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Wozniak: Necessity should drive innovation, not money

29 Jun 2015  | R. Colin Johnson

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The creator of the first Apple personal computer, the Apple I, shared his insights on the past, present and future of innovation during his keynote at the recent Freescale Technology Forum 2015. According to Steve Wozniak, innovators today have the wrong motivation, to make money, whereas in his day, innovation was something he did because there were no affordable electronics to use at home for fun.

"I was working with calculators at Hewlett Packard, using RPN [reverse-Polish-notation], which meant you had to be smart already to be able to use them," Wozniak stated.

Computers in those days were either mainframes or programmed in binary with switches on the front of them. And the storage drives for input/output (I/O) data cost as much as two cars, according to Woz. So he set out to design his own I/O that used inexpensive audio cassette tapes encoded with tone from a modem and eventually floppy disks.

Steve Wozniak

Steve Wozniak single-handedly invented the Apple-I and Apple-II personal computers, starting a revolution in PCs that still resonates today. (Source: EE Times)

After meeting Steve Jobs, who was working at Atari for Nolan Bushnell, Jobs enlisted Wozniak to help him design the circuit board for the game Breakout. For the board Job's said he was paid $700, which Woz and Job's split 50/50, $350 each. Wozniak reduced the number of chips in the Atari game by 50, using random access memory (RAM), for which Bushnell paid Jobs a bonus of $5000 the knowledge of which was withheld from Woz. But Woz holds no grudges, in fact he begged Jobs to share the wealth with key early employees after Apple took off. And when Job's refused, Woz claimed to have distributed $20 million of his own money among those employees who were key to Apple's early success.

The experience at helping Jobs at Atari also paid off technologically, since it gave Woz the idea of using an inexpensive TV for output and RAM for programme storage and scratch-pad memory. The other big problem Woz had was programing in binary, so he invented his own form of Basic that could run in 4KB of memory with no operating system.

"I was the first one to write Basic, because I needed a language," said Woz. "But colour was the best thing I thought of for Apple. Everybody was using black-and-white in those days, but after my break with Atari, after four days with no sleep I thought of a way to use square waves instead of sine waves to drive the TV, which gave me the ability to make colour in that way. If I hadn't been so tired, I never would have thought of that."

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