iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It BY Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith. New York: Norton. 288 pages. $26.

In his new memoir, Steve Wozniak, the cofounder with Steve Jobs of Apple Computer, describes the “story seat,” the name he gave the passenger seat of the family car when his children were small. Whoever got to sit there was treated to a story that Wozniak, or “Woz,” would make up while driving. Indeed, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon—How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It reads like a cross-country trip in the story seat, an endless bedtime story. And with the exception of a few lengthy technical tutorials (must we really be taught the difference between SRAM and DRAM?), that rambling story is indeed fascinating, even gripping in its own odd way.

The tale of Woz’s rise to supergeekdom starts in Sunnyvale, California, under the Wozniak family Christmas tree ca. 1960, where fourth-grader Steve finds an electronics hobby kit from his parents. “It had all these great switches and wires and lights,” he writes. The “neatest” thing he was able to do with it was build a house-to-house intercom system, thus becoming a central member of a group of like-minded neighborhood buddies he calls the “Electronics Kids.” That hobby kit was the start of a long, immersive, world-changing, paradigm-shifting career as a bona fide computer geek. Woz’s father was a Lockheed engineer, and it was from him that Woz caught the bug. Many science-fair prizes, mischievous pranks, and hours of tinkering punctuated his teenage years, and by the time he was in college in Colorado, he had built a small computer he called the Cream Soda Computer, which in turn led to his first meeting with a “skinny and wiry” teenager named Steve Jobs. The two became fast friends.

The scenes in which Jobs appears—and they occur early on—are some of the liveliest. The two Steves began their entrepreneurial adventures together in 1971. Woz had been inspired by an article in Esquire called “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” which described a group of phone phreaks, in particular one who called himself Captain Crunch. Crunch built blue boxes—devices that allowed one to make long-distance calls for free. (Unfortunately, iWoz is a little lax in the fact-checking department: Woz tells us that the story was labeled fiction. Some of the names were changed, but Esquire never suggested the article was anything other than reportage.) Woz built a few of the boxes, in the process advancing the state of the art in blue-box technology. At Jobs’s suggestion, the duo started selling their devices around the Berkeley dorms for $150 apiece. “It was a pretty good business proposition except for one thing,” Woz writes. “Blue boxes were illegal, and we were always worried about getting caught.” Next came the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of build-it-yourself computer hobbyists that Woz first learned about in 1975, while working at Hewlett Packard. After attending his first Homebrew meeting, he began designing the computer that would later be known as the Apple I. Jobs accompanied Woz to a few Homebrew meetings and came up with an idea: Why not build some printed circuit boards for twenty dollars and sell them to Homebrew members for forty? (The division of labor was clear from the start: Jobs was the business and marketing guy, Woz the engineer.)

In 1976, Jobs sold his VW van, Woz his HP-65 calculator, and within a few weeks they had a name for their company: Apple. Woz then built a full computer—the Apple I, the first computer that worked with a keyboard and display (before that, all computers had were hard-to-read front panels)—and priced it at $666.66. Next came the Apple II, a much more efficient, more advanced computer with color, high-resolution graphics, and sound.

Their big break came later that year with a $250,000 investment from Mike Markkula, who at thirty was already retired from Intel. It was Markkula who saw the potential of the Apple II as a real home computer. “We’re going to be a Fortune 500 company,” Markkula told the two Steves. “This is the start of an industry. It happens once a decade.” And he was right. What followed was a whirlwind of patents, copyrights, sales successes, the biggest IPO since Ford, spanking new headquarters in Cupertino, California, and huge personal fortunes for the two Steves.

But the early 1980s were less than satisfying for Woz the engineer, as he watched new, inferior computers get designed by committee and his Apple II line get relegated to second-class citizenship as Jobs led his own handpicked team in building the much cooler Macintosh, which debuted in 1984.

Early in the book, Woz takes a pulpit-pounding stand on honesty. “My dad believed in honesty,” he writes. “Extreme honesty. Extreme ethics, really. That’s the biggest thing he taught me. He used to tell me that it was worse to lie about doing something bad under oath than it was to actually do something bad, even like murdering someone. That really sunk in. I never lie, even to this day. Not even a little.”

