Apple’s Inventor

While all the hype about Apple and its innovativeness was building this week, I was reading iWoz, the autobiography of Steve Wozniak, the person who invented the modern computer. This is one of the more unusual autobiographies I have ever read. The main reason was not so the story itself — which was interesting — but the style. It was plain spoken and homely. Wozniak came across as an ordinary fellow who was pretty smart. It would be unfair to call it Forrest Gumpish but that is the closest narrative analogue I can come up with. Actually, the voice going through my head was Earl from My Name is Earl. Suffice it to say, the book was a joy to read.

I am not sure how much I want to say of the details except that Wozniak’s perspective of what was happening at the heart of Silicon Valley in the 1960s and 1970s was interesting. The agglomeration of engineering talent meant that there was an outlet for folks to develop and share ideas. Wozniak had plenty of job opportunities and also friends with similar interests — including the clearly entrepreneurial and perhaps opportunistic Steve Jobs. The book doesn’t really explain quite how they came to found Apple in terms of any strategic thinking although I suspect that was because strategy was all Jobs and no Wozniak.

Wozniak instead was the person who first conceived and built the modern computer; you know with a keyboard and a monitor. This had not been done before the Apple I and Wozniak single handedly completed that vision in his spare time while working for HP. HP failed to see the vision and seeded the whole thing to the fledgling Apple. This is a common story in the annals of innovation.

But it was the next generation Apple II that made the industry. If the iPhone was 5 years ahead of its time, the Apple II was 10. Indeed, Apple itself would take almost a decade to develop another successful product — the Mac. Wozniak himself was forever wedded to the Apple II and eventually scaled back his Apple involvement as a result.

But Wozniak was a truly brilliant mind. Before computers, he invented the Atari game breakout and built it in just four days (only to be seemingly ripped off by Jobs on the profits) and after Apple he conceived of and invented the Universal Remote (two decades ahead of its time). I recommend iWoz to anyone interested in innovation and electrical engineering. It is a great account for our times.

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