Woz not great

woz live

In this guest post Tony Prysten argues that the thousand dollar price of seeing out-of-touch Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack on his Australian tour was a waste of money.

This week, for the cost of two iPads (yep, two) I went to the Woz Live conference in Melbourne. I was not impressed.   

Having purchased my first Apple, the Steve Wozniak-designed Apple IIe, somewhere around 1980 and having owned pretty much every Apple device since then, I was excited at the opportunity to hear from the co-founder of a company that has been a big part of my creative life.

The calibre of heavy tech and innovation hitters in the room also suggested that expectations were quite high with full tables booked by the likes of NAB, and young Australian of the year ‘engineering visionary’ Marita Cheng in attendance.

steve wozniak apple logoFrom the very first moment, I knew we were in trouble given we were confronted by huge banners of a butchered apple logo to make the word ‘Wozniak’. If Jobs had seen this, I’m pretty sure the organisers would have been privy one of his famous scathing outbursts around the lack of attention to detail.

Now WOZ really was and still is a tech geek but I was surprised at how uncomfortable he seemed in the relatively intimate setting. Not unusual for a tech guy, but I would have thought he would have worked a few rooms by now and would be at ease with an audience.

Beginning with his speech, Woz barely acknowledged the room and started blurting out his story, beginning with tales from his early school days and how he revelled in building electronic projects. Half an hour later, we hadn’t even moved into the garage stories. By this stage I am pretty sure most of the room got that he liked tinkering with electronics and solving problems.

The guy next to me started checking his phone. I think I may have nodded off. The notepads at my table were all empty. He looked at his watch, realised he was way behind time and condensed the main bulk of the Apple story into the following 15 minutes and the lights came on.

steve wozniak

A corporate table: Yours for $10,500

The next half hour Woz spent working the room. Some people confessed their love for Apple and took advantage of the easy photo opp. Most went outside and downed cakes and coffee. I managed to push my way up to Woz and had the chance to share that I did once own an Apple IIe. I also confessed that despite the original Apple II being touted as affordable, as a year seven student, I had purchased my more affordable ‘copy’ from a Chinese man’s living room in Collingwood for about quarter of the price. He quickly moved onto the Young Australian of the Year.

Time for the second part of Woz’s speech, where he was to talk about innovation, technology and creativity. Unfortunately, Woz’s main take on innovation was to try and do something that took 50 microchips and do it using 40. His mind was still very set in the world of technology. That was about it, though he did add that while doing something “assume there is also a better way”. OK. This was infused with stories from the HP days (even before Apple) where he felt that a communal coffee cart was a great way to bring the people together on a daily basis and share ideas. I am sure this was making innovation people at the NAB table re-think their Docklands setup.

My notepad started filling up. Unfortunately, not with words but the doodles of a bored creative guy.

The Q&A was where things really got awkward.

A simple innovation question about his attitude on the difference between being the guy that creates the actual platform (eg app store) or the guy that innovates using someone else’s technology (the app developer) had him dumbfounded.

A question on ‘open source’ had him bumbling before stating that “It’s the work of people who havent yet worked out how to make money,” and then referring to the computer club days yet again and how he used to give away his designs before Jobs put a halt to it. Guess he missed the whole collaboration thing.

The future, according to Woz, is in robotics and voice recognition. Devices will sense our moods or needs and spit us the right content at the right time. (or the right song at the right price) And we need to wait for the next 15-year-old to change the world.

Woz was then challenged on how Apple was going to remain cool. He lit up like a school kid and expressed how cool Apple still was and how it would be that way for many years to come. It was endearing to see his love and passion for the brand, something I could relate to having co-founded igloo nearly 20 years ago but I couldn’t help wondering about the challenge ahead for Apple.

There were a few more awkward moments and that was it.

Woz’s brand, in my eyes, suffered from this experience. I think he would been far more comfortable presenting to a room of electronics buffs.

His words failed to engage me. I didn’t laugh, learn or feel inspired. In fact I came out feeling like he was so out of touch with the concepts he was being asked to talk about, that it’s no wonder he had been left behind through the most part of the Apple story.

I wanted the event to be amazing. My short chat with Woz confirmed that he is a nice, friendly, happy kind of guy, exactly as he was depicted in the Steve Jobs biography. The reality was we were hearing from a person who played little to no part in the Apple revolution beyond the Apple II and the early days of the first Mac, because we couldn’t hear from the the man who we really wanted to.

The event promised an insight into how innovation and creativity could be infused into your organisation. Unfortunately, it failed. Woz, to his credit, was just being Woz.

Tony Prysten is creative director and co-founder of digital agency igloo


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