Wozniak the Apple of CRC's Eye

Father of the PC opens CRC 2008 with lessons from his whiz-kid life

SAN ANTONIO -- Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc. and arguably the most important inventor of the past half century, told his story to a packed room of 500-plus attendees of CSP's 2008 Convenience Retailing Conference on Monday in San Antonio.

Wozniak, who built the world's first personal computer and helped stoke the imaginations and education of grade-school students with his time and donations, simply related his school days and passion for electronics and computers.

He theorized that convenience stores are called "c-stores" because of all the "C" items they sell, like cookies, [image-nocss] candy, cholesterol, coffee, chips, crackers, etc.

The winner of the 1985 National Medal of Technology, awarded by President Reagan, had much to offer in the way of wisdom for successful people. Along found a hugely significant company along with Steven Jobs, Wozniak said he did something he always wanted to do—finally get his college degree (enrolled as Rocky Raccoon Clark) and to teach fifth grade. With hardly any fanfare, his message to his kids was that they shouldn't strive to be a "computer nerd" like him, but that they should learn how to present ideas.

"If you really care about something, you don't give money, you give your time," he said.

Wozniak made it clear that not every success story is by design; plenty of luck comes into play. Still, preparation meets opportunity. Wozniak worked at Sylvania while still in high school and snuck into a Stanford library on weekends to study manuals of the world's early computers so he could build them himself, he said.

"Wherever really smart people work, they leave a lot of doors open," he said, not completely metaphorically.

Wozniak didn't mind making choices on a whim—his first college was the University of Colorado, because it snowed when the California boy visited. He also knows the value of a good plan. The first program he designed was perfect, except that it didn't show up on the screen. The lesson, he said, was "a random, try-everything approach doesn't solve big problems."

He was never afraid to go against the grain, he said, which is not the same as being counterculture. Jobs was more the hippie, while Wozniak wanted to be a Hewlett-Packard engineer for life. Yes, he made midnight raids on the computer room at the College of Cupertino, but it was in the name of knowledge advancement that he and a friend ran programs until 4 a.m. When he finally left H-P, it was to build more Apple IIs. According to Wozniak, H-P had amicably declined to use his Apple ideas when he worked there.

"You always want to move forward," Wozniak concluded. "You never want to do what you had before."

Wozniak is currently co-founder and chief technology officer for Acquicor Technology Inc., Newport Beach, Calif., a "blank check" company that acquires businesses in the technology, multimedia and networking sectors. He is also author of iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon, his autobiography.

The tenth-annual Convenience Retailing Conference runs through Wednesday.

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