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Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak talks Apple's past, present and future

The Apple co-founder discusses the iPad and his love of hardware engineering
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Written by Tim Ferguson on

The Apple co-founder discusses the iPad and his love of hardware engineering

In 1976, when Steve Jobs persuaded his friend Steve Wozniak to start a company to sell the Apple I - the computer Wozniak had built - the pair had no way of knowing what their company, Apple Computer, would become.

A local computer shop in Palo Alto quickly sold the first batch of Apple Is and Apple Computer never looked back: in 1980, the company went public and Jobs and Wozniak became multimillionaires.

Now more than 30 years after it was established, Apple is the biggest technology company in the world in terms of market capitalisation and is a byword for cleverly-designed and cool consumer technology.

And although he left the company in 1987, Wozniak's engineering genius and design philosophy that were at the root of the company's early success continue to have an influence today.

The iPod, iPhone and iPad continue to shift millions of units and stick to Wozniak's ethos of making technology easy to use and ready to go straight out of the box.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak built the Apple I and was instrumental in the company's early success

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak built the Apple I and was instrumental in the company's early success
(Photo credit: Fusion-io)

Since leaving Apple, Wozniak has founded several other companies including wireless GPS company Wheels of Zeus and a holding company for acquiring and developing technology companies, Acquicor Technology. He's also taught computer science to high-school students and regularly speaks to organisations around the world. He's currently chief scientist at solid-state storage company Fusion-io.

More recently, Wozniak - affectionately known as The Woz - has taken part in US TV dance contest Dancing with the Stars and appeared in US sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

silicon.com caught up with Wozniak to discuss the early days of Apple, his views on Apple's evolution into the huge tech brand it is today and what the future holds for the company.

The early days of Apple

Released in 1976, the Apple I was essentially a pre-assembled motherboard for which users merely had to provide a case, screen and keyboard. What made it significant was that it represented a shift from computers that people had to build themselves, to computers that were ready to work as soon as they were unpacked.

That a pristine example of an Apple I recently fetched £133,000 at auction shows how important the device was in the development of personal computing.

The Apple I was initially pitched at home users but it soon became clear that enterprises too could take advantage of Apple's technology. The main factor in this shift was, according to Wozniak, the arrival of VisiCalc for the Apple II, the spreadsheet program credited with turning the hobbyist personal computer into a business tool.

"All of a sudden VisicCalc came out and our sales shot up 10 times to small businessmen. We said: 'Oh my god, the market is business. We've got to build a...

...new type of machine that's really tailored to business'."

Apple soon hired more developers and the company's objective quickly became "to somehow swipe the computer world out from under other people's feet", Wozniak said.

Meanwhile Wozniak's main focus remained on Apple's hardware design and engineering rather than on getting too involved in running the business.

"I don't like to get into conflicts and politics, so I decided I would just do great engineering and be a critical part of the company in the early days to get it well-footed. I stayed strictly in the engineering lab. I was just hooking chips up and writing software continually right from the start," he said.

Steve Wozniak built Apple's first computer, the Apple I, which went on sale in 1976

Steve Wozniak built Apple's first computer, the Apple I, which went on sale in 1976
(Photo credit: Christie's)

"Also, I was a hotshot designer and I liked showing off my skills at being able to get a lot out of very few parts, at a very little cost. In the end that helped Apple business-wise because when you can build your product for less and sell it for more, you've got the world," he added.

The secrets of Apple's renaissance

When Steve Jobs returned to the helm of Apple in 1996, it heralded the start of a key phase in the company's development into the consumer technology giant it is today.

With the launch of the iPod portable music device in 2001, Apple's star started on the rise that by the end of the decade would make it the world's biggest tech company.

One aspect in Apple's expansion has been a culture of secrecy that has grown up around product launches. This secrecy allows the company to steal a march on rivals by keeping a lid on development - with the added benefit of creating huge marketing and media hype which boosts sales significantly.

Wozniak thinks one factor in the company's success in the 21st century has been the way it has protected its product development while making sure the products themselves are capable of making a major impact on the market to which they are introduced.

