Uniqueness of Apple hardware designs?
October 10, 2011 10:58 AM   Subscribe

I've heard/read quite a bit about how Steve Wozniak's designs for the Apple were unique and elegant (e.g., Revolution in the Valley, or here.) In layman's terms, what were examples of his designs, compared to other conventions of the day? What about them incited admiration?
posted by SpacemanStix to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: No, he means Woz, note the "hardware designs" in the post title.

Woz was admired for his ability to use one chip where others might use two. His floppy disk controller was a marvel for its time, doing in 5 chips what others needed 10x as many to accomplish. In a time when there were few integrated function chips available this kind of saving made a big difference in cost.
posted by tommasz at 11:10 AM on October 10, 2011

Response by poster: Yes, Woz, in terms of the internal hardware. Sorry, I can see how that might have caused some confusion, though, as Jobs was known for his elegant designs in other ways.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:11 AM on October 10, 2011

Best answer: If you look at one of Tommasz' links, he talks about solving problems. I think that's it in a nutshell.

Today there are a lot of projects out there (check Hack-a-Day or the Make Blog) that use relatively expensive micro-controllers and code to do things that could be done more dependably for less money with 7400 or 4000 series logic chips. Wozniak was the 1970's analog of the guys who today are getting amazing things out of chips that came out 30-40 years ago.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:07 PM on October 10, 2011

Best answer: The problems that Woz solved were also done with over-the-counter chips rather than custom ones, which was kind of a big deal.
posted by rhizome at 12:08 PM on October 10, 2011

Best answer: Woz was admired for his ability to use one chip where others might use two. His floppy disk controller was a marvel for its time, doing in 5 chips what others needed 10x as many to accomplish. In a time when there were few integrated function chips available this kind of saving made a big difference in cost.

A lot of how he did that was pushing things that had been controlled in hardware onto software. If you didn't care about cost, hardware was the natural place to implement a lot of the logic around reading and writing to a floppy disk since hardware logic is fast and a core part of a system like that probably won't need to change very often. But when you try to make something as cheaply as possible by using less hardware, tricks to handle things in software and make the most out of every component becomes a much bigger deal, and that's what Woz was good at. He figured out the bare minimum hardware you could run a floppy disk drive with given the processing capabilities of the software that would run it. He also came up with clever ways to get around hardware limitations, such as the encoding scheme he came up with to squeeze out an extra bit of usable data for each byte stored on the disk.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:26 PM on October 10, 2011

Best answer: His book "iWoz" is packed with stories about this stuff. He's great at simplifying a circuit design to do more with less, but his software skills are also amazing.
posted by w0mbat at 12:43 PM on October 10, 2011

Best answer: It's been years and years, but I think I remember that the way the Apple ]['s video circuitry refreshed the dynamic RAM was often held up as an awesome bit of design.
posted by straw at 1:09 PM on October 10, 2011

Best answer: So I re-read your question, and figured I should expand a little: As I said, it's been decades, and I've always been a software guy, but back in the day there was static RAM, and dynamic RAM. There are still both, although the world has come a long way.

Static RAM was fast and easy to use: when you wrote a value to it, as long as there was still power to the chip, it kept the value. However, it was expensive.

Dynamic RAM was a whole bunch of little capacitors, like batteries. You could write a 1 value to it, and read it back, but behind the processor's back you had to have something refreshing it, reading it and rewriting the 1s, in order to keep its state.

One of the brilliances of the Apple ][ design was that it combined the circuit that scanned through the memory grabbing values to put on the screen with the circuit that refreshed the RAM.

Also of note is the Breakout story: as this article on the history of Breakout reports, Jobs was selling design work to Atari, claiming it as his own, while Woz was doing the actual work. The book Steve Jobs - The Journey Is The Reward quotes the Atari guy who was talking to Jobs, Al Alcorn, on the original design that Wozniak came up with:
"Ironically, the design was so minimized that normal mere mortals couldn't figure it out. To go to production, we had to have technicians testing the things so they could make sense of it. If any one part failed, the whole thing would come to its knees. And since Jobs didn't really understand it and didn't want us to know that he hadn't done it, we ended up having to redesign it before it could be shipped."
Basically, Woz understood what every component could do, and wasn't afraid to harness side-effects and other properties in order to reduce component counts and costs, at the expense of anyone else figuring out what was actually going on. And when they did figure it out, they said "wow, I'd never have thought to use this part that way, this is brilliant!"
posted by straw at 2:14 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great answers. Thanks everyone!
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:15 PM on October 10, 2011

If you want an alternative view of Wozniak's skills, you could have a look at On The Edge, which charts the rise and fall of Commodore. The early parts of the book are concerned mainly with Chuck Peddle, the inventor of the 6502 processor that was used in early Apple machines. Peddle claims some involvement with the design of the Apple I and II, citing debugging visits to the garage used by Wozniak and Jobs, and wasn't that impressed with Wozniak's skills as an engineer.
posted by veedubya at 3:51 AM on October 11, 2011

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