Apple's Other Steve Speaks

iWOZ

Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it

By Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith

Norton -- 313pp--$25.95

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good An entertaining memoir from one of the most influential, colorful innovators in tech history.

The Bad Dwells more on youthful pranks than on inside stories about Apple.

The Bottom Line A fun read for Mac fans, and an inspiring one for aspiring innovators.

Steve Wozniak is a Silicon Valley archetype--the brilliant, idealistic engineer for whom fame and fortune were just a happy accident that occurred as he pursued his passion. In what many see as the most staggering burst of technical invention by a single person in high-tech history, the "Woz" saw past a swarm of proto-PCs in the mid-1970s to singlehandedly define the PC as we know it today. His Apple I and Apple II computers were the first successful personal computers because they came fully assembled, featured keyboards instead of punch-card readers, and had TV-style monitors for showing text and graphics, rather than just blinking lights.

In other words, Wozniak came up with what was likely the most influential product of the past fifty years--but you'd hardly know it if you met him. Steven Jobs, the younger sidekick who provided the entrepreneurial impetus to create Apple Computer Corp. (AAPL ), has gone on to become a billionaire and one of the world's most powerful businesspeople. But Wozniak's role these days is as high tech's minstrel-in-chief. He's known for collecting odd gadgets such as a digital watch made with old-style vacuum tubes rather than chips and for organizing a polo league that uses Segway scooters instead of horses. When he gets serious, it's usually to bemoan how coin-obsessed the tech industry has become--more interested in blockbuster IPOs than in the sheer joy of great engineering.

If you want to know more, pick up iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it. The 313-page memoir isn't for everyone. It's written in a conversational, almost sophomoric style and dwells more on youthful pranks than on inside stories from Apple's past. But iWoz' weaknesses are also its strength. This memoir truly reflects its author, both in its subject matter and its happy-go-lucky tone. No doubt, this ain't Dostoevsky. But Dostoevsky never wrote about the time he and Jobs narrowly avoided getting busted for having a "blue box" that could be used to make free phone calls to anywhere the world. Caught in the act at a pay phone by two cops, Wozniak ad-libbed, saying that his device was a music synthesizer. When asked what the orange button was, the teenage Jobs deadpanned that it was for "calibration." "These supposedly intelligent cops had totally bought our B.S.," Woz writes. "God, I wanted to laugh out loud."

There are other laugh-out-loud moments in the book, as well as some long passages where Wozniak tries--with only partial success--to dumb down some of his engineering triumphs for mere mortals. But there's real substance, too. For starters, his narrative shows how the process of innovation remains a matter of perspiration, patience, and coincidence. Thanks to sage advice from teachers and his engineer father, and confidence-building successes in the classroom and at science fairs, the painfully shy Wozniak figured out early that engineering held a joy he could not find among his schoolmates. Thus, despite his prowess as an athlete, he spent his free time reading technical journals and sketching improved designs for the computers of the day. Then, stints at Atari and Sylvania honed his ability to write software and get text and graphics to display on a TV screen. When he learned about the latest microprocessors at the first meeting of the now famous Homebrew Computer Club in March, 1975, he immediately saw how he could combine his collected knowhow to create what would soon become the Apple I. "It was as if my whole life had been leading up to this point," he writes.

At its best, iWoz is what its author says he hoped the book would be: an inspiration for nerdy kids who may feel "outside the norm." On the other hand, Apple fans will find slim pickings. Wozniak even downplays the significance of his co-founding the company. Among the sparse insights: the assertion that Mike Scott, the CEO who oversaw the landmark IPO in 1980, deserves more credit. And if there are any bad guys in the book, it's we in the business press. He credits us with compounding Apple's woes in the mid-1990s with our dour headlines and slams us for incorrectly reporting that he left Apple in 1985 in a huff.

As for Jobs, Wozniak has nothing bad to say. He even forgives some past wrongs, such as the time Jobs lied about how much they'd earned from Woz's 1973 invention of a computer game called Breakout for Atari Corp. Woz chalks it up to the fact he and Jobs were "different people" and that the dispute isn't something worth worrying about. "I figure happiness is the most important thing in life, just how much you laugh," he writes. That may not be the most sophisticated worldview ever, but it does make for an entertaining book--and a welcome, fresh perspective on an industry that seems so far removed from its original ideals.

By Peter Burrows

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