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October 08, 2006

Off to See the Woz

"He is unlike any other being in Shadow or reality. He is the Master of Arms for Amber...Can you understand a man who, for almost every day of a lifetime like that, has spent time dwelling with weapons, tactics, strategies? Because you see him in a tiny kingdom, commanding a small militia, with a well-pruned orchard in his back yard, do not be deceived. All that there is of military science thunders in his head. He has often journeyed from shadow to shadow, witnessing variation after variation on the same battle, with but slightly altered circumstances, in order to test his theories of warfare. He has commanded armies so vast that you could watch them march by day after day and see no end to the columns."
- From The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny

Last Friday I went to see Steve Wozniak talk at Microsoft. This was by far the most overcrowded talk I have been to. The room had approximately 185 seats and 20 minutes before it started every seat was taken. I would estimate there were 75 people standing or sitting in the aisle by the time it started; I don't know if they turned people away. It was also the only talk I've been to where the speaker received a standing ovation before the talk began.

Woz could accurately be described as a "great big bear of a man" (in fact he reminded me of the Plugger in the third cartoon in this Comics Curmudgeon post, except picture him soldering a chip to a board instead of threading a needle). He was in town promoting his new book iWoz. His talk, delivered without notes or slides, was a somewhat unfocused history of his life in technology. From glancing at the book, it appears to be much the same. But who cares!! It's Woz, fer crackin' ice, he could be reading a dictionary and it would still be worth listening to. He is not blessed with a silver tongue, but he's funny, he has some great stories, and he was present at the creation.

His recurring theme was simplicity; he always tried to do designs with fewer chips, and relentlessly re-designed his work to achieve this goal. Along the way he met Steve Jobs (who he described as someone who would "go around with bare feet and eat seeds out of bags"). Woz had a good laugh line about Jobs, which he used several times: he designs some cool new thing and shows it to Jobs, and Jobs replies, "Why don't you sell it?" Which of course they did.

He did not directly discuss his relationship with Jobs, but it's obviously had its ups and downs over the years. Someone asked a question about the badge 1 vs. 2 controversy at Apple (Wozniak was given badge #1 and Jobs was given badge #2, and supposedly then schemed to get badge #0). Woz's point was that the design for the computer (his contribution) came before Apple the company (Jobs's contribution) so he deserved badge #1. There was a slight overtone as he told this story which indicated he felt it was not just the order of events, but also the relative importance of them, that made him the deserved owner of badge #1. In any case he is obviously secure and contented enough not to worry too much about their past history or begrudge Jobs his greater public recognition (especially since he has greater GEEK recognition).

Talking about Apple, he said that they had always tried for "fanciful" designs, which is as good a term as any. He felt that if HP (for whom he worked when he did the original design, and who declined to productize it several times) had done the Apple I, they would have botched it by not being fanciful. He also said that he was still proud that "Apple has done things a litle simpler and has not designed a bunch of crap."

He wound up speaking for about 50 minutes, before abruptly interrupting his history (Apple had been founded but had not yet gone public) to say that his speaking time was up and he would take questions. He received a 15-second standing ovation at the end.

Although I don't usually succumb to such fanboy tendencies, I bought a copy of his book and stood in a long line to have him sign it. Somebody in front of me told Woz, "In high school I had a schematic of the Apple II on my bedroom wall!" Luckily he was talking to the 0.000001% of the population who would respond positively to this comment, rather than dump a drink on his head. In fact Woz was impressed (he said that he had had a schematic of the Data General Nova on his wall) and rewarded him with a business card. I thought at that moment that a business card from Woz would be cool. Later, thanks to Robert Scoble, I found out that it's made of etched metal and also that Woz said one had sold on eBay for $500 (actually, one just sold today for $560).

When it was my turn to talk to Woz, I asked him what he thought of the Apple II clone market. The PC market exploded due to clones, so I was curious if he appreciated the same effect for Apple back in the day (one summer in high school I ran a BBS with my friends Val and Avi on Val's "Rama II", a clone so junky we had to stick Lego pieces under the keyboard to make it work, but the thing did run). Woz said that he did not like the clones; when I asked about them helping build the market, he said there were not enough of them to matter (which could be true). I understand that as the engineer whose design was being ripped off he might be more annoyed than, say, Jobs the businessman (although Jobs's inner chakras may have had their spin rate addled by the metaphysical wrongness of the clones).

I also asked Woz what he thought of today's hackers. He was a notorious "prankster", but some of his pranks are the kinds of things that people go to jail for now (like stealing long distance). Was he worried that today's pranksters would become tomorrow's inmates, rather than tomorrow's hardware designers? His reply was "I hope not" and the book was intended to help prevent this. I pointed out that I was wearing my EFF t-shirt (by coincidence) and he shook my hand and said he had helped found the EFF (Did he? Let me check Wikipedia...nothing there...hang on, edited at 16:35, 6 October 2006 by PoppaBear...waitjesadagboneminute). I was hoping that my shirt would earn me a business card, and even considered asking for one, but I figured he would view that as tacky (and since he knew they were being flipped for $500, he presumably would have said no anyway). Well, whatever. I don't have a business card I can cut a steak with, but I have a signed book, and my memory of meeting a legend.

Posted by AdamBa at October 8, 2006 09:48 PM

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RATS! I missed this one. Glad you were able to go and meet Woz

Posted by: anonymouse at October 10, 2006 11:42 PM

I thought you might be interested in a new documentary on Silicon Valley, called In Search of the Valley. It also features Woz, and came out last month.


Posted by: steve at October 11, 2006 12:43 PM

To Woz/Apple fans, I highly recommend reading "Infinite Loop". Its a bit hefty but well written IMO (and of course, available via mslibrary :) )

Posted by: anonymouse at October 15, 2006 06:25 PM