Expandability: Steve Wozniak's Biggest Success and Nolan Bushnell's Biggest Regret

When two titans of the early computing industry, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, had a chance to sit down for a chat at the C2SV conference last Friday, we learned how a little foresight and luck can decide futures.

Steve Wozniak's Success - Expandability

Steve talked about how the Apple II was the primary source of revenue for Apple's first 10 years of life. The reason the Apple II could last so long was that it was expandable. It had eight expansion slots and the RAM was also expandable (starting at 4K). No computer at the time had this kind of flexibility or expansion capabilities. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs argued over keeping the Apple II open. Jobs wanted closed, Wozniak wanted open and fortunately Wozniak won.  In fact, the Apple II was completely open (those were the days). They published the complete specs before there was anything like a developer community.

So even though the Apple III, Lisa, and the Macintosh all failed, the Apple II kept rolling along. The iPod eventually became the next successful product for Apple and the Age of Apple had begun.

Interestingly, Steve said expandability was not planned at all. It was really a costly and almost unsupportable decision, but it turned out to be “prescient." They didn't plan on expandability as a business model, but it was a life saver. What drove the decision was thinking like a geek, not like an accountant. If you are a geek, that's just the kind of thing you build.

Nolan Bushnell's Regret - Read-only

Nolan told the story of how one his greatest regrets was not making the control lines for his early video game cartridge read-write instead of read-only. By making it read-only they saved a whopping two pennies a line. The point was to be cheap. With the addition of a write line the cartridge could have been written to, sort of like a hard disk, and game scores and other state could have been saved directly to the cartridge. Nolan had a gleam in his eye, obviously pondering on how this would have been a major game changer for Atari.

Lesson: Think Geek

The lesson: when your grownup self compels you to be lean and create something minimally viable -- think geek. It may not make your accountants happy, but your "just because it seems like a great thing" idea might be exactly what you need to become more successful than you can possibly imagine.

The Rest of the Story...

The interview talked about a lot more of course. They reminisced about their early years at Atari, about what might have been, what should be, and of course the ghost haunting all such conversations, Steve Jobs. For more on their talk take a look at:

One saying from Nolan that I particularly liked was "Hire for passion. Everything else is trainable. Happiness is way underrated as a business culture." We could definitely use more of that.