Sunday, 15 March 2009

“iWoz”, Steve Wozniak

Confession time. I have an ambivalent relationship with Apple products. As a young proto-geek in 1980s Ireland, the lone Apple II, lost among serried ranks of Commodore PETs in the school computer room, was a curio, working fundamentally differently to what we were used to, not really playing nicely with the network, and overall coming across as a terribly American product. Moving on, while having the utmost respect for Macs, somehow I got captured by the PC, and now I find myself admiring technology like the iPod, but being utterly repelled by the pseudo-religious devotion it seems to inspire, and thus finding it deliciously ironic that now, should one wish to 'think different”, one generally seems to have to buy something other than an Apple product.

Steve Wozniak is the forgotten “Steve” that founded Apple. Much like the lessons of Paul Allen at Microsoft the Apple example shows how people forget that major computer companies were often team efforts at the start. Wozniak's story is essentially that of a shy committed engineer who wanted to design and build good hardware – the results of which, the Apple I and Apple II, were fantastic results of a single-minded commitment to elegant engineering. His is in many ways an inspiring story of how a dedicated inventor can deliver successful product, and there are many pointers to fruitful labour, not least the admonishment that working alone is often the best way of doing things, and that marketing led organisations, conscious to customer voices and the profit motive, can often deliver appalling product (such as the dismal failure of the Apple III).

A plane crash in 1981 left Wozniak with serious injuries, and to a large extent this ended his active involvement in Apple, and indeed in the true bleeding edge of technology development; while he remains a notional Apple employee, after his accident he seems to move to the margins of the company, not being involved in the evolution of the Macintosh, and increasingly looking to other areas of interest, most fulfillingly in teaching. Prior to this however his story about designing the first personal computers, and significantly coming up with real engineering breakthroughs is fascinating and for someone who has read the likes of Steven Levy's “Hackers” really brings to life the key periods in the evolution of the PC on the West Coast in the 1970s, through organisations like the Homebrew Computer Club. More recently in terms of cultural namechecks, a lot of the experiences Wozniak went through are echoed in Po Bronson's magnificent “The First $20 Million are always the Hardest”.

Perhaps it is a result of the plane crash, equally this could just be an easy excuse, but Wozniak comes across as a naïve character. The story of how Steve Jobs underpaid him for his work on the “Breakout” computer game they undertook for Atari is a tangible example of how his heart was clearly not in the business side of life. There are, however, other aspects of his story as told here, from his ready acceptance of “The Pentagon Papers” as telling the whole truth about Vietnam, through his personal relations, to the more obscure decisions he has made, such as his dalliance with Freemasonry, all give a sense that this is the story of someone brilliant in some areas of his life, yet deeply vulnerable in others. The picture that emerges, of the brilliant shy engineer with an affinity for patchily humorous pranks, is one of an interesting yet not always altogether likeable human.

In the greater scheme of things, “iWoz” is not the best book written about the evolution of the PC, and at times it feels as though it could both do with a decent edit, and the sometimes curious additions of sidebars give the impression that the publisher was working to a page count rather than focused on making the core message as powerful as possible. Cast in the light of the wider canon of literature about Apple it serves a very valuable purpose, clarifying some of the early history, and adding colour to the history of the PC's emergence in Northern California during the 1970s, equally it is interesting to read Wozniak's thoughts on Apple's re-emergence though products such as the iMac and, obviously, the iPod. In short, I've tried to buy this book a few times, and to be honest am now somewhat pleased to have been confounded by bookshop filing systems – a good library read, but would have been frustrating as a full price buy.  

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