Two kids named Nolan Bushnell and Steve Wozniak shared the same stage, quite possibly for the first time in their storied careers, at a conference in downtown San Jose, California today. And even though the founder of Atari and co-founder of Apple are now pushing 70 years of age and have shaped Silicon Valley history for decades, make no mistake about it. They are still kids at heart who have thoroughly enjoyed playing in the sandbox of the technology revolution.
The occasion was the inaugural four day festival called “Creative Convergence Silicon Valley” or C2SV. Organized by Dan Pulcrano, editor of Metro Silicon Valley, the event follows a model established years ago by the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. In addition to an impressive lineup of speakers (Bushnell and Wozniak were followed by Maynard Webb, Chairman of Yahoo), the conference includes musical groups playing at different venues throughout the city.
Wozniak could relate to what Pulcrano and festival organizers were going through for the first time. “I sure know how to build something like this after running a couple of losing festivals myself,” said the Apple co-founder, ruefully recalling his infamous US festivals which he admitted lost over $20 million in the 1980s.
But as the two legendary tech company founders reminded the audience, the history of Silicon Valley is written largely on failure and the lessons that came from it. In addition to turning down the chance to own a third of Apple in the early days, Bushnell recalled one of his greatest regrets at not making his early video game cartridge slots “read-write” instead of “read-only” which would likely have revolutionized the gaming industry and handed Atari a huge market advantage. “Steve has probably got as many failures as I have,” said Bushnell. “But we keep setting up the chess pieces to play again.”
Both men had plenty to say about the current issues surrounding privacy on the Internet. They spoke about how the required use of early encryption tools using technology such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) could have made the Internet much more secure than it has become today. “If only two companies (Apple and Microsoft) had decided to build PGP into their operating systems, every email would be encrypted,” said Wozniak. “It’s kind of sad.”
The “wild west” nature of the early Silicon Valley days wasn’t confined to U.S. borders, as Bushnell recalled. He told a story of visiting Bulgaria where he was given a tour of an Apple II “cloning” factory that was turning out hundreds of the imitation computers every day. Bushnell was offered one dollar to own the operation, a proposal he gave serious thought to until he noticed three body bags surrounded by police cars by the side of the road on his way back to the airport. When he asked his driver what that was all about, the reply he got was that “sometimes executives get killed over here.” The Atari founder did not return.
Steve Jobs, Wozniak’s late colleague in the founding of Apple, was very much on the minds of the two men. Their three lives often intersected. Bushnell employed Jobs for a brief time at Atari and Wozniak would join his partner on the company’s manufacturing floor to gaze in wonder at the new games being developed there. Bushnell said that he hired Jobs because he saw the passion he had for technology innovation. “I always tried to hire for passion,” said Bushnell. “Everything else is trainable.”
Wozniak said he never really saw the “bad” side of Jobs, whose temper tantrums over mistakes became legendary in the Apple culture. Rather, Jobs strongly respected people who performed and got results. “If you were an engineer who had done something well…you were on his good side,” recalled Wozniak.
Jobs may not have liked some of Bushnell’s remarks as the session drew to a close. “What I’m afraid of is that Apple has lost its edge,” said Bushnell, expressing frustration that there were “at least fifty things that should be out by now.” Wozniak just smiled. A kid at heart like Bushnell, he can’t wait either for the next technology toy to take the world by storm.