Opinions & People

Disruptive beginnings

by Samar Al-Montser

Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, also known as the Woz, shares what disruption means and how technology may not always have the solution.

A huge fan of Tetris and a huge name in the digital industry, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc., spoke at the 13th WIEF in Sarawak on his digital journey before digital even existed and how he followed the development of technology to see how it might change things in the future.

Back in the day when there were no emails, Steve Wozniak was always listed as number one in Nintendo Power, an in-house magazine by Nintendo. He took photographs of his score and mailed it to the magazine. ‘I always appeared on top of the list, until they wouldn’t post my scores anymore because they wanted to get new names,’ he said. Though that didn’t stop him from winning later under a different name.

His gaming interests continued and led him to where he is today. ‘It was totally disruptive,’ he commented about the video game market. ‘A personal computer in the hands of a person was going to make that person Superman.’

Digital breakouts
When Steve worked at Hewlett Packard (HP), he thought he was a disruptive employee because he wanted them to build a personal computer. ‘I described how much it would cost, what parts it would have, how it would work, how it would make you more powerful and they turned me down for the first five times,’ he recalled.

‘They would ask their existing customers, “do you need a small computer?” [and] none of their existing customers doing huge jobs with big mainframes and minicomputers needed this new little small microcomputer,’ he said. ‘But they didn’t talk to a market that didn’t exist yet, like students, teachers, dentists, lawyers. All the normal people in life.’

Apples’ beginnings took quite a route before getting into education and schools. However, Steve explained that Apple was just a lot of electronic magazine followers and enthusiasts who read about such technologies like personal computers coming in.

Computers or machines, Steve believed, didn’t and couldn’t actually solve a problem on their own. ‘A machine may never be able to create things for humans. Because they haven’t led a human life,’ he argued. ‘Humans had to design it, tell it what to do, instruct it, be in control of it. There’s no machine that sat down and said hey, here’s a neat little project for the world…no machine sat down and did that. Only a human decides what should be solved.’

Steve designed the game Breakout for Atari when they were hardware games. Breakout was a game where you hit balls against some bricks. ‘It might take a year for a skilled engineer to create a prototype of a new game idea by connecting wires and chips,’ he said.

When Steve created Apple II, he also sat down to create Breakout. ‘I did it in half an hour,’ he said. He played with all sorts of variations of colours, bricks, angles and speed of the ball. ‘Then, I called Steve Jobs over to my house and showed him…I was trembling because I realised how different gaming was going to be now that it was software. And software is really what makes the big difference in our lives these days,’ he believed.

He reasoned that very disruptive products sometimes sold very low amounts and didn’t disrupt the business but, all of a sudden, they had set the trend. When the word disruption started going around a decade ago, Steve didn’t know what it meant but that didn’t mean he didn’t know what it was to disrupt. Disruption even started in the way people did business like in HP.

When he was designing Apple computers while he worked at HP, the disruption was very well managed in the company. ‘They had a lot of principles trying to make employees feel like part of the company,’ he explained. ‘Like you were all part of one family. If you failed at your job, we’ll find other job roles for you, you might fit in, we’ll retrain you rather than fire you and put you out on the street. They’re very good in that sense…[it was during] a recession.’

Instead of laying off 10 per cent of the people, he recalled, HP gave everybody one out of 10 days off and no salary. ‘But nobody was put out. And if the company made a profit, which it always did, you got part of the profit as profit-sharing. Stock will be given to the employees,’ he said. ‘Why stock? Why not money? Well stock, I mean money is like a bonus, stock would make the employees think well, I’m really part of this company, my work is going into this company and the value of the stock.’

Chief disruption officers
‘Big companies should fear being disrupted. They should be very wary and conscious of what might come along and disrupt them…It’s kind of like existentialism and that’s how I think of disruption,’ Steve said. As a solution and protective measure for companies, he proposed for companies to hire chief disruption officers (CDOs) to watch out for disruption.

Steve argued about how CEOs were concerned with how the company was currently doing, and sometimes it was hard for them to divert too far out into something that had no meaning yet. He explained how it was necessary for CDOs to pay attention and figure out how latest developments might disrupt their business in the future. ‘So, they can be ready for it. A CDO shouldn’t report to the CEO of a company. But to the board of directors,’ he added.

Last words
His passion for keeping up with technology to observe what might be common and how things might change in the future led him to believe that you couldn’t always predict these things. ‘When early pitches from Uber came along, I listened and didn’t think it was going to go. We had taxis, we had cars but then again maybe I don’t live in the right city where Uber makes more sense,’ he admitted.

Products he believed, came about because they were not designed for the masses. Instead, they were designed to be the right product for one person. ‘[It’s] about simplicity, elegance and appearance,’ he insisted.

It wasn’t always about business and concept. As an engineer, he emphasised the importance of understanding an engineer’s perspective. ‘When you start a new company or a new product, you should have a working model that you developed on your own,’ he said. ‘A visual presentation on a screen for somebody to get a feel [of it] and that really required [an] engineer to be part of your founding team,’ he explained.

However hard it might be for engineers working on problems and creating solutions, you must be driven by happiness to go on and not by money. ‘I’ve never been focused on money, I gave mine away,’ he concluded.


For more on 13th WIEF and our Foundation’s initiatives, download our 2017 report here.

29 Jan 2018
Last modified: 16 Jul 2018
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