Thirty-nine years ago today (Jan. 3, 1977), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak incorporated Apple Computer Company, which they had created nine months earlier with their friend Ronald Wayne, who originally owned 10 percent of the business but sold it back to Jobs and Wozniak for a mere $800. That share would be worth billions of dollars today, yet this missed opportunity does not seem to trouble Mr. Wayne.
"I have never had the slightest pangs of regret,” he said, “because I made the best decision with the information available to me at the time.”
The value of information before the arrival of Apple Computer was very different than it is now. The price of products and services had been traditionally determined by the cost of raw materials and labor, yet suddenly two teenagers were able to create something out of a handful of cheap electronic scraps that was exponentially more valuable than the sum of its parts. The industrial economy was forever transformed into an information economy, where wealth could be generated not just by what people owned but by what they were able to imagine. That turned centuries of economic precedent on its head, and we’re still trying to adapt to the brave new world that launched nearly four decades ago out of Steve Jobs’ garage.
Two things are particularly remarkable about this turn of events. One is that the beginning of the computer revolution happened inauspiciously, and it took decades for the public to recognize the fundamental economic revolution that had taken place. Computers existed before Apple, but they were metal leviathans that took up entire floors of office buildings. The idea of a “personal computer” seemed as unlikely as a personal automobile assembly line. The same year that Wozniak built the Apple I, Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, matter-of-factly stated, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Today, his prediction is listed by pcworld.com as one of the “7 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time.” Yet nobody batted an eye when he said it back in the day, because nobody realized the ground had already shifted under their feet.
It’s also stunning to realize that this radical redefinition of the world economy happened in a single generation, which is a blink of an eye relative to world history. What other paradigm-shattering surprises await us in the next 40 years? The legacy of Apple Computer reminds us that they may already have begun. After all, who knows what two 21st-century teenagers might be cooking up now in their garage?