"I really think that the secrecy of product development was one of the key things that made it really work and of course [when] every new Apple product comes out, it doesn't have to have as many features as even the competitors but everything it does, it had better do nicely. And hopefully I think that formula will take this company [forward] for the next decade or two. Just don't...

...put out standard junk that anyone else would put out," Wozniak said.

He added: "[Technology] has to be in a state where it's not just another, better product but really something totally unusual and done differently than anyone's done so far. That's why creative people love Apple," Wozniak said.

The iPad and iPhone 4

Wozniak remains a fan of Apple's current products, and the iPad is no exception.

Apple has sold 7.5 million iPads since the April 2010 launch and the device has been instrumental in bringing the tablet PC form factor into the mainstream with analysts predicting 20 million tablets will be sold by the end of 2010.

One of the biggest attractions of the iPad for Wozniak is its operating system: "I think the iPad is an amazing device because it's got a beautiful subset of Apple's beautiful operating system that users speak of endearingly, and you don't hear that about PCs. And this has been true of all Apple products since the start of our company."

Steve Wozniak is a fan of the iPad but feels a few extra features would make it even better

Steve Wozniak is a fan of the iPad but feels a few extra features would make it even better
(Photo credit: Apple)

But Wozniak admits the iPad isn't perfect and could benefit from a few additional features: the lack of a camera and a slot for a standard camera memory card means it's harder to take advantage of the iPad's potential for users to share photos on its large screen, he told silicon.com.

Wozniak added that the iPad could also be more open to other technology, which would make it even more useful, such as the onboard facility to connect to a Bluetooth headset to make phone calls via free services such as Skype.

"These are the days we all should have digital VoIP calls because they take advantage of the low cost of the internet for nearly-free phone calls."

With Apple having done exclusive deals with mobile operators, services such as Skype aren't being as widely used as they could be, according to Wozniak: "Really things like Skype calls, you should be promoting them, not having deals with existing carriers that are trying to protect the more expensive forms of things like phone calls," he said.

While the iPad continues to expand Apple's territory, it was the iPhone that first propelled Apple beyond the iPod. First emerging in 2007, the iPhone is now as iconic as the iPod and the fourth version of the phone was released in 2010.

However it wasn't plain sailing for the iPhone 4. Soon after it was released it emerged that its signal could be compromised if the phone was held in a certain way.

The root of the problem was...

...the flat, stainless steel band around the edge of the device, which acts as part of the antenna. When the device was held around the band, signal strength dropped.

Apple tackled the issue by allowing iPhone 4 owners to apply for a free bumper case, which would protect the metal band on the phone and limit the effect of holding the phone in reducing signal strength.

Despite the so-called Antennagate being seen by some as a PR disaster, Wozniak feels that the issue was overblown.

"I think there were a lot of people who were vocal because they don't like all the pro-Apple fanbois, if you will, and it was sort of a reaction against them – 'see, Apple can make a mistake'. I think it was a lot that more than people really cared about the problem - and if it's fixed as simply as putting a little bumper or case on the phone, that's pretty trivial. So it was way overblown."

Nevertheless, there are still a few areas where Wozniak would like to see Apple improve the iPhone for its next iteration.

Steve Jobs at the Antennagate conference

Steve Jobs and Apple got an unfairly rough ride over Antennagate, according to Wozniak
(Photo credit: Josh Lowensohn/CNET)

For Wozniak, the main area of focus for the iPhone 5 should be improved audio quality and better integration of voice control so that verbal commands are more intuitive and tasks such as dictation are easier to carry out.

"I would like better voice, more noise cancelling, better audio chips - and that's the main thing, that really gets me to what I want in a phone," Wozniak said.

Apple's future

And where next for Apple? Wozniak wouldn't be drawn into a technology guessing game but pointed to the auto industry as one field where Apple's ethos could serve well. "A car could use an Apple touch. I have never thought of Apple being involved in that but certainly if Apple made a car it'd be the best car in the world."

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