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The wonderful wizard, Woz

Steve Wozniak, the ?other Steve? of the two founders of Apple, invites us into his eccentric mind.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2006 18:50 IST

iWoz
Authors: Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith
Publisher: Headline Review
Price: Rs 395
Pages: 314
Format: Paperback

In techie circles, ‘Woz’ is referred to as the ‘other Steve’. Wozniak is the creative genius who sparked the personal computer revolution that Steve Jobs marketed so brilliantly. By any standards, Stephen Wozniak is an unusual man.
The bare facts add up to ‘bright+weird’.

At 11, he was the youngest licensed ham in the US and he built the receiver/transmitter himself. However, he was also a withdrawn kid who found the social chit-chat of the airwaves boring. He got perfect SAT scores in maths and physics and chose Colorado University for his undergrad courses over many better institutions because he liked snow. He changed colleges in his second year to avoid paying for computer time, which he had racked up running a set of “cool math programs” that quadrupled the department’s paper usage.

Back in Berkeley, he earned money selling ‘blue’ and ‘black’ boxes that “phreaked” the telephone system and allowed users to call anybody, anywhere, without paying. Famously, he once pretended to be Henry Kissinger and called the Pope (who was asleep). Due to his weird sense of ethics, he never used the boxes to make free calls himself (except as a prankster). He also hosted a dial-a-joke phone service.

He suspended his college education after a car crash because he needed to earn cash to buy a new car. That’s how he ended up working for the “perfect engineering company”, Hewlett Packard, as a calculator designer. As a teenager, he designed ‘virtual’ computers, which he could not execute because the hardware was too expensive. As an adult, working the day job at HP, he built his first prototypes. He was the pioneer in using a typewriter keyboard rather than punch cards. He also conceptualised the addition of colour-screens and floppy drives to computers.

 
Steves Inc.: Wozniak and Jobs, 1975

By 25, he had half-a-dozen important patents and a working model of what became Apple I. He offered HP the rights several times and was rebuffed. He only quit his $ 400 per month job to help found Apple after HP refused to transfer him to their new computers division. His younger partner and “best of friends for many years”, Steve Jobs, had by then gone into despair. Jobs had arranged multi-million dollar funding for Apple but it was dependent on Wozniak coming aboard.

Although Woz kept long hair and a beard, shared political views and musical tastes with the hippie community and hung out with them, he has never touched drugs and had his first alcoholic drink at age 30. He is a practising Freemason as well as an atheist, who finds the very concept of masonry hilarious. In 2000, he voted for Ralph Nader but sometimes publicly claims that he voted for Bush just to watch jaws drop.

By the late Seventies, the Apple II had created a new market for personal computers. Apple had one of the biggest IPOs in history and the two Steves became multi-millionaires. Jobs moved into management and became the face of Apple; Woz continued to work as a “lowly engineer”.

Unlike those famous drop-outs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Jobs, he returned to college at 30 plus. He created a false ID and graduated with a major in electronics engineering as ‘Rocky Rac coon Clark’ — yet another of the pranks that stud his career.

There was an enforced gap from work when he suffered a head in jury flying his Beechcraft. Woz awoke in hospital with a peculiar condition where, for a period of five weeks, he could not form short-term memories. When the amnesia eased, he decided that since Apple could manifestly function without him, he would go back to college. After that, he has spent a lot of time teaching 10-11 year-olds — his method of paying his dues to his inspirational fifth-grade teacher.

 
Somewhere over the rainbow in Silicon Valley: Steve Wozniak, flanked by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs

This assisted autobiography has an interesting style. There are pages of excellent explanations for the lay reader of highly technical aspects of electronics engineering. You get a sense of how Wozniak dreamt up and constructed the dozens of devices and games he has made. You also get a sense of how technology has evolved since the mid-Fifties. At that level it’s brilliant — perhaps as good as Feynman’s (unassisted) classics.

At the level of personal relationships, it’s intimate but sketchy, though it’s dedicated to ‘Our Mothers & Fathers’. When he does discuss personal relationships, he’s honest to the point of being embarrassing. But he doesn’t discuss relationships much.

His late father, an electronics engineer working in the defence industry, features mainly as his first teacher. He mentions that his aversion to alcohol was triggered by Dad’s drinking problem. His two siblings are mentioned only once. We deduce that his mother is alive since some of the photographs are tagged “courtesy Margaret Wozniak”. First wife Alice terminated their marriage because she wanted to make it on her own. The second marriage broke up after he and Candi had an argument about car seating arrangements for his eldest child.

He continues to wish Jobs well though their relationship came apart when he ‘left’ Apple to set up a new company that designs universal remotes. (He re mains on the Apple payroll as a minimum-wage employee, apart from still owning the stock.). His advice to any aspiring engineer or inventor? Always Work Alone.

Devangshu Datta is a technophobe who thinks iPods are a rip-off, prefers to use a PC and attempts to make a living on the stock market

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