To celebrate Macnotes’ first anniversary, we had the chance to interview Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and technology-mastermind. Among other things, Woz tells us who are his heros, what his daily routine looks like and what is playing on his iPod.
Matthias Lange: Well, how are you Steve?
Steve Wozniak: I’m doing very well. I’m rarely home and this is one of the days I am…
…Okay, so you’re very busy at the moment?
A lot of traveling, a lot of interviews, speeches, charity and technology events. So, yes…
Since you’re traveling a lot, I guess you have an iPod with you. What’s currently playing on your iPod?
My music taste is pretty general. I have some classical music, some music from computer games. I have a lot of country music and a lot of folk singers. You know, the one-person-one-guitar type of songs, not the big groups, and a lot of them are very lesser known. I also have a lot of comedy on my iPod because I love listening to jokes or even guys telling stories that are interesting. And I also have most of the major groups, too. Oh, and for music; there were two US Festivals in the 80s with a million visitors and now we’re putting on another US Festival!
You are also teaching kids. From your point of view, what is important for kids to know nowadays?
I think it is how to think for themselves and question what they had been taught. The facts in books and the things they had learned in school. A lot of these things are not necessarily really facts. Start to ask skeptical questions and try to get to the truth. And don’t believer that everything is one way or another. Often there are grayscale ways. A lot of people, for example, are brought up to believe that a car should use less gasoline. Other people say it should be totally open how much gasoline your car needs. But maybe there’s an amount you can calculate which would be the right amount per day. I also think you should learn a lot of math. Be better at math because that needs a lot of improvement.
Related to that question, what do you think about the very ambitious One-Laptop-Per-Child project?
About that I have a very guarded opinion, as most people do. At first I thought it is like a show that a $100-Laptop can be built. Once you piece together on paper that it is possible to do something that sounds extreme, and part of the extremeness are huge, huge numbers. Which made me think that Nicholas Negroponte just wanted to boast and show that he could do it. But once you got the idea you think: Where will the market be? Well, the market would only be in developing countries because anybody who’s got a full laptop probably wouldn’t want that lesser thing with a smaller screen. And then the question that popped in my mind was: If you have to crank it up, then you don’t have electricity. If you don’t have electricity what is doing a spreadsheet to help manage your business is going to mean to you? How much productivity are you going to get out of these computers? And I talked to somebody on the OLPC program, and he said they acknowledged that it doesn’t have that much use, but they give them the incentive to build the infrastructures to bring power and Internet to some of these developing places. I just have a funny feeling that those sort of huge things, like infrastructure changes, happen slowly for other reasons. So I am a kind of negative on the OLPC project. I think a better computer, using common tools and software that is well supported around the world, might have been a better approach.
To develop such a piece of hardware involves a lot of engineers and a lot of knowledge. In your recent biography “iWoz” you describe engineers as the greatest people in the world. Why do you think so?
You are completely tested when you design something. It works or it doesn’t. This is more true of engineers in the real digital area, but an engineer has to use a lot of mathematics to make sure a bridge is solid by choosing the materials and checking the numbers. Then it works or it doesn’t. And to me that is truth. You have a correct answer or you don’t. Let’s say you are taking a math test in school. There are right or wrong answers, whereas writing a book report is subjective. So if you’re tested in life, you want to be a hundred percent accurate on everything as much as you can.
One problem with recent technologies is that it’s often difficult to use. What do you think can companies do to make new technologies more attractive to people who are not used to it? Older people, for example, that don’t know how to use a cell phone.
I don’t think I can see any project in the world going on which would deal with this subject. Which is basically to study how to make a computer seem like person. If you are talking to persons, you can sense their tone of voice, you can look at their facial expression, you can know when to slow down or to speed up on a topic, or when to change the topics. And a computer can’t do that yet. We don’t really know how the brain works or how the people work. And it’s a way too large job for a group of programmers to program that kind of artificial intelligence. We are making progress in that area, but we still can’t built a device that can hear me talk the way a human does. The human brain does a lot of things we can’t duplicate well on computers, for instance, person-to-person interaction. And that would make computers easier for us. But I don’t see any real major research or project going on that are going to result in products along that line. Apple had a reputation for intuitive software with the early Macintosh and Lisa, but it disappeared pretty quickly. Now it just sort of follows standard formulas and as long as you’re close it’s okay, but you don’t have to try to do an exceedingly good job to be a friend to the user.
Yes, the artificial intelligence is in development, but it’s going rapidly, I guess.
Well, they pretty much solve one aspect at a time, but the human brain puts all those aspects together at once and no one comes up with that formula, because we don’t know how the brain fully works. See, we treat computers as having a processor and a big memory bank. Yet, the brain has a ton of little processors, the neurons, and every neuron is connected to neurons next to it, but not to a big, shared memory bank. This process is very different to the concept computers work.
There’s a lot of discussion on whether it is appropriate to mimic the brain or if it would be better to find a different approach.
Yes, and there have been some good projects about neural networks and the like, but it’s one of these things we may not ever really understand.
If you look into the glass sphere, what would be your two-year prediction on future technology?
