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Limited audience; Interesting Story
on September 15, 2006
Yesterday, I took a long look at the new book by Steve Wozniak, iWoz. Personally, I'm intrigued by the science-based creativity that led to early Apple products, and also the psychologically-savvy thinking that went into making computers user-friendly.
The book will be interesting to a specialized audience. You need to be interested in the early history of personal computers (e.g., the legendary Homebrew Computer Club). You need to get a kick out of the amusing but sometimes unflattering lore that defined Apple's history and culture. You need to want to know about Wozniak's remarkably innovative engineering as well as Apple's entrepreneurship. You have to dig the views and personality of a successful but unusual and reclusive countercultural person. It probably helps if you resonate with Wozniak's personal style, and dream about making innovative contributions somewhere, somehow.
1) When he claims to have "invented" the personal computer, he's not being too grandiose. He created some really beautiful early computers. The lore is that these contraptions were the first to have typewriter based keyboards; the first to be useable right out of the box; the first low-cost computers to have color, sound, hi-res graphics, and floppy disks. He developed software that changed industry standards. And to believe Wozniak is to believe that he was the origin of these ideas, surrounded by other creative geniuses like Jobs, Osborn, Marsh and others. Perhaps others shared in these innovations. But there's no doubt that Wozniak was one of the great "out of the box" thinkers of the Silicon Valley "revolution." In the book, Wozniak describes developing all of these things.
2) If you haven't looked at an Apple II in awhile, it might be worth doing so while you read the book. The electronic circuits and boards of these early Apple machines were works of art and genius. The components were arranged in ways that defied conventional wisdom. I found the motherboards in the Apple IIs to be simple, elegant and striking. Today, the technology is obsolete but the beauty endures. Wozniak's story is more interesting when you realize that he's primarily responsible for this great stuff.
3) The book helps elucidate Wozniak's personality and thinking style. He's the math-science-electrical guy who works privately in the back while he implements his (and others') visions of what a product can be. (If you've examined the electronics and layout of those old machines, then you have no problem believing that Wozniak was the science-math-electrical guy who was part scientist, part artist). In the book, Wozniak shares influences, anecdotes and pranks. This is not the guy who habitually seeks power, or the limelight. He's the guy who normally would toil in obscurity, surrounded by friends and thinkers who let him do his thing and appreciate his skillful vision (and nutty sense of humor). He was able to work among the corporate power brokers for a number of years, on his terms, but he's not the sort of person who will immerse himself in corporate culture for long. It may be that his `81 plane crash and brain injury signaled the end of his cutting-edge work at Apple. But it is hard to imagine someone like Wozniak shifting gears and living forever amongst the suits... even at Apple. I can believe that Steve Wozniak is a brilliant guy with a big heart and a wicked sense of humor. I can imagine how his sense of generosity, justice and creative thinking might make it hard to endure the growing pains of a company like Apple.
4) Wozniak offers his advice on what it takes to be a great engineer: Don't waver; see things in grayscale; work alone; follow your instincts. His thoughts on these matters are worth a look. Keep in mind that he's telling you about his way, which jibes with his personal style. There's no one right way.
5) Guy Kawasaki (former Apple employee) has written a review of this book. It can be found online. His take is different than mine, though he, too, offers a positive review.
6) There are plenty of other books, and even a movie, on Wozniak, Jobs and the PC revolution. There are other books that focus on Wozniak (e.g., Kendall, Lemke, Capps). Wozniak has a website that contains lots of autobiographical info. Then there's "Pirates of Silicon Valley", the movie. Personally, I'm not particularly interested in getting caught up in all the Apple/PC drama that has made its way to the media. But maybe you are...