Engineering a revolution

Apple co-founder Wozniak set out to make computers, not a fortune

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April 06, 2006|By JOHN BOUDREAU | JOHN BOUDREAU,SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Steve Wozniak says he never intended to change the world. That was the other Steve, Steve Jobs.

He just wanted to build computers. Oh, and he really - really - wanted to spend his career as a Hewlett-Packard engineer, a position he reluctantly left.

Life turned out differently for the self-trained electrical engineer. In 1976, he and Jobs started Apple Computer, which helped to launch the personal computer revolution. Observers say Apple would never be what it is today without either Steve - Jobs, the tech evangelist and visionary, and Wozniak, whose technical genius created computers for the masses.

"I didn't want to start this company," said Wozniak, known in Silicon Valley as "Woz." "My goal wasn't to make a ton of money. It was to build good computers. I only started the company when I realized I could be an engineer forever."

Wozniak, 55, left Apple in 1981 to work on his engineering degree at the University of California, Berkeley and dabble in other things. He returned for three years in 1983. Though he has been involved in other ventures since Apple, Wozniak will always be identified with the Cupertino, Calif., company.

Wozniak, who will publish an autobiography, I, Woz, this fall, prefers to stay out of the spotlight but willingly signs autographs on everything from laptops to an apple (the kind you eat).

He also recently linked up with former Apple chief executive Gilbert F. Amelio, who was ousted from Apple in 1997, and Ellen M. Hancock, who was chief technology officer, also until 1997, to form Acquicor Technology. It raised $150 million last month to buy other technology companies.

Wozniak recently sat down with the San Jose Mercury News to talk about Apple's 30th anniversary, which was Saturday, in his home in the Los Gatos hills. Here is an edited version of that interview:

In 1976, how did you think a personal computer would change people's lives?

We did believe that computers would fit into every home because of the price and some of the things they did. We thought people would use the computer in the home for normal home things: You have a kitchen, so you keep recipes on it. You have a checkbook, and you can have the computer do the subtraction for you. We didn't realize what having a computer in virtually every home would be like - how you can make a decision and a million lives are affected.

I was just doing something I was very good at, and the thing that I was good at turned out to be the thing that was going to change the world. That wasn't my plan. I didn't think, "I'm going to change the world." No, I'm just going to build the best machines I can build that I would want to use in my own life.

Steve [Jobs] was much more further-thinking. When I designed good things, sometimes he'd say, "We can sell this." And we did. He was thinking about how you build a company; maybe even then he was thinking, "How do you change the world?" He spoke like that.

The big computer companies of the day didn't see the potential for a small computer for the home. Why is that?

Some of them expressly said this is not going to be a successful business. They didn't see the little bends in the curve. They probably didn't see the ease of running cheap applications software, a lot of little start-ups using low-cost technology to build peripherals and software, or things like VisiCalc [spreadsheet software].

You were working at Hewlett-Packard while you and Steve Jobs were creating Apple Computer. Did HP know about your Apple work?

Yes. As soon as Steve Jobs suggested, "Why don't we sell a PC board of this computer?" I said, "I think I signed something, an employment contract, that said what I designed belongs to Hewlett-Packard." And I loved that company. That was my company for life.

So I approached Hewlett-Packard first. Boy, did I make a pitch. I wanted them to do it. I had the Apple I, and I had a description of what the Apple II could do. I spoke of color. I described an $800 machine that ran BASIC [an early computer language], came out of the box fully built and talked to your home TV.

And Hewlett-Packard found some reasons it couldn't be a Hewlett-Packard product.

Did HP ever express regret to you about passing on the Apple I and Apple II?

Oddly enough, by the time I was working on the Apple II, and we were selling the Apple I - and I was working at Hewlett-Packard still - they started up a project on my floor without telling me. ... I asked to be on the project.

I really wanted to work on computers. And they turned me down for the job. To this day I don't know why. I said, "I don't have to run anything," even though I'd done all these things and they knew it. I said, "I'll do a printer interface. I'll do the lowliest engineering job there is." I wanted to work on a computer at my company, and they turned me down. When you think about it, every time they turned me down, it was fortunate for the world, and it was fortunate for myself.

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