Steve Woz: From wooden Apples to iPhone love
Computing the human equation
Interview Steve Wozniak loves computers. He really loves computers.
Apple's cofounder is currently using six in-car navigation systems, trying to decide which one plots the best route, and he carries as many as six cell phones. Each time one of his handsets is spotted in public, it generates fresh buzz among those desperate to find hidden meanings, to see how far Woz has strayed from the path of the sacred iPhone.
Wozniak's passion began early in life, when he stumbled onto his dad's engineering magazines and found a computer inside. And when we say computer, we mean computer in the old sense of the word - not some natty little device you can slide in the hip pocket of your Mad Men-inspired narrow-cut trousers. This computer couldn't even fit on a desk.
It was the early 1960s, when most computers came in one size - room-size - and you needed the spending power of a small government to buy one. The first digital computers – machines without any moving mechanical parts – were only beginning to appear.
Man and machine: Steve Woz and Apple II, at the Computer History Museum (photo: Gavin Clarke)
"I said 'Oh my God, this stuff is just so beautiful'," Woz told us during an interview at the opening of the Computer History Museum's exhibition Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing, remembering the machines in his dad's magazines. "[They showed] how a little learning and little tiny items add up and are put together to build more complicated things."
But Woz loves more than just the bits and bytes. He loves what computers can do for people. A pioneer in the early personal-computer revolution, he took those room-sized machines and shrunk them down to a reasonable size – and gave them a reasonable interface. He built the Apple I and II in 1976 and 1977 with an aim towards making computing accessible. It was time to shift computing power out of the hands of the rich and powerful elites, and put it at the fingertips of individuals who had relatively little money and few - if any - programming skills.
"I couldn't be prouder of anything more than that in my life," Woz says, looking back on the Apple I and II. "It was a big cornerstone in my life to be worried about the person at home having as good appliances as the military or the big business [who had] all the money."
The Apple I and II designs and their internal organs were things of beauty, Woz recalls. He enthuses about the Apple I boards he built by hand and the relatively small number of chips used in that very first machine. "I wish [people now] could see the hand-wired boards. I went in at night, made little drawings – on a drafting table – of the boards with every single little red wire. I looked at it and was 'Wow'."
There were several key choices Woz made that separated the machine from the rest of the hobby-computer crowd and – eventually, when those same choices reached the Apple II – set Apple apart from the Intel/PC herd. For one, he picked the 6502 over the Intel 8080 used in Bill Gates' object of affection, the MITS Altair 8800. Apple stayed free of Intel until 2005, when Jobs announced that Macs were coming off the Motorola/Freescale and IBM PowerPC chips by 2007. Woz's decision to go non-Intel with the Apple I was partly down to price. The 6502 was cheaper than Intel's 8080.
The other important choice was the bet on dynamic RAM (DRAM) at a time when PC hobbyists used static RAM (SRAM). SRAM was powerful and more reliable, but it was expensive. Around the time of the Apple I, DRAM - invented in 1967 - was finally affordable enough for Woz to pack in 4K of memory and allow the Apple I to run relatively quickly.
"The 4K of memory with these dynamic chips was finally half the price of using static and it really made the things go," according to Woz. "That was the first time there was enough memory to make a useful computer that was going to be affordable by an average person - that's one of the keys that isn't always brought out.
"All the other little hobby kits used static memory. Why? [The people building them] looked at Intel data sheets, and Intel data sheets want to show a simple diagram. They don't want to show how to refresh dynamic memory ... so everybody just copies the Intel data sheets to build these little kits. My goal was different."
But compared to the Apple II, the Apple I was a Frankenstein's monster, a terminal that Woz modified and that he used to access the world's first wide-area packet-switching network: the US government's ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), one of the foundations of today's internet. The wood-encased clunker used a TV set for a monitor, had a relatively expensive $60 keyboard, and components Woz says he had optimized to run at modem speed - ARPANET peaked at 56Kbps.
That's all nicely nostalgic, but it's the Apple II that most warms Woz's heart. The Apple II, he says, deserves its seat in the Computer History Museum's $19m exhibit on the first 2,000 years of computing. "Everything we were doing was catching a lot of publicity in the press, so everything we did was getting articles," he says. "We sort of had a feeling.
"It didn't drive me, but the Apple II – we knew this one was going be a history thing. It had color, games. It had so few parts. It was so affordable and buildable, and [it] had more versatility and expandability. It was a leap ahead of all the others at the time. The Apple I wasn't designed as a computer. The Apple II was."
That's no bread bin, that's an Apple I
The Apple II had a 1MHz MOS Technology 6502 processor. It offered expandable memory, rather than limit you to a mere 4K. And beginning in 1978, Apple offered an optional floppy drive for storage and file transfer.
"The Apple II was designed from the ground up, and it was good enough to change the world," Woz recalls. Once his work was seen by other members of Silicon Valley's Homebrew Computer Club, which included Jobs, Woz believed that it was open for others to copy.
The conceptual bit
These machines were more than just a collection of parts. They were new ideas. "The biggest challenge wasn't in terms of abilities or parts affordability. It was the realization of the whole formula to build a very small machine that anybody could have - that I could have myself," Woz says. Once he had created the Apple I and was connected to other computers on ARPANET, Woz says, he realized how powerful a few microprocessors and a little memory could be.
