I’ve told this story only a couple of times in 35 years, but after reading some news on Apple today, it prompted me to put it in writing, along with some editorial thought that has had time to bake – 35 years in fact.
Disclaimer: I am a fan of Apple. I own Apple devices (many). I’ve owned Apple shares on and off. I think the company is a stand-out American success story, through-and-through with little or no qualification. But, I depart the camp that worships Steve Jobs as an icon, much less tech deity. I believe his success was as much right-place-right-time as it was anything else. That does not subtract from the vision that became Apple (at least as much as we know about the history), nor is it contrary to the evidence — that is, Apple’s mega success.
One of the things that prompted me to put these thoughts in writing was the response to a Bloomberg article I read recently where Steve Wozniak opined on the current Apple. He thinks the company should be broken into distinct business units. But, he qualified his comments with the fact that he is not a business guy and his opinion should be taken as such. The astounding thing to me was the trolling responses to his opinion. Everything from “Wozniak is no Jobs” to “let’s burn him at the stake…” Of course the latter is an exaggeration, but the trolls were very quick to diminish Wozniak to an unimportant factor in Apple’s success. How naive and uniformed.
Now to the title of this post. In 1985, just as Steve Wozniak and Apple parted ways, I had the good fortune to meet Steve. He wouldn’t remember me, but the encounter was fascinating. I was a youngster, all of 24 and just starting to cut my teeth on computers, and had little knowledge Steve Wozniak. I had heard of Apple, but I didn’t have an Apple computer. I was writing BASIC on my Commodore 64 and working for a small computer store in my hometown of Savannah Georgia. My boss at the time asked me if I would be interested in going to hear this guy talk. Sure! If it was about technology, I was in. In our small town, we had a venue called the Savannah Science Museum (sadly no longer in operation). It was a cool place that I had visited many times as a kid on school field trips, weekend rainy day outings, etc. They had a planetarium, a snake exhibit, and other geeky things that I was always drawn to as a kid.
As I recall, the “talk” was to begin around 7pm. We arrived a little early and saw a group of three or four guys huddled off of the lobby. We approached and introduced ourselves. One of the guys was Woz himself! As it turns out, this event was somewhat makeshift, and we were it. A total of six people, including the man himself. It never turned into a formal presentation. We literally stood in a circle and talked for nearly two hours. We heard Woz tell stories of his early days in the valley, hacking electronics, building blue boxes, black boxes and other gadgets. For all of you kids out there, the famous blue box was a device to effectively rip off the phone company but simulating the tones required to make long distance calls without being charged, often referred to as “phreaking.” Woz mused of the story where he used the blue box to dial Vatican City posing as Henry Kissinger. That story has been told in print thousands of times, but hearing it while standing 3 feet from him is a special memory. Lots of other stories about using the devices he and Jobs (mostly Woz) built to skirt authority filled an hour. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but it’s now considered legendary.
While standing in this circle of geeks, all of us drooling over the stories of Silicon Valley (which seemed like a far off fantasyland at that time), I got an appreciation of Woz’ passion for the technology, if nothing else. He was no business guy. In fact, my assumption is that the money truly meant nothing to him. He would have happily participated in the journey he and Jobs took just for the experience, as long as he got to design and build stuff. That passion oozed from him. I think evidence shows that he was pretty good at it, so maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
As to why Woz was in Savannah, that question has never been answered. The year was 1985, and it was the week before Christmas. At the time, my understanding was that he was visiting family in Savannah. Some even said that he was visiting his sister. In scouring the web now for proof that he ever had a sister in Savannah, there simply is none. He only has one sister and she appears to have always lived in the Bay Area. There was also a story that he visited Savannah around this time of year — every year — to visit family. To my knowledge, this was the only time he offered to speak at the museum. Unless Woz himself answers the question, I’ll always wonder.
The summary here is, I met the guy. It wasn’t just a passive meeting. We stood and talked for multiple hours. I don’t know him, but one thing was so clearly evident. He is maybe the most authentic geek I’ve ever met, he loves being a geek, and he is (or was) innately passionate about technology, building things, solving problems, and he cared nothing about money. Some say that’s an easy position to take when you have an unlimited supply. I really don’t think that was the case with him then, and probably not now.
Back to the impetus of me scratching out this quick post, Apple wasn’t the Steve Jobs show. I full-believe that Apple would not have been possible without Wozniak. Whether it was Woz’ genius giving Jobs the confidence to plow through the obstacles they encountered, or the simple fact that the first box was built by Woz, not Jobs. There is no argument that Apple was guided much by Jobs’ vision. He proved, unequivocally, that he had a unique passion and drive to make believers of the masses, and to motivate them to adopt his vision. Does this mean that Jobs, sans Woz, wouldn’t have gone on to do something equally as special? No, I think not. It simply means that moments in time that lead to something as wildly successful as Apple are very much right-place-right-time, but also right people. Jobs without Woz may have been a complete dud. We’ll never know. So, to those trolls who dismiss Woz as an unimportant factor in Apple’s success, think before you open your mouth. Oh… and don’t be a troll.