5 October 2008

iWoz inspires iMAX

Filed under: Apple, books, collaboration, innovation, Psion — David Wood @ 8:57 am

Last Wednesday, Apple co-Founder Steve Wozniak addressed a gathering of several hundred business people in London’s large-format IMAX cinema, as part of a series of events organised by the London Business Forum. The theme was “Apple Innovation”. Since the IMAX is just 15 minutes walk from Symbian’s HQ, this opportunity was too good for me to miss. I hoped Wozniak’s account of Apple culture might shed some new light on the all-conquering iPhone. I was not disappointed.

Wozniak spoke for more than an hour, without slides, running through a smorgasbord of anecdotes from his own life history. It was rivetting and inspiring. Later I realised that most of the material has already been published in Wozniak’s 2006 book “iWoz: Computer geek to cult icon: How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it“, which was given out at the event.

I warmed to Wozniak early on in his talk, when he described one of his early experiments in software – writing a program to solve the “Knight’s tour” around a chessboard. I remembered writing a program to try to solve the same problem while at roughly the same age – and had a similar result. In my case, programs were sent off from school to the local Aberdeen University, where clerical staff typed them in and submitted them on behalf of children in neighbouring schools. This program was returned several days later with the comment that there was no output – operators had terminated it.

A few weeks later, there was a short residential course at the university for sixth form students, which I attended. I modified my program to tackle a 5×5 board instead, and was happy to see computer quickly spitting out numerous solutions. I changed the board size to 6×6 instead and waited … and waited … and after around 10 minutes, a solution was printed out. Wozniak’s experience was several years before mine. As he describes it, the computer he was using could do one million calculations a second – which sounded like a huge number. So the lack of any output from his program was a big disappointment – until he calculated that it would actually take the computer about 10^25 years to finish this particular calculation!

More than half the “iWoz” book covers Wozniak’s life pre-Apple. It’s in turn heart-warming and (when describing Wozniak’s pranks and phreaking) gob-smacking.

The episode about HP turning down the idea of the Apple I computer was particularly thought-provoking. Wozniak was working at HP before Apple was founded, and being loyal to his company (which he firmly admired for being led by engineers who in turn deeply respected other engineers) he offered them the chance to implement the ideas he had devised outside work time for what would become, in effect, the world’s first useful personal computer. Although his managers at HP showed considerable interest, they were not able to set aside their standard, well-honed processes in order to start work on what would have been a new kind of project. Wozniak says that HP turned him down five times, before he eventually resigned from the company to invest his energy full-time into Apple. It seems like a classic example of the Innovator’s Dilemma – in which even great companies can fail “by doing everything right”: their “successes and capabilities can actually become obstacles in the face of changing markets and technologies”.

Via numerous anecdotes, Wozniak describes a set of characteristics which are likely to lead to product success:

  • Technical brilliance coupled with patience and persistence. (Wozniak tells a fascinating account of how he and one helper – Randy Wigginton, at the time still at senior high school – created a brand new floppy disk drive controller in just two weeks, without any prior knowledge of disk drives);
  • A drive for simplicity of design (such as using a smaller number of parts, or a shorter algorithm) and superb efficiency of performance;
  • Users should feel an emotional attachment to the product: “Products should be obviously the best”;
  • Humanism: “The human has to be more important than the technology”.

There’s shades of the iPhone experience in all these pieces of advice – even though the book iWoz was written before the iPhone was created.

There’s even stronger shades of the iPhone experience in the following extracts from the book:

The Apple II was easy to program, in both BASIC (100 commands per second) and machine language (1M commands per second)… Within months dozens of companies started up and they were putting games on casette tape for the Apple II; these were all start-up companies, but thanks to our design and documentation, we made it easy to develop stuff that worked on our platform…

… the computer magazines had tons of Apple II product ads for software and hardware. Suddenly the Apple II name was everywhere. We didn’t have to buy an advertisement or do anything ourselves to get the name out. We were just out there, thanks to this industry of software programs and hardware devices that sprang up around the Apple II. We became the hot fad of the age, and all the magazines (even in the mainstream press) started writing great things about us. Everywhere you looked. I mean, we couldn’t buy that kind of publicity. We didn’t have to.

In this way, the Apple II quickly reached sales figures far higher than anyone had dared to predict. One other factor played a vital role:

VisiCalc was so powerful it could only run on the Apple II: only our computer had enough RAM to run it.

But sales bandwaggons can lose their momentum. The iPhone bandwaggon will falter, to the extent that other smartphones turn out to be more successful at running really valuable applications (such as, for example, applications that can run in background, in ways that aren’t possible on the iPhone).

Apple also lost some of its momentum in the less reliable Apple III product that followed the Apple II. Wozniak has no doubts about the root causes for the failure of the Apple III: “it was developed by committee, by the marketing dept”. This leads on to the disappointing advice that Wozniak gives in the final chapter of his book: “Work alone”!

Here, I part company with Wozniak. I’ve explained before my view that “design by committee” can achieve, with the right setup, some outstanding results. That was my experience inside Psion. However, I do agree that the process needs to involve some first-class product managers, who have a powerful and authentic vision for the product.

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