"As soon as I realized - my gosh - what a microprocessor was, what its instruction set was, I instantly knew I was there and I would get there. I got there very quickly and hastily with the Apple I, not designing it from scratch but modifying an existing terminal," he says.
Those early Apple machines set the company on a trajectory to superstardom. Together with pal Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne - a friend of Jobs from his work at Atari - Woz founded Apple Computer on April Fools' Day 1976 with just $1,300. Just six years later - with no small help from early investor and business adviser Mike Markkula and many others - Apple became the first PC company in a mosh pit of newcomers to hit $1bn annual sales.
Maybe the Apple II's price helped hit those sales figures: an entry-level machine with 4K of RAM cost $1,298. By comparison, the rival Commodore 64 - also in the vanguard of that PC revolution in 1982 - debuted at $595, and later dropped to $199.
Must ... resist ... Jobs ... reality ... distortion ... field
Thirty-five years on, people are buying the descendants of the Apple I and Apple II in droves: Macs, iPhones, iPads, iPods. The company Woz helped create earned $6bn on sales of $26.7bn during its most recent financial quarter, a net-income improvement of 78 per cent over the same quarter in 2009.
By comparison, Microsoft - which got its big break when IBM's PC answered Apple in 1981 and which now provides the OS for about 90 per cent of the world's PCs - made $6.6bn income on sales of $19.9bn during the same holiday-shopping quarter. Microsoft's income was flat, and sales grew a mere 4.8 per cent.
The Macintosh - the successor to those early Apple machines (we'll ignore 1983's short-lived $9,995 Lisa) - now accounts for around eight per cent of the PC market. The iPhone chomped a quarter of the US smartphone market in less than three years, and 70 per cent of MP3 music players sold remain iPods, nearly 10 years after they arrived.
Woz (right) with Steve Jobs: from little Apples come big things
Chatting at the opening of Revolution – an exhibition that celebrates the first 2,000 years of computing – Woz said that people thousands of years in the future will have an even higher opinion of Apple than they do today. Among fanbois, that's not possible, but there you have it.
The whole industry developed not because one person thought of a specific idea, and Woz reckons he may have helped accelerate the PC revolution by a day, a month, or a year. But he believes that Apple's ideas, the technology those ideas produced, and the impact of that technology will see company's mythos stand the test of time.
"Apple is going to be as significant and important as IBM and probably better remembered than a lot of the early computers that were so important," Woz says. "We analyze the Babbage Engine - we've recovered that - but the Babbage Engine affected very few people in real time. But Apple Computer is so immense in the world that it will never be forgotten."
We might argue that the Intel-based PC was immense, as well. In 1982, IBM delivered a PC that ran an Intel 8088 processor and after a brush with PC-DOS, Microsoft's MS-DOS 1.0 operating system. That PC, which came with an expandable 16K memory and was priced $1,565, made Time Magazine's machine (AKA person) of the year in 1983. It also gave Microsoft its big break en route to becoming the world's biggest software company. PCs inspired by that original Intel architecture have touched more people worldwide than Apple IIs or Macs.
But Woz points out that Apple came first.
"Apple was the company that made personal computers visible. Sure, it would have happened without Apple, and sure it was easy for a lot of other people to do it once Apple did it, but at least we took that step first."
And Apple had knack for simplifying the components and improving ease of use via a simple GUI interface. "Apple is probably the best company in the world for keeping things not just unchanging but keeping things simple, so you don't get a mess of clever programmer ideas dropped into every product that then confuse the simple user."
But even Woz hates MobileMe
Needless to say, Apple isn't without its missteps. Not every Apple product was an Apple II or iPhone. In 1996, the company's Bandai Pippin failed to dent gaming and is a badly written footnote to the success stories that are the Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii. The Newton failed to ignite the hand-held computing market - that honor went to Palm's Pilot 1000 and Pilot 5000 in 1996. And at 15.8 pounds (7.2kg), the Macintosh Portable was, well, anything but portable.
Fortunately for the Legend of Steve Jobs™, those stumbles happened after the wünderkind had left Apple in 1985, before he returned to Apple through the acquisition of NeXT Software at the end of 1996, and prior to his assuming the role of full-time CEO at the beginning of 2000.
Fortunately for Woz's legacy, Apple's period of wandering in the wilderness occurred after he left Apple for good - and in a huff - in 1985.
And for all the talk of Apple's gift for simplicity, Woz acknowledges that the company sometimes gets it very wrong indeed. MobileMe got off to a rocky start when it replaced .Mac in 2008, and even now, he says, it has trouble synchronizing your data between your iPhone and Mac. "MobileMe will sync fine with Google, and then Apple will change MobileMe one day and now it's not syncing with my Gmail calendar, and I live on my Gmail calendar," he says. "These things happen all the time."
iPhone into the future
But, yes, Woz loves the iPhone. "It's unbelievable, to look at an iPhone, and in this tiny little inside strip here lies a computer a millions times what this comp is," he told us clutching an iPhone while gesturing at the Computer Museum's Apple II that he recalls so fondly.
"The power, incredible displays, the sensors, and the technology, and its has cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – things we'd never consider back then. And a microphone and all the programming. Today's computers blow my mind – what an incredible tool we have."
And the human part of the technology equation Woz values so much? The revolution that's putting computer power in the hands of the masses continues. "Anybody who's learning software to write an app for an iPhone is in a huge world right now." ®