“I like to experiment,” said the man who changed the history of the world by demonstrating how two guys in a garage can experiment with chips and solder and hex code. “I still am a gadget guy. I want to know the differences between this model and that model.”
Steve Wozniak was speaking about his experiences with several different iPhone models, in a discussion with CNET Editor-in-Chief Connie Guglielmo, at New Relic’s FutureStack 15 conference in San Francisco. To no one’s surprise, he has several models, he maintains accounts with all the carriers at once, and he compares iPhones to Android phones on what appears to be a daily basis.
But then, he gave attendees a peek into the Wozniak ethos — the same one that a nerdy kid at a computer conference would have seen in the late 1970s, the part that launched the entire ideal of openness in computing, and that sheds light on the other, more deeply hidden, meaning behind the logo of the company he co-founded: an apple with a bite taken out of it, perhaps by an escapee of someone’s walled garden.
“I don’t like being in the Apple ecosystem. I don’t like being trapped,” he said. “I like to be independent.
“I also think that the ecosystem came a lot from Steve Jobs’ personality, background and even occurrences that happened in the early days of Apple that nobody, even in Apple today, really knows about necessarily,” Woz continued.
Knowing that folks would recall a scene from the “Steve Jobs” movie, Wozniak brought to their minds a certain garage, where Seth Rogen and Michael Fassbender portrayed our heroes, running the newborn computer company from behind the horizontally paneled doors.
Then Wozniak (the real one) applied an eraser to the scene. The company was never “Apple Computer” during the garage period, he said. The Apple II prototype wasn’t something they built in that garage, but rather was designed and built completely by Wozniak, he noted, continuing a long and difficult argument against a deceased legend who would still claim it all for himself.
Back in high school, Woz continued, there was a teletype terminal that connected by telephone line to a General Electric timesharing system somewhere. “Steve Jobs’ idea of computers was, the computer’s out there, and you’re just on a terminal typing input. And all you need is a printer and a modem.”
Pause Woz for a second. Think about all the manufacturers, software producers and cloud platform providers today who would take a hard look at the Jobs ideal of computing, as Woz just described it, and declare Jobs absolutely, indisputably correct.
All you need is a terminal, a connection, a phone line or something that passes for one. Is that not what the iPhone has become?
Yet imagine the history of our industry had Jobs’ argument won the day, back in 1977. Where would we be?
“He said, ‘Make this computer with two slots," Woz went on. "All you need is a printer and a modem."
“Oh my gosh, I came from the computer world,” he continued. “They want memories and they want disks and to have extra features and input sensors and music keyboards. You’re gonna want eight slots,’ and that’s how I designed it.”
With his mastery of both software synchronicity and hardware eccentricity, Wozniak, on advice from a colleague, devised a means whereby two chips, not forty, could master the bus for eight slots.
When Jobs insisted on whittling the Apple II down to two slots, Woz said he’d walk away and take his computer with him. It may have been a bluff, Woz admitted.
Without extensibility, Woz argued — as he had for over three decades — the product does not belong to “you.” It may be an "I" phone, but it’s not a “you” phone.
“You don’t feel like you define the product. You don’t get the full credit of, ‘This is all me, my iPhone, the way I wanted it.’ That’s one of the big drives that Steve had, to keep things ... closed, and self-defined, and not really expandable on the outside so much.
"We started a company with the Apple II, and it was totally open, everything. We published our schematics, our designs, the things people could look at and modify and improve their way. So I’m totally into that open source thinking.”
The Apple II gave rise to the first public computing ecosystem. We are here today, working the way we’re working today, and using an Internet today because of Apple II. There would be no iPhone without Apple II, nor anything else remotely resembling it, created and produced by anyone else.
But I don’t credit Steve Wozniak with just the evolution of a product line. Woz has been, is today, and always will be, the original champion of the power of the individual to define the way she works for herself — to tinker with the process, to refine it, to extend it — and then to share it with the world.
Over three decades ago, Woz was a rock star in my world. So was Jobs, and yes, Bill Gates, and so was Gary Kildall and Chuck Peddle and Lee Felsenstein, and folks for whom screenplays are not being written, but who gave rise to our world just as much as Jobs.
Were it not for Steve Wozniak, a 15-year-old kid from Oklahoma wouldn't have grown a peach fuzz moustache so the security guards at the conference gates would think he’s at least 18. The kid never would have gone to the computer conference where he first smelled the soldering irons of tinkerers building their first Apple computers for themselves.
This kid would have been a political reporter or a weekend TV anchorman or a drive-time disc jockey.
I would never have gone to work as a computing journalist. I would never have met John J. Anderson, or managed an online network. I would never have met my wife at one of these many conferences where I thought I had come to work, and my daughter would never have come to life.
Here is a man — not Jobs, not Gates, not anyone named Tramiel — to whom I owe every great harvest I have ever reaped, and among this audience of several hundred, I could not possibly be alone.
Eight slots, he insisted to Jobs, not two. No compromise. Bluff or no, I live the way I live because Wozniak made that call.
The greatest decisions ever made are the ones made in garages and kitchens and the front seats of cars, by men and women who stand on principle when their best friends, or lovers, or for that matter, the entire world seems to stand opposed.
I don’t own an iPhone. I never owned an Apple II, though I certainly had more than my share of Apple clients. I borrowed a Mac for the better part of a year, and sent it back.
This isn’t about Apple.
Steve Wozniak is why you’re reading this now. But let’s be practical: Think of the women and men whose everyday decisions led to the place and time where you are today, who will never get a standing ovation, a place on “Dancing with the Stars,” or a Walter Isaacson biography.
This Thanksgiving, consider that we may owe the world to people whom the world may never know. And how lucky Steve Wozniak truly is to know for certain that, in our hearts, we know.