In a flying visit to Australia last week, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, discussed the meteoric rise of Apple, what he thinks is the next big thing and how HP passed up a golden opportunity. He also chatted about the man behind the turtleneck; his long time friend, Steve Jobs.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Credit: Luke Hopewell)
Wozniak told delegates at the Australian Congress Business Council in Queensland last week that, growing up, his father was his main inspiration, followed by one of his school teachers. While other kids were getting bikes for Christmas, young Wozniak was tearing the wrapping off a HAM radio, and getting his HAM broadcast licence at age 10.
It was his father who taught him much of what he knows about science and technology, Wozniak recounts.
"I had told my Dad back a long time ago that I was going to own my own computer some day. He asked would it cost as much as a down payment on a house ... I said I'd live in an apartment!"
Wozniak's first job in technology was working as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard, working on the team designing the very first scientific calculator, which he described as "the iPhone 4 of its day", costing around the equivalent today of $2000. Wozniak thought that Hewlett-Packard was a great place to work.
"I appreciated [Jobs] for the counter-culture movement, and for thinking about different ways of life. I totally bought into it, I just wasn't going to become a part of that hippie movement with drugs and stuff, but Steve was more 'in it'."
"I wanted to stay at Hewlett-Packard for the rest of my life. That was my decision. I never wanted to go up the management ladder. I wanted to design hardware, and write software for the rest of my life," he said, a sentiment that changed just five years after meeting Steve Jobs.
Jobs and Wozniak were introduced to each other through a friend of Wozniak's with whom he built the "creaming soda computer". Wozniak's friend told him he should go and see Jobs because he had some computer knowledge, and was fond of playing pranks, which Wozniak said he was also known for.
"He read books that were about the very few of us, like the Shakespeares and the Einsteins, who take the world forward and the rest of us kind of hardly matter in the end. He always wanted to be one of those special people, but then he went around just living with people who had nothing and eating seeds and walking around in bare feet and all that," Wozniak said to laughter.
"I appreciated him for the counter-culture movement, and for thinking about different ways of life. I totally bought into it, I just wasn't going to become a part of that hippie movement with drugs and stuff, but Steve was more 'in it'," Wozniak said.
Jobs eventually went to college in Oregon and, on the drive up with Wozniak, complained that he had to take basic literature and mathematics courses.
"But I thought I was just going to be able to go in and do Shakespeare courses and quantum physics and learn all this neat stuff about the world," Wozniak quoted Jobs as saying. Subsequently, Jobs spent the first week of college in a tent in his dormitory and skipped all of his classes.
"He was a little free-thinking," Wozniak said.
"When you talk to him, his mind is always going a few different places, so he would impress people back then. He would impress higher-ups so the college let him stay without paying dorm fees and they let him go sit in on any classes he felt like if there was room."
Wozniak stayed with Hewlett-Packard while Jobs was at college, and said that he remained constantly impressed by new technology, so much so that when he first saw Atari's Pong at his local bowling alley, he went home and built one himself.
Jobs returned from college and was so amazed by Wozniak's version of Pong and the Atari original that he went to the Atari headquarters and got himself a job there.
While the head of Atari at the time described Jobs as the type of thinker that the company needed to be hiring, it wasn't all smooth sailing for Jobs.
"At first they put him on the day shift, but he doesn't really get along with people that well, so they put him on the night shift ... where he worked alone," Wozniak said.
Five years later, while Wozniak was in the Homebrew Computer Club, he had the idea for what would become the Apple I: a simple computer that skipped the idea of a front input panel and used a keyboard and screen arrangement to input binary to produce a visual result.
Steve Jobs, at this time, was working on a farm in Oregon that he had bought into with the funds the two had earned designing a game for Atari called Breakout.
"He came back and he saw the interest in my computer ... and everybody owning their own computers at home and said [that] I had a company idea for us."
