Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the West Coast Computer Faire, 1977, where they launched the Apple II
In a previous post I explained my frustration that in my history of Strategy I had failed to discuss the big tech companies that have had such a transformational effect on our lives. To remedy this situation a few years ago I began to do some reading and writing on the topic, which I found fascinating but realised that I was getting out of my depth. I had nonetheless explored the strategy behind Moore’s Law and the microchip, which I shared in that post. In this second post I turn to another question which had intrigued me – was the invention of the Apple Computer really a blow struck by the counter-culture against the large corporations that dominated both the market for computers and American society in the early 1970s?
The ‘origins story’ of the Apple computer is well known. Two talented youngsters emerged out of Northern California’s febrile mix of computing and counter-culture. Steve Wozniak whose original design was the foundation for the enterprise grew up in the world of transistors and integrated circuits. He was designing calculators at Hewlett Packard, where his father also worked. Steve Jobs made his own Hewlett Packard connection when, as a 13-year-old, he rang Bill Hewlett for some parts for an oscilloscope he was making. Hewlett was sufficiently impressed to give him a summer job. Later he attended the HP juniors club where he saw ‘my first desktop computer’. Although it was essentially a ‘glorified calculator’ and ‘huge, maybe forty pounds,’ he later recalled, he found it beautiful. ‘I fell in love with it’.
Wozniak represented the more idealistic side of the North Californian culture. He was gentle, shy, wary of the limelight, and not at all driven. Jobs, four years younger, fitted more into a counter-cultural stereotype, with long and unkept hair, always wearing sandals, deeply into Eastern mysticism and spiritualism, experimenting with both faddish diets and recreational drugs. Less of an engineer than Wozniak he was creative, persuasive, persistent and perfectionist, and, on occasion, obnoxious.
The trigger for the first Apple computer can be identified precisely as 5 March 1975. Wozniak joined the opening meeting of a group of 30 enthusiasts and hobbyists known as the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, close to Palo Alto. The invitation stressed that the club was for people who were ‘building their own computers, terminals, TV typewriters, I/O device, or ‘some other digital black-magic box’. They were gathered to consider Altair 8800, which had a claim to be the first personal computer. During the course of that evening Wozniak realised that he knew how to build a better home computer. When he went home he began work on a design which turned very quickly into the Apple 1.
Wozniak later spoke about the revolutionary talk surrounding groups such as the Homebrew Club. ‘How people lived and communicated was going to be changed by us, changed forever, changed more than anyone could predict exactly’. To do this they sought to bring ‘computer technology within the range of the average person, to make it so people could afford to have a computer and do things with it’. They imagined a world in which everybody owned a computer ‘no matter who you were or how much money you made’. This would be a ‘benefit to humanity – a tool that would lead to social justice’ and not just serve the interests of big companies. Those companies, such as IBM and Digital Equipment saw personal computers as toys and minor business. They ‘didn’t hear our social message. And they didn’t have a clue to how powerful a force this small computer vision could be’.
This points to the two intriguing parts of the story. The first is the connection between the counter-culture and computing. The second is why the established players in the computing business failed to see the potential market for home computers. Then there is a third. Why did Apple succeed when many others in the same community, including members of the Homebrew Club, were also capable of building their own computers?
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