Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and the long road to the iPad.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
April 6 2010 1:27 PM

The Apple Two

The iPad is Steve Jobs' final victory over the company's co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Also in Slate, Farhad Manjoo says you don't need an iPad—but once you try one, it's hard to resist. 

Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak. Click image to expand.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

In 2006, professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School predicted that over the next decade there would be a determined effort to replace the personal computer with a new generation of "information appliances." He was, it turned out, exactly right. But the one thing he couldn't forecast was who would be leading the charge. How, indeed, could anyone have guessed that Apple Inc., the creator of the personal computer, would lead the effort to exterminate it?

There are many interesting things to be said about the iPad. It might save publishing, television, and journalism. It might overrun Sony and Microsoft in computer gaming.

It also might turn Americans back into the passive couch potatoes they were in the 1950s. But perhaps the greatest story is of Apple itself, and the degree to which the iPad's design does battle with the company's own history and the computing legacy of its co-founder, Steve Wozniak.

Apple is a schizophrenic company, a self-professed revolutionary that is closely allied with establishment forces like the entertainment conglomerates and the telecommunications industry. To understand this contradiction we need to look back to Apple's origins. Let's go back to a day in 1971 when we find a bearded young college student in thick eyeglasses named Steve Wozniak hanging out at the home of Steve Jobs, then in high school. The two young men, electronics buffs, were fiddling with a crude device they'd been working on for more than a year. That day was their eureka moment: Apple's founders had managed to hack AT&T's long-distance network. Their invention was a "blue box" that made long-distance phone calls for free. The two men, in other words, got started by defrauding the firm that is now perhaps Apple's most important business partner.

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The anti-establishment spirit that underpinned the blue box still gives substance to the iconoclastic, outsider image Apple and Steve Jobs have long cultivated. Back in the 1970s, the inventors reinforced their company's ethos with their self-styling as counterculturals. Both men had long hair and opposed the Vietnam War. Wozniak, an inveterate prankster, ran an illegal "dial-a-joke" operation; Jobs would travel to India in search of a guru.

But the granular truth of Apple's origins was a bit more complicated than the simplifying imagery suggested. Even in these beginnings, there was a significant divide between the two men. There was no real parity in technical prowess: It was Wozniak, not Jobs, who had built the blue box. And it was Wozniak who conceived of and built the Apple and the Apple II—the personal computer that would be unquestionably the most important Apple product ever and arguably among the most important inventions of the latter 20th century. Jobs was the businessman and the dealmaker, essential as such, but hardly the founding genius of Apple computers, the man whose ideas became silicon and changed the world. That was Wozniak.

Wozniak's Apple took personal computing, an obscure pursuit of the hobbyist, and made it into a culture-wide phenomenon, one that that would ultimately transform not just computing, but communications, entertainment, business—in short the whole productive part of American life. And in doing so he made the ideology he followed—"open computing"—America's ideology. Of course, such an idea didn't originate with Apple; it was at least as old the ideas of Man-Computer Symbiosis in the 1960s. By the 1970s, it was an orthodoxy of amateur societies, like the Bay Area's Homebrew Computer Club, where Wozniak offered the first public demonstration of the Apple I in 1976.

Wozniak's design was open and decentralized in ways that still define those concepts in the computing industries. The original Apple had a hood, and as with a car, the owner could open it up and get at the guts of the machine. Although it was a fully assembled device, not a kit like earlier PC products, Apple owners were encouraged to tinker with the innards of Wozniak's machine—to soup it up, make it faster, add features. There were slots to accommodate all sorts of peripheral devices, and it was built to run a variety of software. Wozniak's ethic of openness also extended to disclosing design specifications. In a 2006 talk at Columbia University, he put the point this way: "Everything we knew, you knew." To point out that this is no longer Apple's policy is to state the obvious.

While a computer you can modify might not sound so profound, Wozniak contemplated a nearly spiritual relationship between man and his machine. He held, simply, that machines should be open to their owners and that all power should reside in the user. That notion mattered most to geeks, but it expressed deeper ideas, too: a distrust of centralized power and a belief, embedded in silicon, that computers should be tools of freedom.

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In 2006, when Wozniak gave his talk at Columbia, I asked him what happened with the Mac. You could open up the Apple II, and there were slots and so on, and anyone could write for it, I said. The Mac was way more closed. What happened?

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