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Relentless Pursuit of Simplicity

The conception and gestation of Wheels of Zeus typifies Wozniak’s modus operandi throughout his storied career. First, he notices that a technology has become cheap enough for the mass market; then the possible applications suggest themselves. The same intuition drove Wozniak’s initial Apple designs, starting with the hobbyist-oriented Apple I.

Now 53, Wozniak is still recognizably the bearded, burly boy wonder who appeared at the Homebrew Computer Club in the mid-1970s armed with a formidable and seemingly intuitive talent for engineering. His office at Wheels of Zeus hints at his devotion to cleverly engineered gadgetry, with pride of place along one wall awarded to a Segway scooter, the latest creation of his friend and fellow inventor Dean Kamen.

On his personal website and on paper, Wozniak projects warmth and openness. In person, he’s more serious and more focused, given to bemoaning the time pressure imposed by the countless questions and requests e-mailed every week by his legions of admirers and acolytes. Ask him to opine on the broad issues of innovation and invention or to analyze his own life, and he widens his eyes in surprise and apprehension as though the subjects have never occurred to him before.

In part, Wozniak attributes his technical skill in electronics to his upbringing as the son of a Lockheed engineer deeply involved in the fledgling semiconductor industry-not as a designer of chips, but as a user of them. “My father was involved in the first applications of semiconductors for missiles, where things had to be so lightweight,” he says. From the start of his career, Wozniak was known for his mysterious genius for paring a schematic down to its essentials-without sacrificing performance. “Even when I was in sixth or eighth grade, I understood that efficiency is output over input,” he says. “And efficiency is what drives technology in the world.”

This was during the late 1960s and early ’70s, when a pioneering generation of computer architects was starting to consider the implications of the plummeting cost of computer resources. Wozniak, who hadn’t yet finished college when he completed his earliest designs for Apple, didn’t concern himself with formal theory. He just noticed that chips were getting better and better every six months-and reacted. “Whenever I saw a new and better chip, I asked myself how I could apply this to do a prior design with fewer parts.”

Wozniak’s immediate goal was always to create a smaller, faster, lighter design; “Woz’s Law” might be expressed, in his own words, as “low cost, always.” He had trained himself for this relentless pursuit of simplicity by years of solitary study, which he viewed as a competition with himself. “That’s why I got so good that nobody could ever match my skills-nobody I ever ran into. It was just a game. You just work harder and harder, and your brain thinks deeper and deeper, and you know when you’ve won because you’ve done something with fewer parts and fewer lines of code. Competing with another person doesn’t have the same result, because if you’re competing with a person and you do a better job than he does, you say, I’ve won.’ You don’t go back and say, How do I do it better yet?’”

But Wozniak also came to see that the trade-offs from a smaller design at some point won’t be worth the gain. “There were levels when a design could be fewer parts but cost more money, or require fewer parts but bigger parts, or fewer parts but more connections,” he says. “I learned that the number of connections was much more important than the number of chips, for reliability and for real simplicity.”

Wozniak understood, furthermore, that smaller and cheaper devices brought value to ordinary people. “When can useful things be built for a low cost?” he asks. For him, much of the charm of Wheels of Zeus’s radio-networked GPS technology is that a home system might be marketable for a few hundred dollars.

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