Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review - iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith

Short review: Wozniak is a weird guy, but he is weird in exactly the way that was probably necessary to make the personal computer a reality.

Eccentric genius
Made the information age
And had lots of fun

Full review: Steve Wozniak is well known to tech savvy people as one of the two co founders of Apple Computer, and the driving force behind the development of the original Apple I and Apple II personal computers. More recently, he has achieved a slightly more kitschy kind of fame as Kathy Griffin's boyfriend on Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List and a short-lived contestant on Dancing with the Stars, in which his slightly off-kilter personality came to the fore. In iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It it becomes apparent that while Wozniak is a very quirky individual, he is probably quirky in a way that we should all be thankful for, because without his ability to work out computer architecture on sheets of paper, program in binary in his head, and has an odd fondness for repeating numbers and other number patterns, then it is quite possible that the personal computer as we know it would not have been developed when it was, if ever.

Wozniak starts, logically enough, at the beginning and proceeds to tell his life story more or less in chronological order. One of the more interesting elements of his biography is the relatively scant amount of attention that is paid to Woziniak's time developing the original Apple computer and his time with the company. While this is obviously what he is most famous for, it is also obvious that it isn't of substantial consequence to him. His pride in the technical achievement of getting a machine with keyboard input and video output comes through clearly, as does the fact that using his designs Apple put a pair of high quality products on the market, but it is also clear that just about everything else about Apple wasn't that important in Wozaniak's eyes. He also makes clear that he did not leave Apple on bad terms, in fact, he never left the company at all, and is still listed as an employee on its payroll. This illustrates that loyalty is one of the key elements that Wozniak considers to be of high importance in a person, a fact that comes up over and over again.

Over and over in the book the striking thing is how nice, and yet truly odd Wozniak is. As a kid he was a Little League star (which is unsurprising as his father was a star quarterback in college) who loved to build technological toys like an improvised intercom system between all of the neighborhood kids' houses. He spends a decent chunk of the book discussing his involvement with the phone phreaks and building devices to work around the phone system to get free calls, but asserts ethical reasons for doing so. Wozniak developed the original Apple computer while working at Hewlett-Packard, and was loyal enough to offer the machine to them up front (they turned him down). He gave portions of his own stock in Apple to employees he didn't feel had gotten enough, and based upon a verbal commitment sold some of his stock to an outside investor for a ridiculously low price. He is the guy who ran a dial-a-joke line for years, just because he wanted to make people laugh. But this is the same guy who ran up huge computer fees in college running programs that spat out Fibonacci numbers or who was overjoyed to move into a house in which the address had all of the first five digits in its number. The person that comes through is one who is definitely an oddball, but a well-meaning, gentle, and kind one, and one who it seems, would be an intensely loyal and valuable friend.

Wozniak seems to be something of a utopian, not really caring about money in a way that only someone who has become truly rich can, but to be fair, he seems to have felt this way before Apple made him a multimillionaire. It seems that so long as he has someone to joke with, and a technical project that interests him, he's a happy guy, and everything else is just gravy to him. For anyone who wants the inside scoop on the doings at Apple in the early years, and the machinations of Steve Jobs jockeying for position in the industry this book will likely be a disappointment. But for anyone who is interested in a portrait of what gentle genius looks like (and Wozniak is so forgiving that it doesn't even bother him that Jobs cheated him when they developed Breakout for Atari), then this book will give a fascinating glimpse into that mind. Before I read this book I had tremendous respect for Wozniak's accomplishments, and thought of him as a bizarre genius. After having read the book, I have come to see him as much more, a truly rare kind of person who is not only genius, but who is full of humanity as well.

Steve Wozniak     Gina Smith     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

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