09 March 2007


I recently finished reading iWoz, the Steve Wozniak auto-biography. In case you don't know, Steve Wozniak is the other "Steve" of the two "Steves" who founded Apple Computer. Nowadays, Steve Jobs has almost all of the limelight with all the cool products to come out of Apple, so Steve Wozniak, or simply Woz, may not be a familiar name to some.

Being a Mac fan, I should have read all those books about Apple and the Mac, but somehow I never got around to it. From other non-book sources, I had a general idea of the founding of Apple Computer in the garage of Jobs' house. That the two Steves built a device to fool the phone companies to make free long distance phone calls. Plus that the Macintosh was an idea borrowed from Xerox's PARC lab. Reading the book filled in much of the gap in my Apple history.

The way Woz put it, all the computer design from the early days of Apple Computer was his. He was quite an engineer, someone who not only design things but made them himself. He actually designed a Breakout-type game all with hardware. Bill Gates' BASIC hasn't been around at the time so there was no way to write programs via software. Woz likes to mention every now and then what binary is and how important it is to computers, but I think it's just a waste of time, even for a techie like me. The two Steves are four years apart, such that when Woz was already done with college and designing the first personal computer, Jobs was a mere lad in high school. Woz did give credits to Jobs for being a smooth talker over the phone and succeeded at getting free computer chips from some salesman. He also mentioned that Jobs was good at building computers, but still it was Woz who revolutionized personal computing by introducing the first modern personal computer - a CPU, a keyboard, and a screen.

Someone once showed me some picture of a computer, the CPU being a wooden case. I thought it was just a joke, but in reality that was how the first Apple computer was. The upstart computer was literally working out a garage or a living room, so there was no manufacturing facility to mass produce plastic cases for the new device. Instead, Woz and company just went to some hardware store, bought a bunch of wooden sheets, saw them to size and somehow cobble them together. What a humble beginning!

One piece of misinformation I had about Apple related to VisiCalc, the spreadsheet program. I knew that VisiCalc was the first of its kind and helped sell many computers, but I mistakenly associated VisiCalc to the IBM PC. According to iWoz, it was on the Apple computer that VisiCalc took off.

Steve Jobs is a great businessman but I have no trust in businessmen. Those kinds of people are prone to exaggerate just to sell their products, or provide misleading info, or simply withhold info if such action is beneficial to them. Not surprisingly, in the early days when the two Steves collaborated, Jobs cheated Woz out of a few thousand dollars on a project. Jobs claimed that they were paid by Atari $800 so each of them got $400. Woz later learned that the total was actually a few thousand dollars. Woz valiantly dismissed Jobs' action as youthfulness' foolishness, he simply wrote, "We were just kids."

It must be great to be friends with Woz. When Apple Computer made it big time with the initial public offering (IPO), many Apple employees became millionaires. Woz ensured the wealth was shared by giving away his own shares or selling them cheap before the IPO. The way Woz spent money sometimes sounded crazy. He threw away $12 million of his own money, twice, to produce some concerts, but he said he didn't mind and that the important thing was that he had fun. Sheesh, he would give me just $1 million and I can have some fun with it, too.

Strangely, there was no mention of the Segway, that gyroscope-based electric scooter that was the talk of the town not too long ago. Maybe Woz only liked to talk about his own invention, not something that he helped finance. In the end, he wrote at length about a universal remote control that he invented, but compared to the Apple computer, the story about remote was very boring.

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