`Woz' goes back to work

Surprise: Silicon Valley is all abuzz - the inventor of the Apple is busy developing the next big thing.

April 16, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS GATOS, Calif. - Behind the closed doors and darkened windows of what looks like a former furniture store, Steve Wozniak just might be proving F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong: Maybe there are second acts in American lives.

Wozniak, whose invention of the Apple computer launched the PC revolution, has generated buzz in Silicon Valley and beyond by announcing several months ago that he is developing new wireless products.

After years in which the idiosyncratic Wozniak drifted away from the industry he helped create and pursued decidedly non-geek interests such as producing rock concerts and teaching fifth grade, his return to the drawing board has many eagerly anticipating a next big thing.

Wozniak will reveal little about his new company, called Wheels of Zeus solely because its acronym is also his nickname, Woz. He will say only that the new products will use global positioning systems and antenna technology and make them more affordable and accessible to the average consumer.

"It isn't going to be a scooter," Wozniak said, referring to the last mystery-shrouded invention, by Dean Kamen, which turned out to be just that.

If he's tight-lipped about what he's working on, Wozniak sounds glad to be back in the inventing business after years in which he focused largely on philanthropic projects.

"As far as making new products, that was something I've always been interested in," said Wozniak, who in 1976 started the Apple computer company with Steve Jobs, and eventually left as it grew into a huge worldwide corporation. "And I like the idea of a small company."

Wozniak, 51, has secured $6 million in initial funding and says products could appear in the marketplace in a year. But don't look for devices labeled wOz - as the company calls itself. Wozniak plans to develop technology, then form partnerships with companies that would make the devices.

Here in the epicenter of the high-tech industry, Wozniak's new company is being hailed by many as a sign that Silicon Valley, which has been buffeted in recent years by the technology crash and the flame-out of numerous dot-com companies, is back on its feet.

If Woz is back, the feeling goes, the Valley is back.

"Once again, he'll lead the charge," said Tim Draper, a venture capitalist whose firm is one of three to invest in wOz. "The timing was really good. People were looking for something positive to hold onto. Here's a guy who's meant a lot to Silicon Valley, and a lot to our society. Now he recognizes there's something else he can invent.

"I think he thought, `This is something that could get me back in the game,'" said Draper, who also serves as chairman of the wOz's advisory board. "Lightning could strike twice."

Wozniak is a little more circumspect, and he doesn't compare what he's working on now to his most famed invention.

"I don't think it will be as significant or important as the personal computer was," he said of his new project. "There was a big wave with personal computers that lasted a while, there was a lot of growth and it became an everyday product.

"Then there was the Internet wave, but now there are less new things in life. The changes now are incremental, and people don't find that they need the latest upgrade.

"The thing that really bothers me is that every new upgrade means more bugs and more crashes," Wozniak said, sounding like any irritated computer user rather than one of the field's founding fathers. "Computers are great now if you don't touch them."

The new company was announced in January and immediately was flooded with calls and e-mails from engineers and others who wanted to work on Wozniak's latest venture.

For many, he symbolizes the pre-Internet Silicon Valley, a time of creativity rather than hype, when someone tinkering in a garage could create a groundbreaking device on a shoestring, without first brokering a multimillion-dollar deal.

The story of how the two Steves, Wozniak the engineering whiz and Jobs the marketing genius, created Apple in one such garage is already the stuff of legend. Guidebooks even direct tourists to the garage, in a middle-class suburban neighborhood in nearby Los Altos.

(It's also not far from the Palo Alto garage that was spawned another legendary partnership, that of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.)

It was there that Wozniak in 1976 created Apple I, a rudimentary computer that Jobs convinced him could be sold, although it was really the later version - the Apple II, introduced the following year - that rocketed the company to widespread prominence.

For purists, the garage days represent the real Silicon Valley, rather than the one of more recent vintage, when big money was showered on Internet entrepreneurs who despite the largesse were never able to turn a profit.

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