Happy birthday, Woz: Apple’s co-founder turns 64 today

steve-wozniak

Apple’s beloved co-founder Steve Wozniak turns 64 years old today. Steve Jobs may be the most admired figure to come out of Apple, but with his imperious distance from us mere mortals, he was hard to love.

Wozniak, on the other hand, is well and truly beloved by the tech community.

A true Silicon Valley original, he’s the genius who invented the personal computer, got rich, and then spent his fortune having fun rather than taking over the world. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a practical joker, all-around nerd, and someone who has never been afraid to speak his mind about technology’s power to change the world.

If everyone who met Steve Jobs has some war story about his sharpness they now wear like a badge of honor, it’s tough to find someone with a bad word to say about Woz. Where Jobs was the cool hippie who dreamed of going to find himself in India, Woz was the nerd who just wanted his own personal computer.

When Wozniak’s father told him as a boy that a mainframe computer would cost him as much as a house, Wozniak answered, “That’s okay, I’ll live in an apartment.”

According to legend, when Wozniak’s father told him as a boy that a mainframe computer would cost him as much as a house, Wozniak answered, “That’s okay, I’ll live in an apartment.”

If Jobs’ perfectionism and belief in functional-form became ingrained in the Apple DNA, then Wozniak’s biggest contribution was Apple’s fun-loving and friendly image — something that most certainly didn’t come from Woz’s more prickly co-founder.

A prankster all his life, during his short stint at Berkeley University Woz rigged the university computer so that it churned out endless reams of paper reading GOOD SCRAP PAPER.

Later on at Apple he sneaked into the cubicle of a colleague and deposited a live mouse inside the computer he was working on — then looking on in glee as the employee in question got more and more bemused about his computer’s odd squeaking sound.

Steve Jobs may have realized the value of creating ads that didn’t look like the other computer ads out there, but Wozniak’s humor and good-natured persona created a perceived friendliness to Apple’s machines that was vital at a time when most non-geeks were terrified of having a computer in their home.

He was also a peacemaker inside Apple; someone who would stick up for the little guy in a way that employees who worked with him have never forgotten. When Steve Jobs began barring certain early employees from having stock options for reasons few could understand, Wozniak began the so-called “Woz Plan” by giving away his own Apple shares to employees who otherwise wouldn’t qualify. As a result he took home $100 million less than Jobs when Apple went public in 1980.

The Disk II was actually one of Wozniak’s crowning achievements at Apple

“That’s the way he was,” Randy Wigginton, one of Apple’s earliest employees, told me about Woz’s character when I interviewed him for my book The Apple Revolution. “Always very helpful, very kind. He wasn’t pretentious or anything … I would just ask [him] questions non-stop. That was sort of my education.”

Although there’s no denying that Jobs (and, in the early days, other “adult supervision” figures like Apple’s first CEO Michael Scott) was more business-minded than Wozniak, Woz was no slouch in this department.

While he’s best remembered for the Apple II, the Disk II was actually one of Wozniak’s crowning achievements at Apple, being the company’s first 5 ½-inch floppy disk.

Created with then-17 year old Randy Wigginton over Christmas 1977 (Wigginton took December 25 off; Wozniak didn’t) the peripheral not only added a whole lot of functionality to Apple’s desktop, it was an early example of the company’s present high margin business model: costing just $140 in components, and selling for upwards of $495.

Ultimately, though, what Wozniak loved was the geeky achievement and camaraderie rather than the monetary gain. “That was so awesome, so much fun,” Wigginton told me, remembering that Christmas. “It wasn’t about money or fame, it was a nerdy accomplishment that we were proud of.”

Today Woz continues to pursue that utopian mission statement: whether it means asking Apple and Google to put aside their differences for the greater technological good, or campaigning the FCC to keep the Internet free — all while managing to somehow balance this with cameos on The Big Bang Theory, becoming a Tetris world champion and, of course, his continued penchance for Segways.

He’s a true one-of-a-kind, and anyone reading this likely owes a large part of their lives to him.

Happy birthday, Woz!

  • TJ

    I grew up on Apple ][+’s and Apple IIe’s in the classroom. I learned how to make an ASCII “rocketship” take off from my CRT using BASIC. (Looped carriage line returns after the rocketship was drawn…) My first computer I owned (with my own paper route money) was an Apple IIGS. Woz was Apple to me. The whimsicalness, the relaxed focus attitude it portrayed. I’m certain that was Woz’s influence. I was so pissed the Mac ended up killing the IIGS after I saved all that money to buy one, that I moved to PCs for nearly 20 years before going back. Woz will always be beloved, but I do recognize that Apple would have been crushed and shredded if it weren’t for Job’s ability to make it a profitable business. Woz gets a pass for using Android phones, even the best of us can have moments of idiocy.

    Congrats Woz on the completion of your fourth “word.” May many more bits and bytes follow. You’ll know you’re a real geek if you get that last (rather bad) joke.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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