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Wozniak Talks to Smith about 30 years of Innovations and Inspirations

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Last week at Smith's Headquarters (and birthplace) in Houston, Texas, we celebrated Smith's 30th anniversary by coming together to share ideas and to share in the thrill of furthering innovative solutions. At Smith, that thrill of innovation and solution design is not just rhetoric, it is at the heart of what has always given Smith its competitive edge – forward thinking people and a company dedicated to agility and to listening to customers and employees alike. A highlight of the week was Wednesday when Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple came to a Smith luncheon and shared ideas about the birth and growth of our industry.

Innovation and passion

Among the topics discussed during the private event with Wozniak, was the question raised by Bob Ackerley, co-founder of Smith: "Of all these [early] companies, why do you believe that Apple emerged as the most successful early PC maker?" Woz's answers really came down to a single, powerful message, "There were no [personal] computers and I fell in love with computers through articles and I decided to be an engineer and teacher. […] We developed ideas [and devices] because we wanted them."

There is no substitute for the power of creative passion, and to do a job well, to design an amazing and completely revolutionary device, requires a deep commitment to the project. As he explained over lunch, Woz and the people he worked with and problem solved with were driven by the sheer passion of solving problems in new ways, of presenting better solutions to people so that they could do more, learn more, and play more. Woz was quick to remind us all about the gaming roots of the early designs he worked on and the importance of having fun and improving computing for gaming, not just for work.

Agility and innovation go hand-in-hand

Woz also reminded us that it is not just about innovation and passion, being agile, being able to branch out quickly and pursue innovation without being held back by the way things are traditionally done was also a critical advantage in the early Apple days and it still is. Remaining competitive is a different process than break-through events and expansions. While the initial bang might be a single product or solution that takes off, and, as Woz offered, "If you start with a great product, then you can have a lot of failures."

Remaining competitive means always looking ahead and dreaming without constraints. One of the major breakthroughs for Apple was color, that was also one of Woz's engineering masterpieces. The agility to think about color, about TVs of the day, and of 4-bit chip designs and what he could possibly do to bring color to personal computing to make the experience better (at the time he was working on the Atari game, Breakout). His dream-like "ah-ha" moment came when he realized he could ignore "the engineering textbook" and make his 4-bit chip solution for color work by tricking the TV to provide color because "I knew it would work and it did. So color for gaming was born!" And as we all know, the breakthrough that this moment provided was also the really amazing advancement that the Apple II computer brought to the PC market.

Agility and innovation go hand-in-hand, staying competitive and not becoming complacent relies on the dedication to these two core elements of success. When asked about the next radically different technology that we might look for down the road, Woz talked about the many ways that wearables show promise but there are also still so many small problems with what's out there today, "We need someone to do something unexpected." But good solutions, software especially, need to be intuitive, need to support the ease of computing, as Woz explained through anecdotes of trial and error events during Apple II and the more difficult period that came after until the iPod breakthrough.

Ubiquity and data

When Wozniak and Apple started, at the same time that Smith & Associates started, the industry was governed by a smaller supply chain, offered a small range of products primarily to business and government customers, and the future only 30 years away was not at all envisioned as the possible reality that we all live in today.

Ubiquitous computing was absolutely the goal though – Wozniak offered very clear statements that these early engineers and dreamers wanted to bring the power of computing to people outside of work, to homes and to schools for fun and for getting things done quickly. Connecting devices and connecting people was always there, maybe not envisioned as the Internet of Everything, but certainly, as Woz told us about the passion behind how PCs would be used, "Educating kids to be smarter so the tech geek would be the most important person in the company […] it was a social revolution, I wanted to change and overcome things."

The advantages gained today through an ease of computing and the social network connections made possible through mobile internet and connectivity is part of a new social revolution. At the same time that we expand across the internet and reach out in new ways to make new connections, whether through data to improve on a task or through social connections to expand our relationships.

The problem that we will need to face is the question of data and protecting our data rights. To this end, Woz talked about the need for a "Digital Bill of Rights" as President Obama has recently begun talking about. There are many challenges ahead but the innovation is still rich and ripening.


Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.
Written on Tuesday, 20 May 2014 21:02 by Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.

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