest libraries of software — expressing the cutting edge of what it was possible to do with a computer of one’s own.
“Softalk is not a programming magazine,” she declared in the magazine’s inaugural editorial, an astounding edict in 1980, when most computer magazines, like Byte and Creative Computing, were focused on programming. Comstock wrote that Softalk would privilege “journalistic style rather than technical data” while “piqu[ing] the curiosity and intrigue[ing] the intellect of everyone who owns an Apple.”
Comstock’s promise that Softalk was “not a programming magazine” wasn’t fluff
Comstock’s promise that Softalk was “not a programming magazine” wasn’t fluff: it was a salvo directed at a new class of consumers struggling to make the Apple IIs and TRS-80s a technology of everyday life. Since Byte launched its first issue in September 1975 with an article on reusing integrated circuits, owning a computer had always been understood as a uniformly technical hobby. But throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, consumers wanted easier entry points to computing, while hardware and software makers wanted access to larger markets. That meant computing had to move beyond hackers and hobbyists.
Positioning Softalk toward the rest of us rather than a homebrew hobbyist was a reflection of Margot and Al’s own non-technical backgrounds. Before founding Softalk, the couple had journeyman jobs in the publishing business — Al was a copy editor at Variety, Margot a freelance textbook editor who’d cut her teeth writing for in-flight magazines. These are occupational pasts that help explain Softalk’s overtly affable tone; unlike some magazine founders, these two were consummate writers.
They bought their first Apple II with a windfall from Margot’s successful performance on the game show Password Plus. There she crushed the competition in a segment partnered with Loretta Swit (“Hot Lips” Houlihan from M*A*S*H). Though the couple never advanced much beyond programming in BASIC, their Apple II swiftly became the basis for new networks of community and conversation. Margot and Al seemed to have founded Softalk for people like themselves: people more excited by the social and cultural elements of computing than the technical.
If you loved the culture surrounding the Apple II, Softalk was your Verge. The magazine got its initial boost when Comstock sent first-year subscriptions of the magazine for free to all 32,000 members of Apple’s customer list and mailed it for free to any Apple II owner who submitted their serial number. This low bar and, in some cases, no bar to entry ensured Softalk became the de facto community forum of the third-party Apple II industry. The magazine folded in 1984, taken down by the Software Shakeout that cratered much of the industry. Yet, for a brief span of years, Margot was the central operator for a nationwide network.
Chatty, charming, and bursting with barely contained enthusiasm, Comstock and her magazine proved an important locus for these early companies, putting new software publishers in contact with their first major distributors, working out advertising deals, sharing news, and giving company founders a sense of impact and importance. The magazine’s “Tradetalk” section posted the news on the latest hirings and firings with an insider sense of self-amusement (a proto-Twitter if ever there was one). Softalk published dozens of letters to the editor each issue, far more than any other enthusiast magazine, nurturing a typically rote section of editorial content into a flourishing community bulletin board in magazine form. And the magazine’s bestsellers lists, based on sales reporting from actual retailers (rather than what publishers claimed they shipped), allowed the industry to recognize itself as an industry.
“With her game show winnings, Margot Comstock could’ve taken a vacation or added a new deck. Instead, she chose one of the toughest jobs in an industry nobody quite understood the potential of.”
All this made Margot and Al some of the industry’s most trusted arbiters. They were so well known Richard Garriott included them as little characters in the town of Tommersville in Ultima II. Doug Carlston, co-founder of Broderbund, the software company that published PrintMaster and Mavis Beacon and games like Prince of Persia and Carmen Sandiego, said that through Softalk, the pair “pulled our little industry together, gave us all encouragement and a place to share news and ideas.” Carlston remembers the pair’s “brilliance and humanity.”
Margot’s excitement for the Apple world stayed with her past Softalk’s heyday. Back in 1987, she participated in a Smithsonian group interview alongside other Apple II icons, including Carlston, Sierra On-Line co-founders Ken and Roberta Williams, and Sirius Software’s Jerry Jewell.
With every question pitched her way, she bounces lightly on the sofa, brimming with commentary; she takes the entire interview barefoot, folds her feet beneath her, and talks with animated gestures. In a 2015 interview with documentarian Jason Scott, nearly 30 years later, the spirit of the same woman is clearly present — her eyes crisp, her smile delighted, her hands in motion as she speaks of a bygone 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 of a computer is more than an appliance has her influence to thank.”
“With her game show winnings, Margot Comstock could’ve taken a vacation or added a new deck,” Scott said. “Instead, she chose one of the toughest jobs in an industry nobody quite understood the potential of. She spent four years chronicling software and computers from a perspective that was sorely needed and still rings with quality decades later.”
I met her only once as well, 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 admonished me for drinking Diet Coke (the chemicals) and chided me for wanting to record the interview rather than being ready to take handwritten notes. She found my young age of 31 remarkable, as well as the idea that someone who had never themselves used an Apple II, would care about her work. The conversation wasn’t much. She was one of the first people I had ever formally spoken with as a historian, and I was far too green in my own interviewing skills to know the right questions to ask her or how to make a woman of her wisdom and experience feel at ease. But she was patient and kind, and she gossiped with enthusiasm about those days. I’d always intended to make another go of an interview one day, but one day never came, and now I can’t. She was a person of such generous and titanic force in the Apple II industry that I had dedicated my forthcoming book, The Apple II Age: How the Computer Became Personal, to her — a dedication which must now become “in memory of.”
Margot Comstock’s life and legacy are an opportunity to both celebrate the tremendous contribution to computer history she left behind in the pages of Softalk and to reassess our assumptions about whose stories matter in the history of computing. While popular accounts often trip over their heels to tell the exuberant exploits of the young men turned heroes of their industry — like Carlston, Williams, and Garriot — few have thought to think about all the other work it takes to make an industry. Between the folds of history is the quiet labor of building forums, cultivating relationships, bridging social gaps, and doing the writerly and technical translating that makes complicated, opaque technology accessible and exciting to newcomers. The Apple II era was your world, Margot Comstock — and we just benefited from it.