James Lyke's Reviews > iWoz

iWoz by Steve Wozniak
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's review
Feb 19, 2012

liked it

This book has a great personal appeal to me, as I lived through the personal computer revolution, and I related to the story. The first 1/4th of the book was very annoying as a narrative and frustratingly didactic to me (it isn't just because I have a PhD in electrical engineering, because I have found some thoroughly engaging narratives on the principles of digital logic and basic electronics). The writing style was very difficult to tolerate in general. I have tried to finish every book I start (I haven't succeeded always), so it was by sheer determination that I weathered the early parts of this book.

When I say I lived through the computer revolution, I simply mean that I was a hobbyist during the time when the first personal computers were beginning to be created, and remember the famous cover story of "Personal Electronics" that talked about the first (was it Altair?) computer that you could build yourself. At any rate, the Apple II was magical, and anyone who had one became the source of envy by the other geeks and nerds (I don't know if those terms were actually used in those dates, the late 1970s). The Apple was clearly an "elegant best of breed", and we could not possibly have imagined where Apple would one day go when we watched the flashing of simple color block graphics and listened to crude mimicry of polyphonic sound.

At any rate, I think the context of my own interest explains in part why I thought the rest of the book was actually worth reading. In it, I learned how someone without formal education managed to outflanked teams of professionals and create unique expressions of computer products. Today, we can put billions of transistors on a chip, but in the era of an Apple 2, only about 5-10 thousand. Wozniak obsessed over the details of every single logic gate and transistor. I saw through the almost childish narrative style a true brilliance.

I loved listening to his "seat-of-the-pants" style of developing very complex systems, from scratch, under unbelievable schedule pressures. I try to imagine how it was humanly possible to design a PONG-like game from bare implements in a 48-hour sleepless marathon with Steve Jobs tirading in the background. While Jobs had the genius of vision, Wozniak had the determination and drive and genius of implementation. This is the much under-rated ability to translate napkin sketches into real working machinery.

The question of Wozniak's role in the evolution of the personal computer is not as binary (oops) as some other reviewers might have suggested. The inevitability of the personal computer was probably secure, with or without Wozniak. What he did would have probably happened inside of a decade even if the Apple 2 never existed. His genius in engineering short-circuited the innovations needed, but I believe those innovations would still have occurred. In no way, however, would I wish to diminish the blockbuster that he created in the Apple 2. Probably most of you will not remember the Ohio Scientific Challenger, the Exidy Sorceror, or the scores of other "also-rans" made by mortals with considerable but still inferior gifts.

I think equally interesting was iWoz's personal discovery of liberal ideology in a clearly conservative upbringing. He was initially politically incurious and simply joined a Republican local organization because that seemed like what he should have done based on his father's influence. His critical discoveries came through reflections on the origins of the Viet Nam conflict, and he was shocked to learn that his government could ever be party to actions that were inconsistent with the history textbooks of his childhood. His subsequent revulsion put him in conflict with his father and iWoz remains staunchly critical of the imperialistic tendencies of government, even I though (if I recall correctly) he does not wish to be labelled as "democratic" or "republican".

As for downsides in the book, besides the frustrating narrative style, I felt that the whole prankster ethos he seemed to embrace was a bit over the top. He recounted many of these with obviously great relish. I simply couldn't believe he wasted so many hours on jamming TV sets in student lounges, a behavior that to me seemed borderline socio-pathic. While these tales of misdeed did expose some interesting insights (such as the failed "middle finger" poster stunt as a team-building experience), I think if I had been reading the book with one of those rating knobs used in "focus groups", I would have been turning it to "danger, red" during most of those passages.

You get the idea from the style of narrative that "Woz" is simply an innocent nerd, who lived by very simple and consistent principles. This purity and innocence put him in direct conflict with the complex, explosive personalities of others in his life, including Steve Jobs. I was surprised by how many other reviewers slammed him as egotistical and narcissistic. Isn't that what most autobiographers are? I have read works of individuals where I did pick that up (Steve Wolfram comes to mind), that sort of "I alone, in the race of humans, was uniquely gifted to have arrived at the conclusion that...". But I just didn't personally get that feeling from iWoz. I don't think I can re-read the book, it's just too annoying (that's why 3-stars), but I felt a lot more respect and appreciation for his human qualities after I finished.

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