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Steve Wozniak Is Not a Sidekick

But he is the most lovable genius in tech

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In the Internet Age, monoculture is unachievable. But there remain a few things that we can all agree on.​ The Ringer is looking at this rarefied group all week. These are our Undeniables.

“What did you do?” Steve Wozniak seethed to his partner-turned-frenemy Steve Jobs in 1988. “You can’t write code. You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. … So how come 10 times in a day, I read ‘Steve Jobs is a genius’?”

OK, Wozniak never said this. In the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founders share a series of increasingly tense backstage confrontations minutes before the debuts of three key products in the company’s rise, fall and resurrection: 1984’s Macintosh, 1988’s NeXT Computer, and 1998’s iMac.

What else didn’t Wozniak say? “Acknowledge that something good happened that you weren’t in the room for,” Wozniak, er, Seth Rogen, levels at Michael Fassbender’s Jobs. “I’m tired of being Ringo when I know I was John.” “This whole place was built by the Apple II. You were built by the Apple II.” Damn, homie.

The lines are so perfectly cutting (and Beatles-centric) that you immediately know they sprung from the mind of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rather than historical record. But you can nearly see a halo of truth casting around this fiction. Woz never gave Jobs such a direct dressing-down — though it sounds like he’d have liked to. “I admire that character, even though it said words I could never say,” Wozniak told Bloomberg about Rogen’s performance. “I would never call him an a-hole, an epithet. I would never do that.”

That’s why we love Woz — he’s a world apart from the backstabbing machinations that feel integral to nearly every Silicon Valley origin story. He’s not the victim in Apple’s genesis — he’s the inventor of it. If Jobs is now a tech demigod, Woz is the mortal who soldered the chips, handwrote the code, and laid out the actual, technical vision for the personal computer.

Then he was unfairly recast as a sidekick, as a friendly, bumbling thorn in Steve Jobs’s side. While many people — especially people who’d made hugely important contributions to the world — would be bitter at this, insisting on their brilliance, it never phased Woz. While Jobs never allowed us to separate man from myth, Wozniak’s honesty made him undeniably relatable — and he’s embraced it for the better. He’s become the sort of anti–Silicon Valley mascot that the tech industry desperately needs.

When tech titans manage to plant themselves in the public imagination, it’s usually because they pursued a seemingly unachievable vision. Steve Jobs wanted to turn computers into art. Bill Gates wanted to destroy his competitors. Mark Zuckerberg wants unprecedented control over the way we communicate. We don’t know these men, but we imagine them being ruthless in their own ways, willing to achieve these goals at any cost.

Not Woz. His straightforward passions led him to profound discoveries. In 1973, at age 22, he landed his dream job designing calculators at Hewlett-Packard and planned to spend his entire career at the company. Three years later he invented the Apple I, one of the first microcomputers that could accept inputs from a keyboard and display the results on an accompanying monitor (earlier computers looked like “airplane cockpits,” Wozniak said). He gave the device schematics away so anyone could know the joys of personal computing. And even when Jobs convinced him they could build a business around the device, Woz felt morally obligated to offer HP first crack at buying the technology. They declined.

The Apple I was a modest success among hobbyists, but it was Wozniak’s revamped Apple II — sold in a plastic case, it displayed in color and output sound — that introduced the PC to the mainstream and propelled Apple to become a multimillion-dollar business. In 1980, the company landed the biggest IPO since Ford Motor Co. 24 years earlier. Woz’s immediate instinct was to share the wealth: Shortly after Apple went public, he launched the “Woz Plan,” selling his Apple shares to employees who had been left out of the Wall Street windfall for $5 a pop. “I gave each of them stock worth about a million dollars,” he writes in his memoir iWoz. “I think behind the scenes, Steve thought I was weak because of this — sort of ditching the company a little bit or a sellout.”

Even before Apple was one of tech’s first hot startups, there were clear signs the industry’s two most famous Steves (sorry, Ballmer) had wildly diverging values. An early bonding moment came while they were building a device that could manipulate a phone’s dial tone to make free long distance calls, called a blue box. Wozniak dubbed himself an “ethical phone phreak” and only wanted to use the device to discover flaws in the phone system — Jobs convinced him to sell the blue boxes to other hackers for profit. Later, when Jobs was working at Atari, he convinced Wozniak to help him develop a Pong sequel called Breakout. The pair spent four round-the-clock days building the game and ended up contracting mononucleosis. They were to split the $700 payment for the work, but Jobs secretly pocketed a bonus worth a few thousand dollars. He never told Wozniak. “He wasn’t honest with me, and I was hurt,” Wozniak wrote. “But I didn’t make a big deal out of it.”

It’s been nearly 40 years since Woz made his most well-known contribution to the world (he left Apple in 1985), but he’s spent that time living his best possible life. He hosted a California music festival in 1982 that served as a bridge between Woodstock and modern festivals like Coachella. He taught computer classes to fifth- to eighth-graders for eight years, receiving no salary for the experience, which he called “the most important time” of his life. He’s a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group that advocates for user privacy. He plays in the Segway polo world championships, officially known as the Woz Cup. His jersey number is infinity.

It’s tempting to try to find something tragic in Wozniak’s story, as the Jobs biopic did. The Macintosh, initially a commercial failure, has usurped the Apple II as the pop culture symbol for retro Apple — the company itself even dumped Woz’s invention from its press release boilerplate in 2010, implying that Apple’s true history begins with the Mac. Jobs undermined Woz’s first post-Apple venture — a universal remote control — by barring Apple’s design firm from working with Wozniak’s startup. And as the more famous Steve kept delivering bigger and bigger products, Woz played no significant role in Apple’s unprecedented resurgence.

But it’s clear Wozniak himself doesn’t dwell on any of this, a powerful trait in our increasingly connected world. He’s too busy doing the cha-cha in a pink boa on Dancing With the Stars and eating at the one casual-dining chain to rule them all, Cupertino’s Outback Steakhouse. (“Brought my own dijon mustard for the steak. I love it that way!” — Woz)

Woz never wanted to be a CEO: He dreamed of being an engineer or a teacher; someone who shares knowledge rather than patents it. His memoir is filled with educational sidebars ranging from the history of the CPU to the Gulf of Tonkin. It even has a glossary. “I fought being changed by Apple’s success,” he wrote in a recent Reddit Ask Me Anything (the third most –upvoted AMA in the website’s history). “I never sought wealth or power, and in fact evaded it. … I try to be a very middle level person and to live my life around normal fun people. I do many things to affect that I don’t consider myself more important than anyone else.”

Make no mistake, though — Steve Wozniak is very, very proud of what he accomplished and how it changed the world. “I don’t think there’s a man who’s done more to advance the democratization that comes with personal computing than I have,” Rogen’s Woz declares in the movie. “It was the Apple II that ended up kicking off the whole personal-computer revolution,” the real Woz writes in his memoir.

The movie definitely got that line right.