Apple's 'other Steve' on its inner geek

Steve Wozniak on his obsessive role in the company's early success.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

With the iPod and iPhone taking on the status of cult objects, it's easy to forget that Apple was once a humble start-up operating out of some bloke's garage - and that its messianic leader Steve Jobs wasn't involved in virgin births. Indeed, Apple's is a classic tale of business nous meeting technical expertise, and engineer Steve Wozniak was provided the obsessive drive behind Jobs' savvy marketing.

Wozniak shared his entrepreneurial nuggets yesterday at the BFI's Imax cinema, as part of the London Business Forum. This was a fittingly hi-tech venue for an Apple co-founder. The engineer proudly admitted an obsession with numbers (‘When I go to a hotel I hope to get a room with a prime number, or something in binary.') It's a character style that contrasted well with the charismatic Jobs, who he met at high-school when the latter was busy cutting classes and listening to Bob Dylan. Wozniak revealed that in an early job designing calculators at Hewlett-Packard: ‘I didn't have a social life. I'd come home, watch some Star Trek, then work on more electronics.' Tragic, if he weren't now so wealthy.

Apple came directly from this meeting of the engineer's quest for simple perfection, and Jobs' eye for opportunity. When Wozniak first encountered the Arpanet, the precursor to the internet, he immediately set to designing and building his own terminal to get connected himself. It was Jobs who suggested flogging it to business.

So they spent their time in Jobs' garage, knocking out what would become the Apple I. They soon had a $50,000 order to make 100 machines for the computer shops that were springing up selling expensive kits. ‘The Apple I was the first computer to have keys, and a video screen, and it changed the world. We bought the parts on 30-day credit - we had no money, so we drove the boxes from the manufacturer down to the stores, who paid us in cash.'

While Jobs kept his eye on these opportunities, Wozniak was still being driven by his engineering obsession. He is a big fan of saying ‘the work is art'. Wozniak told how a tight deadline for a tradeshow in Las Vegas drove him to pioneer the floppy disk. If he could get a disk drive operational by the show - in two weeks time - he'd get to see the City of Lights. ‘Those small personal motivations can be so strong,' he says. Wozniak worked round the clock for two weeks over Christmas, including Christmas day, made it work, shed the disk of many of its expensive components and got his trip to Las Vegas. And secured the company a lot of media attention. ‘I want to do every bit of the job myself. I'll do it late at night, until 4am, working on details no one else will notice.'

And so to Wozniak's suggestions on how other companies can get some of Apple's innovation: ‘Business needs to tap into these intrinsic rewards. Give people room to be interdisciplinary, to work on many elements, and feel a stronger identity with the project.' Let people be autonomous, he says, and allow them to discover their own methods and solutions. ‘And let them work towards personal goals. Hewlett-Packard allowed me to use its store-room for my own projects. This leads to intellectual growth - which is better and cheaper than paying for endless training.'

Wozniak also impresses how it's key to keep sight of one's original goals. ‘Everything Apple does goes back to its early values,' he says. ‘To make people see the product and need to have it; to be the best option out there; and to be humanist. There's no formula to get people to love your products, but make it intuitive to people, then it will become iconic.'

There was one occasion when the feet of the focused engineer left the ground ofr a moment. ‘What about Apple music?', he once asked Jobs, who replied: ‘That's a music company, we're a computer company.' Even visionaries like Jobs don't always see the bigger picture.


In today's bulletin:

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Apple's 'other Steve' on its inner geek 

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