'King of the Nerds' Goes Dancing

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American life. But that doesn't mean you can't try, especially after you've had one of the most famous first acts of your generation.

You may have read the news that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, has signed on to compete in this season's "Dancing With the Stars." The very idea that the man once called "The King of the Nerds" would be out tripping the light fantastic in competition with professional athletes, B-list movie stars and entertainers no doubt drew a derisive chuckle. Or perhaps just a sad shake of the head: What's Woz up to now?

After all, for the past quarter-century, Wozniak's life has seemingly been one bizarre or risible career choice after another: the plane crash, the return to college, the U.S. Festival, the marriages, the failed start-up companies, Segway polo, dating Kathy Griffith, and on and on. All true, and all looked upon by us fellow Silicon Valleyites (and techies all over the world) with a combination of amusement and dismay. Indeed, it's very easy to write off Steve Wozniak as a walking "Where are they now?" column.

And yet, let me suggest to you, without even trying to explain away this behavior, that Steve Wozniak is also an heroic figure, fully worthy of as much admiration as derision.

I have known Woz for a very long time. We first officially met when I was a cub reporter and wrote perhaps the very first daily newspaper story about Apple Computer, which was then less than two years old. But we had crossed paths long before that. I saw him standing proudly in front of his four -unction calculator at our county science fair while we were both still in high school, and saw him riding his bicycle home from swim practice, where he swam in the lane beside my best friend.

I also watched as Woz, Jobs and Fernandez bought the parts for the Apple I at our neighborhood hobby shop. And I was there at that now-legendary Wescon electronics show where Apple first showed its new computer to the public. I stood in the Wozniak living room during a neighborhood fundraiser (while Steve's dad complained in the backyard about the bad influence of his son's new friend Steve Jobs), knew Steve's mom pretty well, and still drive by his old house almost every day. I've interviewed Woz for television a couple times, and shared a stage with him on a couple other occasions.

Does this give me a unique understanding of Steve Wozniak now? Hardly, but it does give me a special appreciation of what Woz accomplished then. And that appreciation, I think, helps me to better understand his singular personality -- and to admire him.

What Woz Did

What Woz is lauded for today (when the credit isn't mistakenly given to his old partner) is for having "invented" the personal computer. That is both incorrect and quite accurate. There were, in fact, other personal computers around in 1976 when Woz set out to build one of his one. Indeed, the impetus for his effort was to compete with the computers already being demonstrated by his fellow members of the Homebrew Computer Club.

But it is what Woz did with that challenge that has permanently locked him into the Hall of the Fame of the electronics revolution: He took what was essentially a business of klugey, improvised, one-off designs and turned it into an elegant, simple and powerful architecture that could be sold by the millions to everyday consumers. This was a vision not unlike Henry Ford's.

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