Yet anyone who reads iWoz with even the smallest amount of prior knowledge will know that Woz is skating over some of the more uncomfortable chapters in his life. One of his reasons for writing his book is, he tells the reader, to set the record straight. In this case, however, he actually does the reverse of most memoirists who feel wronged by the public record. Woz is a practitioner of what Thumper’s mother, in Bambi, teaches her youngster: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Instead of weighing in with his own take on whatever it was that cleaved the two men and gave rise to Jobs’s widely reported hostility toward him, Woz skirts the issue. For years, the public has been led to believe that Woz left Apple because he was unhappy as the company went in a different direction. Woz insists he left because of the irresistible draw of starting a new company to build an electronic device of his own creation—a universal remote control he called the CL 9. And he rants against journalists who have told a different story. But the fact of the matter is that at some point between the Cream Soda Computer and the debut of the Macintosh, relations between the two Steves took a definite turn for the worse. Woz also decides not to tell the entire story of the US Festival, a multiday, multiband rock concert in San Bernardino, California, which he put on with concert promoter Bill Graham (who in his own book sums Woz up rather condescendingly as a “a wonderful nebbish”) in the early 1980s. The event turned into a financial train wreck for Woz, who lost twenty-four million dollars, largely because some unscrupulous people took advantage of his good nature.

Because he is a preternaturally nice guy who would rather dwell on bits than snits, Woz leaves us with the impression that his has been a life curiously devoid of introspection. At every opportunity to analyze something that must by definition have had an effect on his life, perhaps even taken a toll on his emotional well-being, he veers elsewhere. We hear in agonizing detail about things of interest only to the truest of geeks, yet we learn precious little about the three women he’s married.

Sometimes he cannot help but give the reader a small glimpse of his true opinion of Jobs. One summer before the two Steves started Apple, they got a job standing in a mall dressed in Alice in Wonderland costumes. Woz had a blast with the kids, who were intrigued by the big Mad Hatter in tennis shoes. When he reminded Jobs years later of how much fun the gig had been, Jobs simply said, “No, it was lousy. We hardly got paid anything for it.”

And in one disconcerting passage, Woz describes a fit thrown by Jobs after Woz left Apple. When he discovered that Apple’s industrial-design firm was also working on the CL 9, Jobs threw the device against a wall, put its remains in a box, and said to the designers, “Send it to him.” Such a scene begs, at the very least, for an attempt at analysis. Given how close the two Steves once were, why did Woz evoke such open hostility from his old friend? Even if he cannot answer that question, perhaps he could talk a little bit about how this made him feel, having his new labor of love thrown against a wall by Steve Jobs. Instead, Woz quickly moves on, diving straight into a discussion of his choice of microprocessor for the device. (The company, by the way, was a complete bust.)

History has already conferred the title of visionary on Jobs. Whether the same will happen for Woz is open to debate. Was he, too, a visionary, or was he an extremely talented engineer who happened to build the right thing at the right time in the right place? Certainly, he was passionately committed to building a computer that happened to become revolutionary. He insisted that a personal computer needed to be useful, not just a toy for geeks. And he was right. At the same time, he confesses that he was skeptical of Markkula’s predictions of Apple’s success. From the start, his passion had more to do with how “neat” he thought his computer was.

The writing in iWoz is, in a word, terrible. Instead of literary polish, Woz and Gina Smith strive for a deliberately folksy tone: “And, of course, we didn’t need a ton of money to operate. I had a day job, so I looked at it as, Hey, cool. Extra money for pizza!” But if it is grating at first, the voice is ultimately effective. After a hundred or so pages, we start to feel like Woz’s pal, walking arm in arm down random-access-memory lane. And by the time we’ve resigned ourselves to the total absence of introspection, we are happy to be taken for a ride through WozLand––his long history of pulling pranks, the enjoyment he finds in being around children, his pure love of engineering. In one of his most endearing moments, Woz tells Smith, “To this day, I still believe engineers are among the key people in the world. And I believe that I will be one forever.”

Indeed, Woz is widely liked, partly because he is a genuinely nice guy whose humility and kindness come across mainly in deed (I have covered the computer industry for more than twenty years but have never met him; coincidentally, we share an agent and a publisher). He lost millions on the US Festival he underwrote but counts it as the highlight of his life. And his generosity is legendary. The Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose, as well as that city’s tech museum and the Ballet San Jose, are direct beneficiaries. Woz is such a Silicon Valley legend that the street the children’s museum is on is called Woz Way. (“It’s one of the proudest things in my life—to have a street named after me,” he writes.)

So what does one do with a badly written book filled with conspicuous omissions (not to mention some mind-boggling errors of fact—the book even misspells the name of Apple’s benefactor as “Markulla”) that also happens to be a highly enjoyable read? Woz wants to set the record straight, but something (his lack of self-reflection? His unwillingness to tell the whole truth? his inarticulateness?) is preventing him from taking his father’s advice and being utterly honest. Perhaps the blame lies with his total goodness, which comes through without a shred of chest beating. In the end, maybe that is the true lesson he learned from his parents: If you can’t always be honest, at least always be good. And if it makes the long ride in the story seat less than completely satisfying, the passenger is grateful that at least the driver kept his eyes on the road.

Katie Hafner covers technology for the New York Times and is the author, most recently, of The WELL: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community (Carroll & Graf, 2001).