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What the other Steve has to say...

Date: Feb. 2007
Author: Jessica Livingston
Published at: Founders at Work

· · Jessica Livingston · Wozniak´s Founders at Work Interview · ·

Founders at Work is a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days. These people are celebrities now. What was it like when they were just a couple friends with an idea? Founders like Steve Wozniak (Apple), Caterina Fake (Flickr), Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Max Levchin (PayPal), and Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail) tell you in their own words about their surprising and often very funny discoveries as they learned how to build a company.

If any one person can be said to have set off the personal computer revolution, it might be Steve Wozniak. He designed the machine that crystallized what a desktop computer was: the Apple II.

Wozniak and Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer in 1976. Between Wozniak's technical ability and Jobs's mesmerizing energy, they were a powerful team. Woz first showed off his home-built computer, the Apple I, at Silicon Valley's Homebrew Computer Club in 1976. After Jobs landed a contract with the Byte Shop, a local computer store, for 100 pre-assembled machines, Apple was launched on a rapid ascent.

Woz soon followed with the machine that made the company, the Apple II. He single-handedly designed all its hardware and software - an extraordinary feat even for the time. And what's more, he did it all while working at his day job at Hewlett-Packard. The Apple II was presented to the public at the first West Coast Computer Faire in 1977.

Apple Computer went public in 1980 in the largest IPO since Ford in 1956, creating more instant millionaires than any other company up to that point.

The Apple II was the machine that brought computers onto the desks of ordinary people. The reason it did was that it was so miraculously well-designed. But when you meet Woz in person, you realize another equally miraculous aspect of his character. A programmer might describe it by saying he's good in hardware.


Livingston: Take me back to before you started Apple.

Woz: Even back in high school I knew I could design computers with half as many chips as the companies were selling them with. I taught myself, but I had taught myself in a way that forced me to learn all sorts of trickiness. Because you try to make valuable what you're good at. I was good at making things with very few parts by using all sorts of tricks - almost the equivalent of mathematics - so I valued products that were made with very few parts.

That helped in two ways. When you are a startup or an individual on your own, you don't have very much money, so the fewer parts you have to buy, the better. When you design with very few parts, everything is so clean and orderly you can understand it more deeply in your head, and that causes you to have fewer bugs. You live and sleep with every little detail of the product.

In the few years before Apple, I was working at Hewlett-Packard designing scientific calculators. That was a real great opportunity to be working with the hot product of the day. But what I did that led to starting a company was on the side. When I came home from work, I kept doing electronics anyway. I didn't do the same calculators we were doing at work, but I got involved through other people with the earliest home pinball games, hotel movies...The first VCRs made for people were actually made by an American company - not Betamax, it was before Betamax even - called Cartravision. It was put in some Sears TVs. I got involved with that.

I saw arcade games - the first arcade game, Pong, that really made it big - so I designed one of those on my own. Then Atari wanted to take my design and make it the first home Pong game. They said to do one chip, which was better for the volumes that they would have - to do a custom chip. Steve Mayer came up with that idea. But I was kind of in with Atari and they recognized me for my design talents, so they wanted to hire me.

Livingston: How did they know you?

Woz: Steve Jobs worked there part-time. He would finish up games that they designed in Grass Valley. He brought me in and showed me around, and Nolan Bushnell offered me a job on the spot. I said, "No, I'm never going to leave Hewlett-Packard. It's my job for life. It's the best company because it's so good to engineers." It really treated us like we were a community and family, and everyone cared about everyone else. Engineers - bottom of the org chart people - could come up with the ideas that would be the next hot products for the company. Everything was open to thought, discussion and innovation. So I would never leave Hewlett-Packard. I was going to be an engineer for life there.

Then I designed a game for Atari called Breakout, and that was a really incredible product. That was just so neat, to have my name associated with a product that actually came out in the field in video games. Because this was the start of a whole industry and I wasn't really a part of it. But I wanted to be a designer and just have some little connection to it.

In doing all those projects, I got involved in another one. The Arpanet then had about a dozen computers connected with a network. You could select which computer to visit, and they had certain access that you could get into as a guest, or, if you had passwords, you could get deeper. I just saw somebody typing away on the teletype, just talking about playing chess with a computer in Boston, and I said, "I have to do this. I just have to have this for myself." For a lot of entrepreneurs, they see something and they say, "I have to have this," and that will start them building their own.