At the time, Wozniak was heavily into the open-source movement, giving away all of his software, designs and intellectual property to start the [personal computing] revolution. Steve Jobs said that their new company should build a PC board that "makes it easier for [users] to construct their own computers out of the chips they get at work", meaning that even if people didn't have technical skills like soldering, they could still build their own computers.
Wozniak, worried that the two wouldn't even sell 50 units to make their money back, voiced his concerns to Jobs, who said, "who cares; we'll finally have our own company after all these years!"
"Turns out Hewlett-Packard would have made [the Apple I] wrong. They couldn't make another company to sell products to consumers; they made products for engineers."
Wozniak went back to Hewlett-Packard to pitch the PC board and display/keyboard method of computing to executives. The company said no. Wozniak said that it was the first time the company had turned down one of his ideas, a decision that may have been the worst in Hewlett-Packard's long and illustrious history: the decision to pass on what would become Apple.
"Turns out Hewlett-Packard would have made [the Apple I] wrong [anyway]," Wozniak admitted. "They couldn't make another company to sell products to consumers; they made products for engineers."
As a result, Wozniak and Jobs founded their own company called Apple Computer. Wozniak said that he was told years later that Jobs' brother, who worked on the farm with Jobs, had come up with the name.
Apple experienced wild success with the Apple I and II machines, but by the time the Apple III came along Wozniak said that marketers were running the company, and had forced the engineers into a hardware decision that ultimately sacrificed the master stroke that would have made the Apple III relevant to the business market.
"They told us we had to put extra chips in to disable features from the Apple II that even the Apple II business buyers wanted. The Apple III had a whole ton of problems — hardware and software — so it was really a disaster for the company," he said.
The Apple III had a whole ton of problems — hardware and software — so it was really a disaster for the company.
After the failures in Apple III, the overly expensive Lisa machine and after Wozniak decided to go back to college under a pseudonym, Jobs left the company he had built with his friend. Wozniak was told that Jobs had been disobeying the board of directors and remained anti-social towards others at Apple.
Wozniak said that with his new company, Jobs went from lacklustre product to lacklustre project, while Apple floundered under what Wozniak described as poor management for several years until Jobs returned triumphantly to rebuild the empire that was last week valued at more than Microsoft and Intel combined.
Given Wozniak's early open-source interest, it might be surprising to some that he helped start a company which is considered to be very closed.
"Apple could be more open and be just as loved and have just as fine a products. But I won't complain when things are going as well as they are," he said.
The future according to Woz
Wozniak, a fan of technological automation, has lined up for all but one of Apple's products, right back to the original iPhone, and believes that the next big thing for all consumer and business technology will be the practical use of voice control.
"I love whenever I can speak and not have to go through the procedures. Maybe it's because things have gotten so small it's become hard to tap, and when you're in a car it's even worse!
"I think that something that understands natural voice deeper and deeper and runs every app on your phones and your computers will be operated by voice in the future."
Wozniak added that mankind has already lost the "war" with machines, as we have become too reliant on them for our survival.
"We create this level of intelligence that's more than us, this intelligence that's more than humans. We created it accidentally, without knowing it. We created a whole bunch of our brain work on Google but we didn't intend to get that result. We've accidentally put so much in place that we can't get rid of it and out of our lives," he said, adding that innovation is a perpetual cycle that cannot be undone.
"We need to keep developing more of it so we have more in our lives and we have more free time because we have more machinery doing the stuff we used to do. Once it's doing our high-level thinking, there's so little need for ourselves but you can never undo it."
"We will eventually become the pets of machines," Wozniak joked.
During his visit, Wozniak gave the government's National Broadband Network (NBN) the thumbs up, while lamenting that the US isn't likely to ever get the high-speed broadband network that it had been promised by each subsequent president.
"Every ... president since the start of the internet ... said you've got to have broadband, we've got to get broadband to everybody! They all say it, but nothing's ever happened to bring it to me!
"I find it very frustrating."
Wozniak returned to the US over the weekend, but not before having dinner with a few young developers who heard he was coming to town and got in touch.