Steve Wozniak: walking billboard

Photo by Nick Harrison

I first saw Steve Wozniak speak in person during a small press meeting at Xiaomi headquarters in Beijing. Wozniak rolled up in a shiny new Tesla before the electric car brand had officially started selling vehicles in China. He sat on a couch next to Lei Jun, the founder of China’s biggest smartphone brand, opposite a couple dozen members of domestic and international press.

Unable to communicate with each other due to the language barrier, Lei and Woz awkwardly took turns speaking about a handful of assorted Xiaomi gadgets. In retrospect, it was clear that Wozniak probably only had a brief introduction to the router and phones he subsequently posed with for photographers. He talked a lot, but didn’t say much of substance, only, “I’m playing with mine. I like it so far. I’ll tell you if I have problems,” and, “Xiaomi has excellent products. They’re good enough to break the American market.”

That second quote became the headline that I wrote later that day for Tech in Asia. Like most media, I was eager to fawn over this grandfather of modern technology. The article performed above average as far as the number of hits it received and attention on social media, showing the power of the Apple co-founder’s endorsement. Woz went on to to speak at Geekpark 2014 in Beijing, where he was chauffeured to in the Tesla. He and his agency receive $50,000 to $100,000 per speaking engagement, according to Speaker Booking Agency’s website.

What was most apparent to me — and what I didn’t write in my article — is just how much of a sellout Steve Wozniak has become. He’s a serial endorser of products he knows almost nothing about, and he sells tickets to conferences that many attendants might not otherwise pay for.

And yet, he’s a god of Silicon Valley. People take his word as scripture without questioning the Holy Father of Apple. He makes headlines.

Many view him as some sort of victim. In promotional clips for the latest Steve Jobs biopic, he’s the geeky brains behind the Apple 2 personal computer and the target of much of Steve Jobs’ ire.

Wozniak hasn’t contributed in a meaningful way to any technological advancement in modern-day computers. In 2003 he started a hardware company for keeping track of lost items using GPS-enabled keychains. It shut down operations in 2006. In 2009, he took a post as Chief Scientist at Fusion-IO, a company that builds flash storage for large servers. The Register in 2012 reported that Wozniak’s actual contribution to Fusion IO’s tech was suspect:

“Fusion-IO Director of Communications Shannon McPhee told us Wozniak has offices in the company’s California and Utah offices, does not keep regular hours and is valued for the ‘vision’ he brings to the company.”

In other words, he was there to get investor and press attention. In 2013, the company’s stock went into freefall when it simply ran out of customers. It was rescued in a $1.1 billion acquisition by SanDisk in 2014.

So why do we take this guy so seriously, again?

Wozniak is also a serial endorser. He still pulls an estimated $120,000 per year stipend from Apple and has an estimated net worth of somewhere between $100 million and $250 million. So he doesn’t need the money. The best I can figure is that he has a lot of spare time on his hands and likes to be in the spotlight. He spends a lot of time talking, but very little time doing.

Other than Xiaomi, the Woz has backed … *deep breath* … Bernie Sanders, Edward Snowden, Lego, Windows Phone, the San Jose Angels football team, Tesla, Segway, Kim DotCom, Android, Toyota Prius, SPG Keyless, Comic Con, Cadillac, Datsun (now Nissan), US Robotics, Mayday, Robot Guitar, Yotaphone, and Cathode Corner. There’s probably a lot more that I missed, not to mention the dozens of projects he’s backed on Kickstarter.

He’s served on the boards of numerous tech companies, likely also for the name recognition he garners, including Scottevest, DeepDive, Axiotron, Ripcord Networks, and Danger Inc.

Edit: An earlier version of this article mentioned Wozniak having several branded products including vodka, a fashion line, perfume, and hamburger chain. That came from a satirical article and is not true. I apologize for the error. The rest of the article still stands.

He has “honorary degrees” from 12 universities trying to leverage Woz’s fame.

In 2009, he appeared on Dancing with the Stars. He’s made numerous TV appearances on shows like The Big Bang Theory, Code Monkeys, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, and John Wants Answers.

Just in the last two months, he’s spoken at nearly a dozen conferences and made an appearance on Jimmy Fallon. And the content of every Wozniak interview and keynote, after he quickly runs out of vague observations regarding the subject at hand, are the same stale anecdotes about the early days of Apple and building the Apple II. The same story that’s been retold time and again in Wozniak’s autobiography, four documentaries, and four feature films about Apple.

This December, Wozniak will headline a Panama Canal cruise on a luxury sealiner. Yep.

In fact, one of the only things the Woz seems to have ever spoken ill about is cloud technology. That probably has something to do with his stakes in Fusion IO and Primary Data, which are both physical storage companies that compete with cloud vendors. He also doesn’t like Siri, patents, or Ashton Kutcher.

The worst part about all this and why I decided to write this essay is because Wozniak still holds a huge amount of influence. Despite his lack of knowledge, he can make or break a Kickstarter campaign. He can sway venture capitalists to invest in a company. He can help Xiaomi boost phone sales. He grants an air of false legitimacy to every event he attends and product he endorses. He should be irrelevant by this point, but he’s not.

You can revere him all you want for his work alongside Jobs decades ago, and for that he certainly deserves his place in the history books. But Wozniak is not a bellwether for any piece of technology made today. So stop worshipping him. As much as people rip on Steve Jobs for being an arrogant asshole, at least he didn’t pander. Wozniak is a walking billboard for hire. He’s an attention seeker with no concrete relevance to any technology made post-1990. He’s not a genius. He’s not a victim. And he’s certainly not prophetic.

The Woz ain’t what he once was.

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