Steve Wozniak
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Steve Wozniak
Apple I and II
Disk Drive designer


A lasting design

Although the Apple II was an excellent design, I personally think that Woz reached a new height in the design of the Apple II disk drive. Every other manufacturer was building machines based on complex read/write electronics on the disk drive and then even more complex disk controllers in the machine. Woz didn't really know how disk drives were supposed to work and so he invented his own way of doing things. He started with a disk drive with virtually no electronics and then implemented an integrated controller and read/write electronics. The bulk of the work though was done in software and this simplified the electronics to an extent that, at the time, was difficult to believe. The Woz disk drive must have made a great deal of money for Apple because it cost next to nothing to make but sold for the price that users expected to pay for a disk drive! The Woz design was so clever that it lived on in and improved form in the Mac. The IWM, the Integrated Woz Machine, was a custom chip implementation of the same ideas.

Woz as "Rocky Clark"

In 1981 Woz was involved in a plane crash. He suffered head injuries and lost his ability to form new long term memories. He went to parties, escaped from hospital, played computer games and couldn't remember any of it. He eventually recovered but didn't go back to working at Apple. The accident was more an excuse than a reason for leaving Apple. By this time the managers had taken over and Woz was only a humble engineer. He left Apple and decided to go back to school! He enrolled at Berkeley again using an assumed name - Rocky Clark. Obviously a man a talented as Woz couldn't take the inanities of his lecturers without an argument - but who was "Rocky Clark" to tell them how to do it properly!

He returned to Apple at the end of the year but, apart from writing and giving away a spreadsheet that would have challenged VisiCalc if Apple hadn't killed it, he didn't do very much that was important. Back in the early days Woz could do magic things by saving a few chips and building really clever electronics. As the ability to integrate more into a single chip grew no one cared about clever design or saving components. This is the hardware analogy of the clever code that Bill Gates excelled at in the early days.You could look at a Woz design and spend hours wondering what any given component was doing - the answer was that it usually was doing more than one job! The growth in the power of hardware, mainly the low cost of large amounts of memory, removed the need for that skill as well! Only one other designer has shown the same skills as Woz and that's Clive Sinclair. The age of the clever elegant economical design, be it hardware or software, seems long gone.

For an account of Woz's life in the decade or more after this article was originally written see his 2006 autobiography,  iWoz:From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I invented the Personal Computer, Founded Apple and Had Fun Doing It, co-authored with journalist Gina Smith.


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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 11 August 2010 )
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