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Apple’s Woz Returns to Spotlight

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Tech icon Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple and helped popularize personal computing, is obviously unafraid to try new things.

His latest venture is competing in “Dancing with the Stars,” ABC’s reality TV show which returns for an eighth season on March 9.

Wozniak may have dabbled in a slew of start-up companies since leaving Apple more than two decades ago, and most recently became chief scientist of Fusion-io, a fast-growing maker of data storage devices in Salt Lake City, Utah.

But nothing prepared the 58-year-old man, known to many as simply “the Woz,” for a turn as a competitive dancer. Wozniak had previously turned down an invitation to appear on the prime-time TV show, which drew 19 million U.S. viewers last season, and only relented after a friend pressed him, he told Reuters.

“We had one day of practice, that one day of practice is the scariest thing of my life ever,” Wozniak said in a phone interview on Friday. “I was already kind of shaking over nervousness. But I can’t learn. It seems like some very, very simple things are very difficult to learn and remember all these things.”

But Wozniak said he is having a ball practicing with partner Karina Smirnoff. “I’m getting so sore and tired but I go in there and I work hard,” he said. “I’m starting to get the feeling that we’ll actually pull something off that will look like a dance.”

Wozniak, of course, is famous for being unconventional.

More than 30 years ago, he and Steve Jobs started Apple in Jobs’ garage in Silicon Valley. Wozniak created the Apple I and Apple II computers, and the company went public in 1980, making the two founders very rich.

Wozniak ended full-time work at Apple in the mid-1980s, but still draws a small paycheck and says he’s a “token employee.”

He couldn’t say what Apple’s next big product might be — although he talks frequently with friends working there — and spoke proudly about its knack for capturing the imagination.

“Apple has been a leader in so many technologies, and the public sometimes doesn’t know what’s going to come next. It’s sometimes so surprising and shocking,” Wozniak said.

He last talked with Jobs a couple of weeks before the Apple CEO announced his medical leave of absence in January. Wozniak said he didn’t have any particular insight into how his friend was doing but said he sounded completely healthy and content.


Wozniak acknowledged he has had his pick of opportunities with start-ups, but he said Fusion-io’s technology “astounded” him. The company makes high-speed solid-state drives for use in computer servers, using flash memory chips instead of conventional mechanical disk drives.

Fusion-io has more than 300 customers including International Business Machines Corp and Hewlett-Packard. Investors include Dell Inc.

“I thought this was a company that had a great chance for big success and it’s always a lot more fun when you’re doing the sort of thing that has been your technology direction in life and your company is successful,” Wozniak said.

Solid-state drives are becoming more popular as an alternative to hard disk drives in laptops. They are faster, more energy efficient and more durable as they have no moving parts. However, SSDs are still far more expensive.

Wozniak said he plans to have a very hands-on role at Fusion-io and said he “absolutely” saw the technology eventually moving into PCs.

When asked about computing trends of the future, he said he expects multi-touch displays, which Apple helped popularize with the iPhone, to be ubiquitous on many products soon.

Although he doesn’t use a netbook, Wozniak said the future in the PC world is “portable and virtual” and sees huge potential in cloud computing, which is the use of Web-based technology for storing and delivering products and services.

“I really appreciate it every time I see us being able to make one more step toward cloud computing and not having to have everything in one machine, because I think that is the future but it’s a future that keeps fighting us,” he said.

Wozniak folded Wheels of Zeus, his wireless tech start-up, in 2006. After that, he kept busy with speaking engagements and other projects, but said he was fighting loneliness after his son graduated from high school and left home.

He sounded enthusiastic to dive into Fusion-io, but for the next few weeks, his attentions are focused on dancing.

He wouldn’t make any predictions about the competition — which include rapper Lil’ Kim, Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson and former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor — but Wozniak may have a secret weapon in his cult-like following in the tech world. A Facebook page and website have already sprung up to rally tech geeks to vote for him.

“If enough hackers care for me … maybe I’ll win the popular vote,” Wozniak said. “I don’t have any ideas that I can be a professional dancer.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Madway, editing by Tiffany Wu, Richard Chang)

Copyright 2009 Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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