Apple co-founder headlines Fall Convocation
Steve “The Woz” Wozniak encouraged members of the Elon University community on Thursday to “build in an element of fun” into everything they do and that “sometimes you make your best decisions when you’re forced to.”
The technology giant Apple Inc. almost never happened. In fact, it might have been the Hewlett-Packard logo on what we now call the iPhone.
As Steve Wozniak shared Thursday afternoon at Elon University’s Fall Convocation, when he and Steve Jobs first discussed selling personal computers, Wozniak had such fierce loyalty to his employer that he asked Hewlett-Packard five times whether it would be interested in running with his design.
Five times he was turned down. Wozniak soon partnered with Jobs to form what was then called Apple Computer Inc., and the rest, as they say, is history.
Wozniak’s talk, “Fostering Creativity and Innovation in a Technical Environment,” captivated a sold-out Alumni Gym on Oct. 3 as he traced his growth from an introverted child who loved studying the “architecture” of early mainframe computers to his status as a global pioneer in personal computing. Embedded in his anecdotes were lessons that Wozniak often stopped to emphasize.
“Whatever you do in life that’s productive, try to build in an element of fun, too,” he said. “The reason for going to school is that we’re going to learn and ... find ways to solve the problems of the world.”
Over time, after reading journals and design manuals on his own, a young Wozniak challenged himself to design the same machines using fewer and fewer parts. That introverted nature is something Wozniak credited for his earliest successes.
“That forces you to believe in yourself and be very independent and trust your own thinking,” he said. “You don’t talk to other people. You go home and have to work yourself and believe your own ideas.”
The son of an engineer, Wozniak learned early how the same technology that intrigued him was cost prohibitive, so he looked for less expensive alternatives for designing his own products. By utilizing new microprocessors and purchasing parts at a discount through his employers, those cost-saving measures bore fruit.
“You do what you have to do, especially when you have limited resources in life,” he said. “Make due with what you have. Search for solutions that don't cost as much money, and sometimes you find better solutions.”
Wozniak shared several stories about his Apple Computer co-founder and the ways in which the two worked together to launch the company. Wozniak never had interest in managing Apple, while Jobs had his hands in every decision outside of engineering. A disagreement in the mid 1980s with their third co-founder, Mike Makkula, an angel investor whose funding launched Apple, prompted Jobs to leave the company.
In the ensuing years, however, Jobs found success in other ventures, including Pixar Animation Studios, and Wozniak credited Jobs’s time away for later success after his return to Apple in 1996.
”He had that patience and maturity,” Wozniak said. “When he came back, he was able to stabilize the company for awhile.”
Wozniak spoke about recent advances in technology, including Siri, the voice recognition software Apple builds into its iPhones. Siri represents yet another advance to artificial intelligence, though it’s not called as much. Wozniak said it’s likely that people may one day stumble across devices that have self-awareness like humans, as computers can now already see, hear, predict, and understand those who use them.
“We don’t know how the brain is wired, but Google replaced a lot of brains,” he said. “We’re on the path to having devices that we can deal with person-to-person as a friend.”
Such advances would revolutionize education. If students could use a device that would assist them with a path and speed, it would greatly reduce the number of children who fail from educational systems. “That can happen,” he said, “but we need the human touch.”
Wozniak was a pivotal figure in the early years of the personal computing industry with his design of Apple’s first line of products, the Apple I and the Apple II. He and Steve jobs founded Apple Computer Inc. in 1976, and within seven years, the company had a stock value of $985 million.
President Ronald Reagan awarded Wozniak with the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor bestowed on America’s leading innovators, and in 2000 Wozniak was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame and given the prestigious Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment.
Throughout his career, Wozniak has been active in philanthropic efforts to encourage the use of computers and technology in schools, stress hands-on learning, and foster student creativity. He co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation and is a founding sponsor of the Tech Museum, Silicon Valley Ballet, and the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose.
He currently serves as chief scientist for Fusion-io, a Utah-based corporation that develops ioMemory solutions that accelerate virtualization, databases, cloud computing, big data and performance applications. His New York Times best-selling autobiography, “iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon,” was published in September 2006 by Norton Publishing, and television appearances include reality shows Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and The Big Bang Theory.
In introducing Wozniak, Associate Professor Janna Quitney Anderson from the School of Communications said Wozniak’s “responsible, ethical, good-natured genius” is the type of quality necessary for pioneers in all fields to advance society in positive ways.
Fall Convocation also featured for the first time this year the “Long Maroon Line.” One hundred and twenty-five alumni, representing each year in Elon University’s history, processed into Alumni Gym as part of the school’s quasquicentennial celebration.
A standing ovation was offered to J. Rankin Parks ‘32, the university’s oldest living alumnus who, at the age of 103, visited campus for Fall Convocation. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Fisher Goad ‘95, accompanied him in the processional.
“Elon is 125 years young, and has a vibrant and dynamic future ahead thanks to to the 30,000 men and women in our alumni body,” Elon President Leo M. Lambert said in his welcoming remarks to the crowd. “Members of the ‘Long Maroon Line,’ thank you. You honor us with your presence and we are so proud to have you with us today.”