“I love startups; thinking about things that don’t exist,” exulted Steve Wozniak, the self-driven inventor of the personal computer and Apple’s cofounder. Hosted by WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook, Wozniak was featured speaker at the October 7 debut of Driven, Isenberg’s series of conversations with business innovators at the UMass Club in downtown Boston. The venue offered spectacular 32nd-floor views of the Boston skyline and intimate surroundings that stimulated conversations with “Woz” and the 150 business and idea leaders in attendance.
During his hour-long talk and in informal conversations with audience members, Woz recounted his life-long enthusiasm for designing and building novel computing and electronic devices. He recounted his friendship, business partnership, and disagreements with Steve Jobs. And he explained his personal philosophy of happiness, including his passion for puzzle solving and pranking.
“Half the kids on my block [in Silicon Valley] had engineers as parents,” explained Woz, whose own father was a world-class engineer. “They knew electronics, had access to parts, and knew how to put things together.” For Woz, that included building tube-powered ham radios. After discovering the computer in a magazine in the fifth grade, he became obsessed with one day building his own. In high school, with minicomputers on the rise, Woz began designing them on paper, challenging himself by devising more efficient programs with fewer digital logic gates [on paper] than industry leaders like Data General. “I was going someday to own one,” he told his father, who informed him that it would cost as much as a house. “I’ll live in an apartment,” was Woz’s reaction.
“As a freshman in college, Woz got an A+ in Intro to Computers, a graduate course—the only one on the subject at his university. At the time, “I wrote every program I could think of that was useful for scientists.” During his college years he wrote programs and designed devices for Hewlett-Packard, Atari, and others—especially “when I took my 3rd year in college off to earn money programming. I didn’t want to burden my parents,” he told the gathering.
Enter Steve Jobs
It was during those years that he first connected with Steve Jobs, five years his junior and still a high school student. The two became best friends with shared passions for electronics design, rock music, and pranking, notably at Job’s [and Wozniak’s former] high school, where Woz had always been a suspect but “too smart” to get caught.
The two also collaborated on design ideas for electronics devices, with Jobs securing supplies, identifying opportunities with companies/contractors, and offering critical inspiration. It was Woz alone, though, he emphasized, who did the “heavy lifting” of the design engineering.
One notable success, he recalled, was their four-day sleepless marathon session that yielded a new-concept pong game for Atari. Another, of course, was Woz’s revolutionary idea to connect a “board” of microchips to his keyboard and his television screen—all in the same space. “It was the affordable formula for a personal computer [and the short-lived Apple I],” he told his Boston audience. With Jobs out of town, Woz demonstrated his device and passed out free accompanying schematics to his fellow members at the “Homebrew Computer Club.”
Why give the schematics away? “I was inspired by the social [good that it would accomplish],” he emphasized. Steve Jobs and Apple’s second CEO Mike Markkula, on the other hand, were more interested in commercial gain. “They wanted a marketing, not an engineering company,” Wozniak recalled. Steve wanted things to get less technical. Under Markkula’s influence, Jobs, who had no formal business training, learned CEO skills as he went along.
"With the Apple II, we knew that we were going to build a company and make a lot of money."“We knew that the Apple I would be a short-term, quick product,” Wozniak recalled. Waiting in the wings, the consumer-friendlier Apple II—designed entirely by Wozniak—was another matter. “With the Apple II, we knew that we were going to build a company and make a lot of money,” he emphasized. It sported a revolutionary color display, and its built-in BASIC programming language made it ready to run right out of the box. Its memory and a floppy developed by Woz also accommodated the first electronic spreadsheet [by VisiCalc]. “[That application] increased our sales ten times. It kicked off home computer interest—but it was really on the business end,” he confessed.
During Apple’s formation, Woz continued working for Hewlett-Packard. “I was going to be an engineer for life at HP,” he affirmed. But Steve Jobs and Mike Markkula had different ideas. Drawing a line in the silicon, they insisted that he choose one company over the other. Woz opted for Apple, but under the condition that his engineering role at the company would remain sacrosanct. Marketing, fund raising, product aesthetics, and other business brass tacks were jobs for Jobs and others, not Woz.
“It’s very hard to predict the future,” Woz emphasized. “I am often right when predicting one year ahead; not two years or more.” The Apple II’s descendants, the Apple III, the Lisa, and the Mac all failed, he said—the latter because “it didn’t have the real core guts.” (i.e., Woz was not their driving engineering force.)
“Steve always was a nontechnical person,” Woz continued. “He wanted it to be easier and easier [for the consumer]— “for an average person like himself.” That paid off, Woz said, with the Apple II and years later when Jobs was the driving force behind the iPod, a market sensation that doubled Apple’s sales, profits, and stock price. “We loved Steve Jobs for that,” said Woz. “The iPod was his Apple II.”
"Deep in me I believe that it doesn’t matter what you achieve; it’s how happy you are."
On Happiness—Human and Robotic
“Deep in me I believe that it doesn’t matter what you achieve; it’s how happy you are,” Woz observed. “The day you die—ask yourself, did you have a lot of laughs and fun?” For Woz, that means coming out ahead in the computation smiles minus frowns—a goal well served by his passion for engineering, puzzle solving, pranking, and generosity of spirit.
Woz’s remarks also touched on two “laws.” Moore’s Law, which has been a driving force in the computer industry’s expansion, he noted, “is close to dead.” That’s because the industry has got the separation layers between chips down to nine atoms, with eight electrons demarcating between a one and a zero. “You can’t go much smaller than that,” he said.
He also articulated “Woz’s Law of Robotics,” which insists that “No human can harm a living, thinking, self-aware robot.” That, he said, represented a reversal of his previous fear that robots might one day conspire against their human creators. “We’ve talked about AI and learning machines that can learn to play a game better in one hour than any human and there are great learning algorithms that can even learn how to drive a car for you,” he continued. But “we haven’t talked yet about Artificial Intelligence taking that independent learning step of saying ‘Here’s What I’d Like to do to improve the world? [or] What is something that can make me money?’ Also, [robots] need their upkeep; we are their partners . . . So right now I want to be friends with them forever and ever. . .They’ll only help us to have a better life.”
Assessing the Evening
“Woz wouldn’t have changed the world without Jobs and Jobs wouldn’t have changed the world without Woz,” insisted Alan Robinson, an Isenberg professor who has devoted three decades to the study of innovation and creativity. There is Increasing evidence, he said, that most major innovations see the light of day through partners, not isolated individuals. Still, he continued, Woz’s independence of mind was vividly on display. “He didn’t read textbooks, he figured it out, he did things his way,” Robinson emphasized.
“For me, sitting and having dinner with Steve Wozniak was an incredible opportunity,” remarked Michele DesAutels, a 2009 Isenberg MBA graduate. “After all, he transformed computing and the entire world. Steve’s talk sparked memorable conversations throughout the room among a fascinating cross-section of Boston’s business community. It’s an evening that I will long remember.”
Isenberg would like to thank our event partner WBUR and moderator Tom Ashbrook for their support of this event.
A Conversation with Steve Wozniak: Highlight Video
A Conversation with Steve Wozniak: Highlight Video
Driven: A Conversation With...
Several times each year, Driven presents seminal business thought leaders to share insights with Boston’s business community. Drawn from across the business spectrum, these speakers have exceled as change agents whose ideas are reshaping the landscape of business thought and practice. Learn more