I couldn't really afford to buy the pieces I needed. I couldn't buy a teletype, so I had to design my own terminal. The only thing that was free (because I had no money) was a home TV to see characters on. I got a keyboard for $60, which was amazingly low priced then. That was the most expensive thing to getting my terminal built. Then it was just a matter of designing logic to put dots on a TV screen that add up to the letters of the alphabet and spell out what's coming from another computer far away. The keyboard types the data to the computer far away, and I built a modem for that. So now I had a TV terminal. This is while I'm working at Hewlett-Packard. I'm just doing these things on the side for fun in my apartment in Cupertino.

Back in college I had designed a neat deal called a blue box for making free phone calls. Steve Jobs came along and said, "Let's sell it." So now I had this video terminal, and he said, "There's a local time-sharing outfit that buys these expensive terminals. Why don't we sell this to them?" So we actually sold some of the video terminals that I had built. It was to become a portion of the Apple I.

I had wanted a computer my whole life. Back in high school I told my dad, "I'm going to have a computer someday." And he said that it cost as much as a house - the downpayment on a house. And I said, "Well, I'll live in an apartment." But I was going to have a computer someday. So it starts with a huge dedication. You start with a lot of motives and values and who you are going to be in life. You start with those very early - some of mine even go back to elementary school. I decided there that I was going to be a fifth grade teacher, and I stuck to it and was. But some of these things you want so badly in life that, when the door opens, you are going to get there.

Now, I still was in this mode where I had to build everything for free. Then I discovered that microprocessors had come out. I had sort of slipped out of the electronics world, out of the computer world, due to working in calculators at Hewlett-Packard. All of a sudden I discovered these microprocessors. What are they? I didn't quite understand it fully, so I took a datasheet home.

There was a club that got started up. It was a club of young people - every one of them could have been an entrepreneur - the sort of people that liked to put together gadgets at home and make them work. But it turned out that not very many of them were real engineering designers that actually sat down and designed new things. Maybe they had jobs as technicians at work wiring stuff up, analyzing it, spotting inputs that were the wrong voltage. They were that kind of electronics person, but most of them weren't designers.

Livingston: This is Homebrew right?

Woz: This is the Homebrew Computer Club. There were a lot of software people that had no hardware background, and it took hardware to build these first machines. I was embarrassed because the world had somehow jumped ahead of me - they had come out with little cheap microcomputers based around microprocessors and I hadn't heard of it and I hadn't been a part of it. I felt very weird - that was the direction in life that I was going to be a part of when it happened. Well, I analyzed what a microprocessor was in one night, and discovered it was just like the mini-computers I used to design back in high school that were so good.

Then I looked at the Altair computer that started the whole thing going. It was the first microcomputer, but it wasn't really a computer. To me, I needed one thing. In high school I told my dad that I was going to have a 4K Data General Nova. Why 4K? 4K bytes of memory. The reason is that's the minimum computer to run a programming language. You've got to be able to program in Fortran or Basic, or some language to get your programs done. The Altair that was being sold at a ridiculously low price, all it was was a glorified microprocessor from Intel, with some chips to protect the voltages. All they did was bring it out and say, "You can now plug in all the things that a microprocessor is designed to have added to it." You can add RAM, you can add cards that know how to talk to teletypes, you can add a big cable over to a teletype, you can buy a teletype for thousands of dollars. By the time you added enough RAM and everything else to have a computer that would really run a programming language, you're talking so many thousands of dollars, it was still out of the price range of anyone. It would be like $5000 and, I'm sorry, but we were all low-level, just barely-getting-along type people that had this interest in having our own computers.

Secondly, 5 years before that, in 1970, I had built a computer of my own design that was exactly what an Altair was - only I didn't have a microprocessor; I had to build it out of chips. So I built a little processor and it was only on one small - almost 3x5 - card, very tiny. It had switches, it had lights, it looked like an airplane cockpit, just like the Altair. It had just as much memory as the Altair (256 bytes was the starting amount of memory). I could toggle these switches, punch some buttons, get ones and zeros into memory and run it as a program, and I could verify it really was in there and running. So I had done this 5 years before. Now I saw the Altair and I saw the microprocessors and I knew that they weren't enough. You needed something to run a whole computer language. But it was close.

