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Dancing with Steve Wozniak

Credit: Tactus

Credit: Tactus

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, reminds us all of the joy of invention. Of tinkering. Of hacking. Of making stuff work. Of being excellent.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet and listen to Steve several times over the years; He’s always funny and engaging, and his scriptless riffs get better all the time. He was most entertaining during a speech at the Peninsula Speaker Series in San Mateo, California, on Wednesday, December 4.

Steve’s hour-long talk (and Q&A session) covered familiar ground: His hacking the phone system with blue boxes (and meeting Captain Crunch), working his way though college, meeting Steve Jobs, designing the Apple I and Apple II computers, the dispute about the Apple Macintosh vs. Apple Lisa, his suffering amnesia after a plane crash, his dedication to Elementary school teaching, his appearance on the TV competition Dancing with the Stars in 2009, and so on. Many of us have heard and read these stories before — and love them.

We also heard some new material, in reaction to the recent movies about Steve Jobs. Woz refuted, for example, some film portrayals that Jobs introduced Wozniak to the Homebrew Computer Club (Wozniak says he brought Jobs there), and that Jobs liked Bob Dylan while Wozniak preferred the Beatles (both were Dylan fans, Wozniak says).

What made Wozniak light up, though, was talking about inventing things. His initial developments were in hardware. Wozniak’s access to programmable devices came later, but his joy as a programmer with a keyboard runs as deep as his joy as an engineer with a soldering iron.

Wozniak’s face lit up when talking about hooking up a TV to use as a computer display for an early terminal. He glowed when remembering using a $1 chip to send digital data to the TV to display color – something that would normally have needed a thousand-dollar device. He was electrified when describing how the first software-based computer games worked, and creating a Breakout game in an early version of BASIC instead of with chips.

When asked about future platforms and areas of development, Steve enthused about artificial intelligences, like Siri, that can respond better to human speech, including getting better about human context, in addition to the literal meanings of words. He talked about systems that can improve their understanding by reading the speaker’s mood, facial expressions, voice inflection, and other nuances.

Steve Wozniak is a legend; he single-handedly invented much of the personal computer revolution, and his Apple I and best-selling Apple II changed the world. Steve’s interests may have moved on, but he reminds us that the joy comes not from the sales or marketing, but in the invention of something new. Steve Wozniak remains an inspiration.

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