Book Review 66: iWoz: How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that day, Sunday, June 29, 1975, was pivotal. It was the first time in history anyone had typed a character on a keyboard and seen it show up on the screen right in front of them.

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Steve Wozniak’s memoir (co-authored by Gina Smith), “iWoz” is a great book for several reasons. It’s generally well written. It gives a nice overview of the history of the computer buisness in the 70s (and is a great compliment to Andy Grove’s, “Only the Paranoid Survive”), and it tells us a lot about Woz as a person. It’s a book with great geek appeal.

If you want to learn more about Apple’s design or marketing practices, this is a not the book for you. The recent Steve Jobs biography may be a better choice for that; Woz was largely done with Apple’s day-to-day operations when Apple became a design house. This book is more about the early days of the PC business and the evolution of electronics.

The biggest negative about this book is that at times Woz and coauthor Gina Smith seem to ramble or repeat things unnecessarily. While mildly annoying at times, this doesn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the book.

The thing that stands out most for me is how Woz can talk about how smart he is and how his inventions changed the entire industry and the world, and he does that without sounding arrogant or like he’s bragging. There is an innocent, matter-of-factness to his stories that is both amazing and charming. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone else pull that off.
So right there in that bowling alley I suddenly had this cool new goal. I was going to go back and start thinking about my first design that was actually going to put characters on a TV set. I remember how, way back in high school, I wondered how, if I ever did a computer, I would ever be able to afford one that could ever display characters on a screen. That was unfathomable back then. But now, I knew, something was different.

Everything had changed.

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So I designed this game Breakout.

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That was amazing because back then color TVs operated with circuits a lot more complicated than any computer was back then. And the funny thing is, that very idea came to me in the middle of the night at that lab at Atari. I did no testing on it, but I filed it away in my memory, and eventually that was exactly how things like color monitors ended up on personal computers everywhere. Because of my wild idea that night.

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Every computer before the Apple I had the front panel of switches and lights. Every computer since has had a keyboard and screen. That’s how huge my idea turned out.

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The Apple II was the first low-cost computer which, out of the box, you didn’t have to be a geek to use.

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Woz’s father was an engineer in the Bay-Area aerospace industry, and he encouraged his son to learn the field where transistors were still new and computers were mamoth things fed by punch cards.

Engineering wasn’t just a good living -- it was a calling. There was a beauty and elegance to electronics and engineering. Technology was an end in and of itself.
I so clearly remember him telling me that engineering was the highest level of importance you could reach in the world, that someone who could make electrical devices that do something good for people takes society to a new level. He told me that as a an engineer, you can change your world and change the ways of life for lots of people.

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And I came to that same view when I was very young, ten or maybe younger. Inside my head -- and this is what has really stayed with me -- I came to the view that basically, yes, technology is good and not bad.

People argue about this all the time, but I have no doubt about it at all. I believe technology moves us forward. Always.

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As Woz grew up, he quickly picked up on computer programming. This discussion is interesting in a couple of respects. One is that he grasps the technology so enthusiastically. The other is the way he breaks down digital technology to the basic math.
Here’s what was amazing to me back then. I thought to myself: Hey, at my current level of fifth-grade math, I am able to learn math used by a computer -- De Morgan’s Theorem, Boolean algebra. I mean, anyone could learn Boolen algebra and they wouldn’t even need a higher level of math than I already had in fifth grade. Computers -- were kind of simple, I discovered. And that blew me away. Computers -- which in my opinion were the most incredible things in the world, the most advanced technology there was, way above the head, above the understanding, of almost everyone -- were so simple a fifth grader like me could understand them! I loved that. I decided then that I wanted to do logic and computers for fun.I wasn’t sure if that was even possible.

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This is one of the things that many people overlook about computers -- they all work on very basic principals of math. They’re nothing but collections of light switches where everything is on or off. The entire digital world economy is based on this simple construct. And those switches will only do exactly what the user and programmer tell them today.

Woz continued to develop his skills in technology. He developed such a deep affinity for technology, that eventually he could actually write in machine code.
This 1 and 0 program could be entered into RAM or a PROM and run as a program. The hitch was that I couldn’t afford to pay for computer time. Luckily, the 6502 manual I had described what 1s and 0s were generated for each instruction, each step of a program. MOS Technologies even provided a pocket-sized card you carry that included all the 1s and 0s for each of the many instructions you needed.

So I wrote on the left side of the page in machine language. As an example, I might write down “LDA #44,” which means to load data corresponding to 44 (in hexadecimal) into the microprocessor’s A register.

On the right side of the page, I would write that instruction in hexadecimal using my card. For example that instruction would translate into A9 44. The instruction A9 44 stood for 2 bytes of data, which equated to 1s and 0s the computer could understand: 10101001 01000100.

Writing the program this way took about two or three pieces of paper, using every line.

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Woz developed a particular knack for simplifying hardware and software designs. Whether due to the cost of chips or just the challenge of technology, Woz would redesign and improve systems by removing chips and simplifying code. He also approached it all as a learning opportunity. A lot of what he accomplished he did because it was something he didn’t necesarily know how to do. The reason he can talk about his accomplishments without it coming across as excessive bragging is that he never seems to act like he knows everything already. He’s perpetually curious.
This plywood was covered with parts and it was a huge project. And having a huge project is a huge part of learning engineering -- learning anything, probably.

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That made me realize that a million times a second didn’t solve everything. Raw speed isn’t always the solution. Many understandable problems need an insightful, well-thought-out approach to succeed. The approach a program takes to solve something, the rules and steps and procedures it follows, by the way, is called an algorithm.

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His desire to push the boundaries of technology wasn’t his only motivation. There was also the more basic need he felt, born from his own shyness. Communicating with people was always a challenge for him. He faced the traditional nerd challenge of making friends and building relationships. Technology was his solution to the problem.
In that sense, it was a great way to show off my real talent, my talent of coming up with clever designs, designs that were efficient and affordable. By that I mean designs that would use the fewest components possible.

I also designed the Apple because I wanted to give it away for free to other people. I gave out schematics for building my computer at the next meeting I attended.

This was my way of socializing and getting recognized. I had to build something to show other people.

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Woz also talks about his love for practical jokes. In college he discovered he could jam a TV signal in a rec room with a device. He would turn it on, the signal would go out, someone else would get up to try to fix it, Woz would turn off the device and really confuse people.
So anyone watching would think that, okay, hitting harder works better. They all thought something was loose inside the TV and that by hitting it hard with your hand you could fix it. It was almost like a psychology experiment -- except, I noticed, humans learn better than rats. Only rats learn it quicker.

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At one point he started getting phone calls from people who were trying to reach and airline. Woz started having fun with them.
I told some caller they could fly “freight.” But they had to wear warm clothing.

I kept a straight face because everyone always went for the lower fare. At some point I started telling them it was cheaper to fly on a propeller planes than jets. The first time I did this I tried to book a guy on a thirty-four hour flight to London. But he would have nothing to do with it. I did get a number of people to buy a cheap twenty-four hour flight form San Jose to New York City.

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Woz tells more about the early days of Apple, his relationship with Steve Jobs, his endeavors after leaving day-to-day operations at Apple, his family life and more. I’ve only scratched the surface here. Regardless of your feeling about Apple as an organization, this is a fantastic book, and Woz has had a fascinating life. Despite the occasional bit of rambling and redundant content. “iWoz” remains an excellent read.

You can find more of my book review here.

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