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Prankster at Play

The principle of delivering value to ordinary consumers has driven virtually every project Wozniak has embarked upon. Perhaps the most famous expression of that principle was Wozniak’s design for the Apple I, which he introduced at the Homebrew club in early 1976. Built around a microprocessor that Wozniak selected because it cost only about $20, the machine was in its first incarnation a schematic diagram that indicated interfaces for a keyboard and a television that would serve as a display. At the club, Wozniak passed around copies of the schematic, which was so simple that almost any member could build from it.

Balancing the idea of a computer with functional utility was Wozniak’s desire for a machine that would be adept at games. He was, after all, a renowned local prankster. As a young man, he had hand-built “blue boxes” to fool AT&T switches into patching people into long-distance circuits for free, and his narrowcasting of Polish jokes from his answering machine had evolved into a dial-a-joke service of Bay Area legend. He had also refashioned Atari’s signature game Pong into the more advanced Breakout in four days, at the behest of his friend Steve Jobs, then a consultant at Atari.

Wozniak acknowledges that he has tended to thrive most in environments where he is free to please himself, as during the earliest days at Apple: “If I discovered that the PC layout could be more efficient if the design were different, I had the freedom to change the design.” That sometimes means he runs ahead of whatever group he is in. Unlike the rest of the Homebrew bunch, for instance, he was a fan of dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM, which reached the market around 1970. DRAM was cheaper than the more common static RAM and more efficient-the Wozniak grail. But it required a much higher level of engineering skill than most hobbyists had, so Wozniak found himself out on a technological limb. The past 30 years of PC evolution have vindicated him, as DRAM has become by far the most common form of computer memory.

Wheels of Zeus gives Wozniak the same kind of autonomy he initially enjoyed at Apple. As its founder, he is fond of saying that the company started as “just a cool concept: GPS for knowing the location of things remotely.” But the essence of the idea remains recognizable as basic Woz: GPS in a package that would be “smaller and more mobile and cheaper, and at human prices.” Still, that it’s clever and intriguing is an essential part of the allure. Says Wozniak, “The goal is doing something neat and fun.”

Since leaving Apple in 1985, Wozniak has not exactly left behind a trail of high-profile technological successes. He has founded only one other company-the ill-fated CL9, which made a universal remote control and folded after a few years of operation. But both Wozniak and his financial backers believe in his ability to pare a design down to the essentials-a talent that they believe will bring him success with Wheels of Zeus.

The real challenge may be establishing where wOzNet fits in the marketplace. The Wi-Fi market, which is perhaps the closest analogue to what Wozniak wants to build, generated about $2.5 billion in revenues last year-two-thirds of that from consumer applications such as home networking. Wozniak’s investors believe he can distinguish his network from Wi-Fi by showing that it is uniquely tailored to short-distance GPS uses and is thus superior for the tracking services he envisions.

“I really liked the idea of a consumer technology play that is low bandwidth, with GPS,” says Greg Galanos, executive managing director of Mobius Venture Capital, which invested $5.5 million in Wheels of Zeus in two venture rounds. (The startup has also received financing from Palo Alto Ventures and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.) “By targeting consumers first, it allows us to apply maximum pressure in terms of cost reduction in design-and it allows Steve to play to his strengths as an inventor.”

Adds Tim Bajarin, president of the market research firm Creative Strategies, “There’s no question that there’s a legitimate application for it. With all the fear of child kidnappings out there, he’s playing directly to a very human need.”

That works for Woz.

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