The Strange, Charmed Life of Steve Wozniak

A lot of people in Silicon Valley either laughed or groaned or both when it became known that Steve Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple Computer, was going to compete on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," debuting this week. Woz was the brains behind Apple in the early days, the one who did all the hard engineering work while his better-known partner, Steve Jobs, served as the public face of the company. Woz got rich in the 1980 initial public offering, was injured in a plane crash in 1981 (he was piloting the plane) and never really returned.

Since then Woz has become a bit of a running joke in the Valley, a naive goofball who's always popping up in the news doing something weird, like playing polo on Segways (in full polo costume) or dating Kathy Griffin, the comedian and actress. But think about it. Jobs, his onetime partner, has spent the past 30 years battling with Microsoft over market share, flying around the world, haggling with business partners, screaming at engineers, introducing new products—basically living and breathing the daily battle of the business world. Woz has been out having fun. Which one would you rather be?

Second fiddles are an interesting breed. They sometimes seem like lost souls. Paul Allen, who cofounded Microsoft with Bill Gates, became one of the richest people in the world and then, like Woz, bailed out early. Since then Allen has become a kind of parody of the aimless rich guy. He owns three professional sports teams, plus a yacht called Octopus that's one of the biggest in the world, and has put together rock bands and paid big-name musicians to jam with him. To be fair, he's also done a great deal of philanthropic work and has been an active investor in new technology.

But Woz is a different type altogether. He's down to earth and lives a comfortable but pretty much ordinary life. No yachts or sports teams; no personal jumbo jets. He flies commercial, drives a Prius and shops at the Apple store and pays full price. "I feel that I'm closer to real people and real product knowledge if I don't pull strings," he says. I met him a couple of years ago when I was on a book tour, promoting a novel that had made a few jokes about Woz. Turns out he'd not only seen the jokes, he loved them. In fact, Woz turns out to be the nicest, coolest guy you could ever meet.

How he ever managed to work alongside the notoriously prickly Jobs is hard to imagine. Legend has it that in the early days Jobs worshiped Woz, who is a few years older and even as a teenager had gained a reputation as an electronics wizard. Woz started out as a phone-system hacker, making "blue boxes" that enabled people to make free long-distance calls. Later he was working at Hewlett-Packard and was reluctant to quit and join Jobs to form Apple—but Jobs twisted his arm. A few years later, when Apple went public in 1980, Jobs refused to give any shares to some of the young guys who'd been helping out in the garage. So Woz set up something called the "Woz Plan" and sold (at very low prices) or gave away one third of his shares to those folks, as well as other friends and family members. After leaving Apple he finished a degree at UC Berkeley, taught fifth grade and promoted rock concerts with technology demos at the fairground.

Stories like this only happen in Silicon Valley, it seems. Over the past 30 years the tech industry has offered a fairy-tale environment in which some people have been able to amass insane amounts of wealth at a very young age—boy-wonder billionaires like Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, or Jerry Yang and David Filo at Yahoo. And in tech you don't have to be socially adept or well rounded to succeed; in fact, it probably helps to be a bit, well, different. But that's not such an asset when you're casting about for something to do with the last two thirds of your life. Some tech prodigies, like Marc Andreessen of Netscape, go on to start more successful companies and generate even more wealth. Others must accept that they are now mere mortals again. In some way they resemble child actors, or rock stars, or professional athletes—extraordinarily talented people whose careers get collapsed into a decade or less and who find themselves hanging around, no longer famous but still young and with not much to do. Thank goodness we now have reality TV to keep them busy.

Consider the "celebrities" Woz will compete against on the dance show—against such luminaries as actress Denise Richards, rapper (and former prisoner) Lil' Kim, "Jackass" star Steve-O and 1980s football great (and 1990s drug-arrest punch line) Lawrence Taylor. Woz swears he doesn't care about being famous, that he's doing the show because "I just thought it would be something different and unusual to do." And I believe him. He says he'd like to win, "but really I'm just competing against myself and trying to have fun." Woz has never danced before, and when he first agreed to do the show he was going to hire a coach. But, in classic Woz fashion, he never got around to it. "I have a busy life," he says. Techies have been organizing online campaigns to support him. Frankly I think he's nuts to be doing this. But you know what? As silly as it is, I'll be rooting for him.