In the Valley

Who’s the Next Steve Jobs? Jeff Bezos? Larry Page? Guess Again!

Legendary garage inventors Steve Wozniak (co-founder Apple) and Nolan Bushnell (Atari) tackle the big question on a panel in Silicon Valley.

Steve Wozniak - Finding the Next Steve Jobs at C2SV tech conference

Steve Wozniak and his wife Karen arrive at the C2SV tech conference in San Jose.

“You probably already have the next Steve Jobs working for you.”

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says it’s not him. Oracle’s Larry Ellison races boats and sells databases, not SL500s and smartphones. And Google’s Larry Page? Well… he’s just too darn celestially smart.

So who is the next Steve Jobs?

And is he, as Atari founder Nolan Bushnell asserts, already working for you?

I think many of us already know the answer to that (see bottom for mine).

When you have two legendary garage inventors in Steve Wozniak (co-founder Apple @stevewoz) and Nolan Bushnell (co-founder Atari @NolanBushnell), the discussion becomes steeped in entertaining nostalgia and fascinating back-story. The two were featured on a panel, “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” today at the inaugural C2SV tech conference downtown San Jose. It should be noted, these friendly faces of Silicon Valley lore and counterculture, can still draw a crowd. The “Insanely Great” conference room was standing room only, and for the last sixty minutes, yes, insanely great.

“The great thing about Pong was that the typical woman could beat the typical man. It turned every bar into ladies’ choice.” — Nolan Bushnel on the perfect storm

I’ve been on a Kings and Crazies tour in SV, that will continue into the weekend. If yesterday was all about the Age of Context (and its secrets), then today was all about the Age of Counterculture and Innovation; well, and also about getting that chip count down in hopes of pocketing an extra $500.

Although today’s discussion covered everything from the evolution of computing, video games and the genesis of the PC to the explosion of mobile and cloud, high school dropouts (Bushnell’s youngest son dropped out 3 years ago, and now, at 19, runs a company with $1 million in sales) and the app economy–and the Segue Polo Championship!–it was their perspectives on leadership and the post-Jobs era I was particularly interested to hear about.

“I never saw the bad Steve Jobs. Not once,” says Woz. “I never saw him blow up on other people. I only heard about it.”

Woz, of course, famously co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs.

With the Apple ][ and Macintosh the duo led the invention of the personal computer (A young Bill Gates at a start-up called Microsoft would also have something to with that). Woz was the loyalist and genius technologist (remember when he created the brilliant floppy controller for the Apple computer?), Jobs the masterful salesman and story-teller not afraid to confront an executive. The modern day point-and-click interface, featuring a user interface with icons instead of a green screen of text became the metaphor for computing for decades to follow. That is, until Jobs impossibly reinvented the industry yet again in 2007 with the Apple iPhone (which Woz calls the greatest the device the world has ever seen) PCs and keyboards were dead. And the gestures and the app economy was born.

"People remember your success and forget your failures. But you've got to be prepared to fail. If you're not skiing fast, you're not learning," says Bushnell on the search for Jobs-like leadership. "And if you're skiing fast you'll fall down."

Just a few pixels shy of what you might see today in Call of Duty: the Pong video game. It would put Atari on the map, and bring games to mainstream consumers.

Just a few pixels shy of what you might see today in Call of Duty: the Pong video game. It would put Atari on the map, and bring games to mainstream consumers. Steve Wozniak made the game in 4 days. Him and Steve Jobs didn’t sleep for four day and four nights. Both came down with mononucleois.

mononucleosis

Nolan Bushnell is widely regarded as the pioneer of the video game industry. The iconic games Pong and Breakout came to life under a young company he founded–that you might have heard of–called Atari. As Robert Scoble pointed out yesterday after his presentation, Bushnell would go down in history as being Steve Jobs’ one and only boss. Though, you might argue that John Sculley was his “boss” too. Apple infamously brought him on board, thanks to the incessant wooing by Jobs himself, to, ostensibly, provide “adult supervision.” At the time Apple was on the ropes, and rapidly losing market share to cheap and ubiquitous Wintel machines (Microsoft Windows running on PCs with Intel chips). Ultimately, Microsoft would win that round. But Apple would mount a comeback for the ages under the unprecedented vision of Steve Jobs.

“Never once when we built the Internet did we try to build the human brain,” said Woz, who believes companies like Google and Apple (Siri) are getting closer to humanizing our interactions with technology. “We just tried to connect computers. Now we’re getting closer.”

Steve Wozniak guides press on the history of computers at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

Steve Wozniak guides press on the history of computers at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

“The iPhone is the greatest device ever introduced to the world.” – Woz

A poster child for Foursquare these days (he loves checking in at Tesla charging stations and then grabbing ice cream with his wife Karen), Wozniak seemingly still has an infinity pool of exuberance and passion for technology. He proudly jokes that the name on his Berkeley degree is “Rocky Racoon Clark.” After dropping out of high school, he snuck back into school under a fake name.

When I met him a few years back at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View where he was guiding a press tour on all things computing (my video “Woz” of that incredible tour shot on a Canon DSLR), he was incredibly gracious. And talkative! Apple this. Mainframe that. 4k RAM this. Hard drive that. Turns out he’s a huge fan of voice recognition, GPS, and, even… Google’s mobile Android operating system.

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I find it partially amusing that the “search” for our next tech evangelical continues. Maybe we like to be led. Maybe our collective subconscious fears that if there’s no larger-than-life figure to guide us we will never reach the promised land.

So, who is the next Steve Jobs?

Is this merely a rhetorical question and provocative panel title?

As in the film Highlander (1986) there could only be “One.”

WATCH: “WOZ” – Steve Wozniak on the History of Computing

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Clinton Stark
Clint is based in Silicon Valley and co-founded Stark Insider. A new media venture, the goal was to fill the increasing gap in arts and food & wine coverage. This site has consumed his every fiber. Yet, he still has time to talk Android, praise Pebble, and shoot videos. More: Clint's story...