Woz Goes Wireless
The legendary engineer behind the first Apple computer now wants to combine wireless technology with GPS to help ordinary folks track loved ones, pets, and more.
The official origin legend of Steve Wozniak’s newest company, Wheels of Zeus, will hold that its core invention grew out of Wozniak’s attempt to keep track of his dogs after too many electronic fences had failed to do their job.
“I had a few periods of shock,” he explains, “of finding that somebody had found my dog along the way. But what really intrigued me was the idea that this was doable technically.” The legendary inventor is referring to his latest idea: putting Global Positioning System technology to work around the home. GPS and radio chips had become so inexpensive, Wozniak says, that they were crying out for new uses. “I had enjoyable thoughts,” he says, “about a product category that hadn’t occurred to me before.”
That category might be called networked GPS: allowing people to attach inexpensive and unobtrusive global-positioning devices to their children, pets, elderly relatives, cars, or anything else that could end up in an unsafe, inappropriate, or unauthorized place, and keep track of them via a wide range of wireless applications. The devices, for instance, could alert your PC, home telephone, cell phone, or personal digital assistant when your child made it to his or her destination, or when your dog wandered off your property. “If your pet escapes while you’re at work, you’ll get a phone call promptly,” says Wozniak during an interview at the Los Gatos, CA, headquarters of the company he founded in October 2001. “Then you can track it precisely with a device in your hand.” The name Wheels of Zeus was chosen partially for its acronym: a generation of computer enthusiasts knows “Woz” as the technical genius behind the first Apple personal computer.
Although Wheels of Zeus has attracted about $9.7 million in two rounds of venture investments, the basic idea of linking GPS with wireless communications is not in itself new. Subscription services such as uLocate in Newton, MA, have already sprung up to exploit a government requirement that new cell phones incorporate GPS. These services charge a fee to activate the GPS function for individual subscribers. Other companies, like Redwood Shores, CA-based Wherify, sell portable GPS devices, some designed specifically to be worn by kids. But these generally sell for more than $100 each.
Wozniak’s idea is more ambitious and more homely. The Wheels of Zeus devices will do less than GPS-equipped cell phones; they probably won’t make and receive calls, for example. But Wozniak aims to push their cost down to the point where a subscriber might deploy ten instead of one or two. Rather than yoking the devices to a cellular network, as Wherify does, Wozniak intends to build a low-speed, low-power network that will relay their GPS data to end users. This wOzNet, as he calls it, would stitch together local “hot spots,” each with a range of about three kilometers, similar to public Wi-Fi nodes. One idea is that every user’s base station will function as a node for other users in a neighborhood, leading to what one investor calls “an instantaneous self-deploying network”: as more customers sign up, the network becomes progressively more powerful.
Wheels of Zeus hopes to make money both by licensing its technology and by collecting subscriber fees for the use of its location service. In January, Motorola became the first licensee, with plans to manufacture and distribute the hardware necessary to make wOzNet functional. Still, by late winter it was unclear when the first-generation product might hit the market. “It could be out this year,” Wozniak says.
So basically, Wozniak is trying to make a complicated set of technologies accessible to a broad market. He’s been there before.
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.
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.