THE OZ OF WOZ by Michael S. Malone
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try – especially after you’ve had one of the most famous first acts of your generation.
You may have read the news this week that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, has signed on to compete in this season’s Dancing With the Stars. The very idea that the man once called “The King of the Nerds’ would be out tripping the light fantastic in competition with professional athletes, B-list movie stars and entertainers, no doubt drew a derisive chuckle. Or perhaps just a sad shake of the head: What’s Woz up to now?
After all, for the last quarter century, Wozniak’s life has seemingly been one bizarre or risible career choice after another: the plane crash, the return to college, the US Festival, the marriages, the failed start-up companies, Segway polo, dating Kathy Griffith, and on and on. All true, and all looked upon by us fellow Silicon Valleyites (and techies all over the world) with a combination of amusement and dismay. Indeed, it’s very easy to write-off Steve Wozniak as a walking “Where are they now?” column.
And yet, let me suggest to you – without even trying to explain away this behavior – that Steve Wozniak is also an heroic figure, fully worthy of as much admiration as derision.
I have known Woz for a very long time. We first officially met when I was a cub reporter and wrote perhaps the very first daily newspaper story about Apple Computer, which was then less than two years old. But we had crossed paths long before that. I saw him standing proudly in front of his four function calculator at our county science fair while we were both still in high school, and saw him riding his bicycle home from swim practice, where he swam in the lane beside my best friend.
I also watched as Woz, Jobs and Fernandez bought the parts for the Apple I at our neighborhood hobby shop. And I was there at that now legendary Wescon electronics show where Apple first showed its new computer to the public. I stood in the Wozniak living room during a neighborhood fundraiser (while Steve’s dad complained in the backyard about the bad influence of his son’s new friend Steve Jobs), knew Steve’s mom pretty well, and still drive by his old house almost every day. I’ve interviewed Woz for television a couple times, and shared a stage with him on a couple other occasions.
Does this give me a unique understanding of Steve Wozniak now? Hardly, but it does give me a special appreciation of what Woz accomplished then. And that appreciation I think helps me both to better understand his singular personality – and to admire him.
What Woz is lauded for today (when the credit isn’t mistakenly given to his old partner) is for having ‘invented’ the personal computer. That is both incorrect and quite accurate. There were, in fact, other personal computers around in 1976 when Woz set out to build one of his one. Indeed, the impetus for his effort was to compete with the computers already being demonstrated by his fellow members of the Homebrew Computer Club.
But it is what Woz did with that challenge that has permanently locked him into the Hall of the Fame of the electronics revolution: he took what was essentially a business of kludgy, improvised, one-off designs and turned it into an elegant, simple and powerful architecture that could be sold by the millions to everyday consumers. This was a vision not unlike Henry Ford’s.
But Woz didn’t stop there; because to accomplish this elegant act of simplication, he had to go deeper into the world of computers than anyone had ever gone before. Sure, there were thousands of mainframe and minicomputers experts out there in the mid-Seventies, but when necessary they could apply brute-force solutions to their designs. Woz didn’t have that luxury; rather, he had the rethink the very nature of computer components, how they worked together, and how they could assume tasks for which they had not been designed . . .all while keeping an eye on size, heat dissipation, energy consumption, and the availability of standard parts.
This wasn’t an army of product developers at a Fortune 500 corporation doing this, but one kid in his early twenties in his tiny apartment.
But that’s just the beginning, because the only way Woz could hope to accomplish this was not from the outside looking in, but to actually inhabit the world of computing itself. For a brief period in his late teens and early twenties, Steve Wozniak seemed to intuitively understand computing as if it was musical notes or color and form. I once described him as the Mozart of computing, and I wasn’t exaggerating.
If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed the myth myself. But as it happened, one day I was at Apple and passed by Woz’s incredibly messy office. I heard him talking to no one in particular, so I stopped to listen . . .and realized that he was talking to his computer. It turned out that the machine he was working on had no compiler, so he had to enter the programming each time he turned it on. That’s what he was doing as I watched, talking as he typed – but to this observer, watching code pop up on the computer screen in response to Woz’s words, it was exactly as if man and machine were having a conversation. It made the hair stand up on my neck; as it did years later when Woz told me that during that era he used to dream in assembly code.
Woz’s Apple I, and even more the landmark Apple II, still stand among the greatest virtuoso performances in the history of technology. But in creating them, Woz also planted the seeds of his own obsolence. The Apple II set off the personal computing revolution – but never again would there be a place for one solitary genius to design an entire machine. Henceforth it would be a world of giant companies and big, well-funded design teams . . .a world for which Steve Wozniak was almost perfectly ill-suited.
Everything up to this point had made Woz a legend – what has come after has made him extraordinary, and brave.
Think about it: what would you do if, at age 27, you had already changed the world, left your mark in the history books, and were coming down from a kind of fevered state of genius that had consumed your late adolescence but was now gone and was unlikely to ever return?
We know what happens to novelists, rock gods and movie stars who have accomplished far less: many spend the decades-long aftermath as monsters surrounded by syncophants, or on self-destructive binges of dissipation, or lost forever in a dreamworld of the past.
Wozniak has done none of these things. Rather, he set out to do two things: 1. Follow his own interests; and 2. Make other people happy. And, because he’s had the money to do so, that’s what he’s done. And if that seems a bit child-like and naïve – well, so is Steve.
There has always been something of Candide in Wozniak, and the rest of us have often worried about him being taken advantage of – I remember once interviewing Woz and Bill Graham and thinking that the wily old promoter was staring at the naive young entrepreneur exactly the way a fox looked at a chicken – but like Candide, Wozniak has seemed to emerged from all of the ambushes and confidence men largely intact and unchanged. And if I used to hold his innocence in contempt, after a lifetime of living in this ferociously competitive town, I now find I admire it more by the year.
The life Woz has chosen to live is probably not the road you are I would have taken. And the broken marriages and failed businesses certainly suggest it all hasn’t been fun. But let’s also not forget the rock festivals (and Shoreline ampitheater, home of Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit), and the years he devoted to being the world’s most unlikely junior high school teacher. And like most Valleyites, I know and appreciate Woz’s crucial role in underwriting the Children’s Discovery Museum and – while he still had money – acting as the benefactor of last resort for the area’s many non-profit institutions.
A generation of computer geeks has been waiting for Woz to create one more miracle, invent one last world-changing machine. But I don’t think he can. Instead, we should just celebrate what he did do during his brief Promethean moment – and be thankful that the rest of us life didn’t turn out badly.
Woz remains as supremely goofy as ever. But he is also wiser now, and a better person than many of his far more successful peers. His old partner, Steve Jobs, truly screwed Wozniak over in the early days of Apple – and yet, now that Jobs is very sick, it is Wozniak who steps out in public to defend Jobs from the prying public. Woz has forgiven and forgotten – and how often does that happen in Silicon Valley or anywhere else in the business world?
So now Woz is going to try his hand at TV celebrity and ballroom dancer. Will he win? Probably not. But don’t discount him – remember the swim team — he’s more of an athlete than you think. But one thing for certain, no one out there on the stage will be having more fun than Steve Wozniak.