Sunday, November 20, 2011

iWoz Impressed

On this past Monday, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my heroes: Steve “the Woz” Wozniak, Co-founder of Apple.

Before cell phones that fit in the palm of your hand and laptops that fit snugly into briefcases, computers were like strange, alien vending machines. They had cryptic switches, punch cards and pages of encoded output. When I was fifteen years old, a young engineering wizard named Steve Wozniak had an idea: What if you combined computer circuitry with a typewriter keyboard and a video screen? The result was the first true personal computer, the Apple I, an affordable machine that anyone could understand and figure out how to use.

Wozniak's life—before and after Apple—is a mix of brilliant discovery and adventure, as an engineer, a concert promoter, a fifth-grade teacher, a philanthropist, and an irrepressible prankster. From the invention of the first personal computer to the rise of Apple as an industry giant, the Woz ignited the computer revolution.

Personally, I'm intrigued by the science-based creativity that led to early Apple products, and also the psychologically-savvy thinking that went into making computers (and now phones) user-friendly. 

The Woz’s live presentation is for a specialized audience. You need to be interested in the early history of personal computers. You need to get a kick out of the amusing but sometimes unflattering lore that defined Apple's history and culture. You need to want to know about Wozniak's remarkably innovative engineering as well as Apple's entrepreneurship. You have to dig the views and personality of a successful but reclusive countercultural person. 

It probably helps if you dream about making innovative contributions to the world somewhere, somehow, in your own personal way.

When he claims to have "invented" the personal computer, he's not being too grandiose. He created some really beautiful early computers. These contraptions were the first to have typewriter based keyboards; the first to be useable right out of the box; the first low-cost computers to have color, sound, hi-res graphics, and floppy disks. He developed software that changed industry standards. Wozniak was the origin of these ideas, surrounded by creative geniuses like Steve Jobs and others. The Woz was one of the great "out of the box" thinkers of the Silicon Valley "revolution."  

The circuit boards of the early Apple machines were works of art and genius. The components were arranged in ways that defied conventional wisdom. Today the technology is obsolete but the beauty endures. Wozniak was primarily responsible for all of this great stuff. 

Meeting him in person helps to understand Wozniak's personality and thinking style. He was the math-science-electrical guy who works privately in the back while he implements the vision of what a product can be. (Wozniak is part scientist, part artist).

When he speaks, Wozniak shares influences, anecdotes and pranks. This is not the guy who habitually seeks power or the limelight. He's the guy who normally would toil in obscurity, surrounded by friends who let him do his thing and appreciate his skillful vision (and nutty sense of humor). He was able to work among the corporate power brokers for a number of years, on his terms, but was not the sort of person who will immerse himself in corporate culture for long. 

Steve Wozniak is a brilliant guy with a big heart and a wicked sense of humor. I can imagine how his sense of generosity, justice and creative thinking might make it hard to endure the growing pains of a company like Apple. 

The Woz offered his advice to technology entrapreneures: Don't waver; see things in grayscale; work alone; follow your instincts. His thoughts are worth contemplation. Keep in mind that he is speaking about his way; there's no one right way. 

Steve gave me his "metal" business card (he designed it himself) and he said that would be willing to speak to the students at UCONN and Quinnipiac the next time he is in Connecticut. Both of my sons were impressed as these are their schools. When you call his private phone number – you get the Woz – and he actually returns his calls - himself. I think this is the most impressive thing of all.  

Maybe I should have titled this blog “My Friend the Billionaire”.


  1. Someday, when we all have phones built into our watches, Wozniak will have a watch that he can use to travel backwards through time.

  2. This is Steve, and I just did. Check your desk - I just left you a hologram 3D newspaper from 2027 on your iPad.