Founders Circuit
Collection of inspiring entrepreneur stories, startups and struggle

Steve Wozniak - Apple, Pranks and Engineering

Co-Founder of Apple, Mr. Steve Wozniak (Woz) needs no introduction. He was the engineering force behind Apple I & II that led to revolution in the personal computing throughout the world in 1970s. He was inducted into the inventors hall of fame and prestigious Heinz Award for Technology. After quitting Apple in 1985, Woz dedicated his energies to mathematics, electronics and philanthropic activities. 

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Image Credit: Britannica

We salute this legendary engineer for his creations and feel proud to bring you our exclusive Small Talk with Steve Wozniak -

CE: Mr. Woz, you invented the personal computer and started a revolution in 1970s. What were the thoughts and design considerations you had in your mind while designing Apple I & II that put them ahead of the competition?

Woz: I had always wanted my very own computer. A lot of accidents (things I'd designed and a club I 'bumped into') made me suddenly aware that I'd now soon have one and that I'd design it and build it myself. I'd built prior devices that one might call a computer but this time it would be fully usable.

I was good at designing such things with few parts and at low cost. I partly wanted to impress people with a different approach to computers. It really wasn't hooking up the inner processor according to an Intel data sheet. Input and Output were the important and defining parts. I'd partly solved these with prior projects - keyboard and home TV.
I had some lucky inspiration about color in conjunction with graphics, without which things would have been very different for myself and Apple and the world. The Apple I took a terminal to call far-away computers over slow modems and adapted a microprocessor and RAM to bring the computer local. I also wrote a BASIC like Bill Gates had so that I could type in computer games from books. But the Apple I was slow because I'd optimized the terminal part for lowest cost achieving slow modem speeds.
The Apple ][ was designed from a color generator for American TV's and then up to computer and RAM timing signals. The actual computer was neatly inserted with not much junky logic making decisions. The computer was architect-ed around the available chips and wound up taking very few of them.

My method for generating color was very different, based around a $1 chip instead of hundreds of dollars and hundreds of parts mixing things in careful analog fashion, with slight phase variations of signals precisely controlled. Mine was trivial by comparison, and is more equivalent to modern digital displays. But I didn't know if my 'different' approach to color would work. When it did, Steve Jobs and I had a Eureka moment and knew we had something big.

CE: You've been a prankster. Tell us about your most favorite prank till date.

Woz: No favorite. Hundreds of great ones. Some took months. But I'm so behind on critical time-sensitive things that I can't take long, so here's one.

Long ago, before internet or printers that could print things like photos, I told a Mexican friend that there is a state of Jalepeño in Mexico. She knew of the state of Jalisco (JAL). I got 2 maps of Mexico, imported them into the largest memory computers of the day and photoshopped "Jalepeño" on each, then mailed them (letters back then) to her. Boy was she shocked. This was the earliest period of photoshop too and nobody knew such things were possible.

CE: Prior to Apple, you thought HP was the best company for engineers. Could you tell us about that? Do you think Apple is the best company for engineers today?

Woz: HP was driven by the ideas of engineers, the ones working on designing products, at the bottom of the org chart. Back then HP only made equipment that other engineers bought and used. So we were just like our target markets. We were engineers, engineering products for engineers. Couple that with the fact that I was a very good and ethical and clever person and saw engineers in general in that light. I was determined to remain an engineer for life and not move up into positions with titles where interacting with people is more of your job, and politics was part of it.

CE: Do you think an engineer works his best when working solo and not in a team?

Woz: Yes and no. It is helpful to be around other ideas and sharing ideas, to get ideas of approaches. But when the hard work comes, you have to close out the world and do it yourself and that's the important time that determines your quality (the excellence of the work).

CE: What is your message to CEans aka CrazyEngineers?

Woz: Don't think you have to do things the way they have always been done. Believe in yourself. Don't be afraid to try methods that might turn out to be impossible. Your learning and thinking about the end goal makes it quick to get there by other approaches. Don't instantly do exactly what you've done before. Think quietly, maybe for a few hours or days or more, and know your basic approach. Rather than dig up the designs of the past and using them, try to think of better things than normal. You have learned how to combine components into larger parts, and those into larger ones yet. That means that you know how to construct well with the best resources (parts) and could write the same books you could have looked answers up in. Use pencil and paper and write books and methods and number charts and so-on to create your design without copying others, although it's ok to look at them to trigger good thinking. Always try to do things with fewer parts and fewer steps. And don't worry if you don't use the fanciest tools for debugging. Crude tools force you to think deeper, and in a sense be more creative, just as Jack White speaks of in the movie "It Might Get Loud.".

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