Woz: The Practical Joker

by , 11:00 AM EST, November 5th, 2003

Steve 'Woz' Wozniak has worn many hats over the years: engineer, entrepreneur, humanitarian, the list goes on and on. That's the serious side of Apple's co-founder, there's a less serious side that seems to exist only to play elaborate practical jokes. Over at Woz.org, Woz lets us in on a practical joke he once played on the his partner, Steve Jobs -- and pretty much the entire computer hobbyist community -- back in the early days of personal computing. The story was posted in an answer to a letter in his 'Letters-General Questions Answered' section.

Did you ever hear of the Zaltair computer? it was some hot item back when computers were built on breadboards and Apple was just getting started. But let's let Woz tell it:

The hot-selling hobbiest computer platform then (circa 1976) was called S-100 and the computer that had started this movement was the MITS Altair, based on the Intel 8080 microprocessor. The company Zilog had come out with a compatible processor, which they called the Z-80. A few companies using this chip were establishing brands based on Z words. Like ComputerZ or Z-Node or the like. I created a phony ad for a product called the Zaltair. I copied some of the worst ads I could find for wording. It started out "Imagine [this]. Imagine [that]. Imagine [other]..." with superlative descriptions of a computer that solved every problem in the world. I came up with ridiculous lines like "Imagine a car with 5 wheels" as though it would be better! I made up words like PerZonality, BaZic, etc.

I also had a comparison chart. I compared this new phony Zaltair computer to the Altair, the Apple and a couple of other ones. The categories I made up were ridiculous, things like "software," "hardware," "usefulness," "appearance," "durability," etc. The Zaltair was normalized to 1.0 for every category. The next best computer was always the Altair, with numbers like 1.8 or 2.5. This was another ridiculous clue, since the Altair wasn't superior to the other computers of the comparison. The other computers would have numbers like 5.3, 7.1, etc.

I added a section where you could ship back your Altair 8080 of Altair 680 computers (the latter was a real dog) and get a discount. This phony Zaltair was supposedly from the same company MITS. I'd made sure in advance that MITS would not be at the show.

Woz goes on to tell how he distributed flyers printed with the Zaltair ad, which was snapped up by people attending the first West Cost Computer Fair, and by representatives from MITS, who created the Altair computer. Many took the ad at face value, but not the MITS rep, who dutifully tried to remove as many flyers as possible.

There's more; Woz went on to include Steve Jobs in his madcap madness, but we won't divulge it here; stop by the Leters-General Questions Answered section of Woz.org and get the full story.

The Mac Observer Spin:

That Woz is such a card! We are inspired by him, though the same joke today would likely not go over as well; many are jaded after years of vaporware from many would-be computer makers. Just goes to show you how times have changed.

Still, we want to try..., now where's that whoopee cushion?

While you're at the site be sure to check out the skinny, long-haired geeky guys that were once the Two Steves. Are those mutton chops Jobs is sporting?