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August 29, 2013

Nobody Beats the WOZ


“They should kill the people who make these computers.”

And with that nugget of humor, Steve Wozniak took over ITEXPO.

And everybody loved it.

The Apple co-founder’s keynote of all keynotes took the enraptured audience through a tour of his life. He spoke eloquently, with passion and humor, about a young man who had ideas, talents and drive, discovering a proclivity for math and science and losing himself in a world of invention, innovation and hard work.

In this modern era of comic book movies and tech billionaires, the Geek is King. But during Wozniak’s childhood, this wasn’t the case. He discovered the world of electronics and problem-solving, even though most of his peers did not, and he lost himself in Tic-Tac-Toe and chess machines, pushing himself and the technology at his disposal.

He was challenged by technology, funding and, most of all, a drive to improve himself. As Mark Twain once said, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Wozniak built with transistors because he wanted to. If he had been obliged to do so, he would probably have moved onto something else. And he clearly had fun with his technological knowledge, sharing a story about how he fixed a TV to require a Fonzie-like bang in order to make it work, toying with people and forcing them to fiddle with the device to get reception (all in good fun, of course). This elicited a huge laugh from the audience.


Steve Wozniak

The talk turned toward a man known as Steve Jobs (complete with a reference to the new “Jobs” movie. Josh Gad would have been thrilled with the publicity). Wozniak shared his initial thoughts on the young man, smart and curious beyond his years – a good match for Wozniak himself, who pushed past his shyness to share his free telephony solutions, which Jobs saw as a chance to turn a profit.

Wozniak then spoke about his big break, working on projects for engineers, the group of people he admired most. As a fan of Star Trek, and a self-proclaimed geek who was too shy to get a date, the realm of numbers and machines and ideas was his place of refuge. And, in addition to designing calculators, Wozniak was excited about the burgeoning video game industry, as he and Jobs connected with Atari – at a time when video games were huge, hardware-based challenges of skill and patience.

He observed the world around him, and drew inspiration from what he saw. Color video games? Yes, please. The ARPANET? Something to keep an eye on, explore and emulate. He was on the ground floor of this Precambrian era of computing and networking. And he brought his enthusiasm to like-minded people.

His vision involved computers that were easy to use – with a keyboard interface. And, coupling Jobs’ people skills and Wozniak’s passion for engineering, things started to fall into place. He built his machine and shared the design with others. He was a builder and he wanted to share that, and the Apple I showed people the potential of the personal computer.

The two best friends, Wozniak and Jobs, who had collaborated before (Wozniak built things and Jobs sold them), decided to start a business. Wozniak first pitched the idea to HP – for the first of five times! Eventually, they pair decided to sell pre-made computers and, after running it by HP again, Wozniak and Jobs started putting their hardware together in the kitchen – doing on-the-fly maintenance for each machine.

Jobs worked the phones, taking lines of credit, making sales, doing PR, and growing the geeky business, swelling the bank account out of the garage. That garage was the façade of the company, even though the real work was done elsewhere, it provided a dog and pony show for the world.

Finally, it was time for an office – a big step for any business. The Apple II would have fewer parts, lower costs, color graphics and the chance for gaming. Jobs put the company’s vision of a true home computer in front of investors and the company got an influx of cash and advice on how to run a business.

The team put marketing and education at the forefront, helping teach people about hardware, software and more, helping create a market for companies that sold products dependent on the Apple II.

The introvert wanted to sit and think of ideas, designing the guts of the company and letting others take the spotlight, and Jobs had the spirit to do so, but not the executive chops. He could make decisions, and he wanted to be the head of the company. The non-techy did not succeed in his first go-round with the company, lacking patience, but his outsider status helped in his second tour of duty.

The Apple III was designed for business, but it had a few bugs and it developed a poor reputation. It was not as compatible with the Apple II as it could have been – it could toggle between II and III, but each mode had problems, making it a total failure.

The machines needed to be intuitive and easy to use for anyone without a great deal of handholding. And computers needed to be affordable, though this initiative did not fit well with technological restrictions. There were failures along the way, and Wozniak’s innovative disk design was a clunker.

The Macintosh was next, but Wozniak decided to go back to school (under a fake name, “Rocky Raccoon Clark,” obviously), and returned to Apple, though he came back to some changes in the company. Jobs was ghettoizing the Apple II group, and making decisions that were not perfect.

The Mac would be the future, Wozniak said, and it would be revolutionary, though the sales of the Mac dropped almost immediately. This hit Jobs hard, and he reexamined the pricing model. This put a tough choice in the hands of the board, deciding how to deal with the Apple II and the Mac. Ultimately, this drove Jobs out, and he started his own initiatives, including a great success with Pixar.

In his second tour of duty, Jobs had a different outlook, focusing on unity and patience. He brought the iPod to the world (and the iTunes model). It lacked the “computer geek stuff” and was so easy to use people did not have to think about it. Then came the iPhone and the multi-touch screen. The key was that Jobs waited until the product was ready and brought it out to the world, creating a device that was not just a phone, but a true Internet portal. And allowing apps for the device created an entire world of companies that could create for the iPhone and make their own money.

Wozniak then turned his eyes to the road we have followed, making technology invisible, allowing easier access to computers, the Internet and social networking. He highlighted devices that could interact with humans with a level of understanding that makes life easier for us.

He sees a future for voice and vision recognition, creating real human computing, and sees artificial intelligence down the road (perhaps he is a fan of Data, if he watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation”?). Tech will make our lives easier and be our friends.

And, for an enrapturing hour, everyone in the audience felt that Steve Wozniak was a friend as well.




Edited by Alisen Downey


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