So I searched around. My thinking was always, in making something possible, you've got to get it down to a reasonable cost, but I needed 4K bytes of RAM minimum. The first dynamic RAMs got introduced that year, 1975, the first 4K dynamic RAMs. That was the first time ever that RAMs were lower in price than magnetic core memories, which every computer up to that day had used. So all of a sudden, the world was going to change to RAMs. Silicon was going to be our memory.

Everybody else in the world, the Altair, the Sphere computers, the Polymorphic computers, the Insight computers, every one was designed by basically insufficient engineers, not top quality engineers. They were designed by technicians who knew how to look at the datasheets for some RAM, look at the datasheets for a microprocessor and see if the microprocessor had some lines called "address," and the RAMs had lines called "address" and they would hook a wire from one to the other. It's a very simple job. If your RAMs are static RAMs.

The dynamic RAMs were going to be 1/4 the price. The dynamic RAMs meant that instead of 32 chips to have enough memory for a computer to have a language, you only needed 8 chips of RAMs. But dynamic RAM needs all this circuitry to get into every single address in the RAM every 2000th of a second, read what was there and write it back, or it forgets it. Dynamic RAM (this is what we have in our computers today) will forget every single bit in a 2000th of a second unless something reads it and writes it back the way it was to hold its state. It's like little electrons stored on a plate and they'll leak off in a 2000th of a second.

Well, that took some extra circuits and thinking on my part, but when I put my computer together, good Lord, I already had these counters that were counting regular sequences for a TV screen, for my terminal, and I said, "I'll just use those counters to supply the counts to sneak in every so often and update part of the RAM." So constantly the microprocessor would get to my RAM and the video addresses would get to my RAM, not to really read video (video wasn't in the RAM back then because I was using the same terminal that I had built before and it had its own memory for the screen), but it would get in and just sample things in the right sequence to make sure the RAM stayed alive. It took a little more designing, but in the end it was a lot less chips. It was not only a lot less chips, but it was smaller in size. It was more impressive to anyone who saw it. It was cheaper and it was faster. You get all these things at once if you use the right approaches.

In the late 1960s, a ton of minicomputers were coming out, and they all used the same chips: 7400 chips that would have 4 gates on a chip - or they'd have an adder on a chip or a quad adder on a chip or a multiplexer on a chip. They'd all use the same chips in all these computers, but what they did was say, "Let's build a computer. Like all the computers before, it has an instruction that can add 1 to an accumulator, has this many registers, it can move a register to memory, it can add, it can exclusive-or them, it can exclusive-or them with memory." They make up an instruction set that will make this computer usable. It will grow into an operating system, it will grow into programming languages, if we design enough instructions into the machine.

Then Data General came up with the Nova minicomputer and, instead of having 50 instructions to do various types of mathematical type things, they had one instruction. One instruction of 16 bits - 6 ones and zeros. A couple of those ones and zeros told it which of 4 registers to put on one side of the arithmetic unit. A couple more bits told it which other of the 4 registers to use. Another couple of bits told it whether to shift or rotate the result after it finished, left or right, which is equivalent to multiplying or dividing by 2. There were bits as to whether you should set a carry (just like you learned addition in elementary school, you have carries - well, computer circuits worked the same way). By the time you were done, all of these 16 bits had certain meanings. I looked at it when I went to design a Nova and it turned out that two of the bits selected one of the 4 registers, so I ran them to a 4-way multiplexer chip and it just flowed in. It's like those two bits fit a chip. I didn't have to make up a bunch of logic that decides do this and this and this and gate those over here and put a signal down there. I didn't have to do all that stuff. It just flowed logically. Three of the bits flowed down to a logic chip to tell it whether to add, or, or exclusive-or. Another bit just got fed in as the carry into the adder. By the time I was done, the design of the Nova was half as many chips as all of the other minicomputers from Varian, Digital Equipment Corp., Hewlett-Packard, all of the minicomputers of the time (I was designing them all). And I saw that Nova was half as many chips and just as good a computer. What was different? The architecture was really an architecture that just fit right to the very fewest chips.

My whole life was basically trying to optimize things. You don't just save parts, but every time you save parts you save on complexity and reliability, the amount of time it takes to understand something. And how good you can build it without errors and bugs and flaws.

Livingston: You were designing all of these different types of computers during high school at home, for fun?

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