The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Macintosh: Part 9

Written by: Adam Christianson

Categories: Editorial

A Brief and Warped History of the Mac, part 9 (WozCast)

Taking a break from the Mac itself, this week the column is going to focus on something that may have been the PodCasting of its day.

By his own admission, Steve Wozniak – Apple’s cofounder and original engineer was a phone fanatic. Back when answering machines were relatively new and had to be rented from the phone company, he set up a ‘dial-a-joke’ service.

The idea of this service was that Woz would record a joke onto his answering machine every day and then distribute the number to anyone who may want to listen to it. People could then phone his number to listen to the recording.

Woz did not invent the ‘dial-a-joke’, but rather set up his own rather popular service. It was so popular in fact that he was forced to change the phone number for the service a number of times. Even when he managed to get hold of very easy-to-remember numbers, he would still get complaints from others who had similar numbers and were on the receiving end of all the misdialled traffic.

The idea of a dial-a-joke service in many ways precedes the PodCast. A PodCast is a system that allows you to listen to something that you choose when you want to. The phone system similarly placed the power into the listener’s hands – they could dial up the number when and often as they chose, or if they wanted, find the number of a different dial-a-joke machine to try.

Of course there are some technical drawbacks to this. For a start, the length of the message cannot be very long. To advertise your service, there was no easy way to get your phone number out to everyone who might want to listen to it – in fact the best advertising was word-of-mouth. Even if word of the service reached people at long distance, they would have to pay their phone company to make the calls to the machine. And on a technical point, only one person could get through to the machine at any one time.

Podcasts get around all this with international distribution over the internet and large directories to allow people to find the right Podcast for them. The internet allows free and easy simultaneous downloads to people all over the world.

Telephone based broadcasting sadly never took off. This may have been down to technical reasons but unfortunately, signs of another cause for it’s demise can be seen in the form of sex chat-lines. While Woz’s use of telephone recordings was purely non-profit making and wholly innocent, others saw the potential to make vast amounts of cash. The people who got hold of telephone recording technology used it commercially to appeal to the male tendency to turn all new inventions to a method for distributing adult material. This, however, stopped the development of the telephone recording as a mass broad casting medium. Many believe that Apple already have a solution in place to commercially distribute Paid-for-podcast-subscriptions through the iTunes Music Store and while many of us would probably be happy to pay a small fee for a few Podcasts from established broadcasting companies such as the BBC, it is a good policy for Apple to allow the medium of Podcasting to become established before introducing charges. Beside this the relative cheapness in putting together a Podcast and the abundance of people with something to talk about mean that the future is safe for the type of free podcast that we’re all getting used to.

Steve Wozniak’s fixation with telephone technology led to many change in his life – it was through his dial a joke machine that he met his wife, when she called the service and Woz happened to pick up. It also led to his first business with Steve Jobs. As with Apple, Woz served in a technical role, with Jobs taking care of the marketing and sales side of the operation . The operation in question being a device for hacking the phone system that Wozniak built and Jobs sold to students at his university. Dodgy as it may sound this money helped the pair when starting their next company to sell the computer that Woz had come up with.

Next week in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Macintosh, we will take a speculative look into the future of not just the Mac, but the operating systems of tomorrow.

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There are 2 comments on The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Macintosh: Part 9:

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  1. Maedi | Sep 24 2005 - 05:01

    Thankyou Richard for another great installment.

  2. Janni | Mar 21 2008 - 07:02

    Great post thanks for making Mac easier for us