It either comes out of blue skies and you’re not ready for it. Maybe it’s another Google and people start to discovering and using it. This is hard to predict. Or the technology is so predictable that they are just things that are going to come from standard companies, like faster processors. The products we have start with the chips that are being made. And the sort of chips that are being made is changing right now quite bit. There are a number of companies which develop light operated digital logic. And the light can actually be built right into the chip along with the silicon and the electronics. And that promises chips that could go maybe a hundred times faster and would not drain power by a using a liquid cooler or fans. And why would we want such processors? Because we then can make images on a screen which actually follow the rules of balance and gravity, and not mere simulations which try to be realistic. Today the only way to get realistic animations in movies is when a human being acts it, and then the movie is created frame by frame the animation to match these actions. But if we had enough processing power we could be generating 3D images as they happen, but that’s just one example. We have also got a lot display technologies. Organic LEDs have been talked about for five years but they are finally coming out in a 20″ television set. It has beautiful images with less power consumption. I’ve seen one and it’s shocking how beautiful it is. I think we are also approaching some display technologies that will be quite foldable and very inexpensive to produce. So that’s on the forefront. I’m also looking for a small computer that I can carry in my pocket and is the equivalent of my laptop. And with three-color LEDs it projects a computer screen on a table or on a wall and then it’s a touch screen. It senses with lasers where I’m touching. There’s a little $400 device you can buy right now, and it’s just as big as a saltshaker. It projects a keyboard and communicates with Bluetooth to my MacBook Pro and I can type right on any table…
…That sounds like ‘Star Trek’…
Yes! It’s actually pretty amazing, but if that device were projecting a screen, it could be touchscreen. That would be great! So I could have the equivalent of my MacBook Pro, maybe a smaller battery and no DVD drive, but right in the size of a saltshaker.
In an interview you once summarized you life in one word: lucky. Is it still this word?
Oh, sure! My life turned out as happily as I would have wanted it when I was ten years old. When I was that age I looked ahead and thought: I would want to be good in electronics. I would want to do computers in my life. And I far exceeded in what I had set down for my life. I wanted to teach young children and I taught full-time for years. I wanted to be a good humorist, and I am. I never had to worry about what I am going to do for a job, like some people do when they come out of college. I always knew: I do electronics.
And as the successful person you are: Do you have hero or who do you look up to?
My father was my biggest hero in personal philosophies and in how to treat other people. He didn’t really direct us to be certain kinds of people in our family. He was very careful to only point out the choices and let us choose for ourselves. And he was also a great technical teacher. He taught me a lot about teaching an communication and I don’t think I will ever be as good as he was in that. And I had other heroes, fictional characters like Tom Swift. Tom Swift was a guy who owned his own company with his dad and an engineer. And he would run in the laboratory and solve problems with his own resources and his own thinking.
What computer do you use for your daily work? And I guess you have more than one.
I used to have about five computers and it was great, really. But it gets more handful to keep them updated and everything, so I boiled them down to one. I just use my fully loaded 17” MacBook Pro. I use an online Google calendar and a program which synchronizes it with iCal on my Mac, so I can always carry around my online calendar on my iPod. It’s very useful.
ML: Do you get a discount at the Apple Store as a former employee?
I’m actually a current employee so I get the standard employee discount. In a normal store that’s ten percent and I can go to one store at mother ship where it’s 15 percent. And there’s, of course, a 25 percent off for employees once a year. But I don’t take a lot of advantage of it. I just go to a store, get ten percent, and that’s nice. I could call Apple and say, “Could you send me one of these?” and they probably would. But I don’t like to be an insider with special privileges. I don’t want to be a special privileged person. The person I am is not the business type. In the early days of the Internet, and I got in really early, I was lucky and got woz.com. A three-letter address! But I use woz.org because I feel I’m really not a commercial person, I’m the non-profit type, the charity type.
What does a regular day or week in your life look like?
At this point in time, I have lots and lots of email and software updates to do. I could spend the entire day on the computer! But in average it’s about four to six hours for reading all my news on the Internet, checking articles and videos people are sending me. I lose a lot of time that way. But if I got some free time and the weather is good, I maybe call a friend for lunch or dinner – I eat one meal a day. Or I get on my Segway, ride to town and see a movie. That’s nice and comfortable because I don’t have the big hassle like the big cars. I get contacts from a lot of people about companies that are interested in starting or in my ideas, asking if I would like to be on their board or invest. I get lots of request for my time to speak at clubs. And I balance some of those free appearances with the ones I am actually paid for. I get to speak to companies that are in fields, that I have never been close to in my life. It might be jewelry! Good lord, I think one of my phone calls today had to do with a Las Vegas beauty conference or something! What the heck? They got the wrong person, I guess! But it’s interesting. I get to meet so many types of people I never would have met before and who are doing great things in life. I mean, I met people in integrated circuit design software and integrated circuit design companies. I met real estate people and I have never been close to real estate, I did an online jewelry sales show once, and I just get to meet so many different people that you normally wouldn’t if you stay in one area of life!
That’s very interesting.
Yes, a very interesting life! And I’m traveling a lot; I’m only home 50 days a year. That has been the case for two years, but it is going to stop because I have company starting up with a couple of Apple executives, and I’m going full-time with a local office for that company soon. So, I’ll be home, here in Silicon Valley when that starts.
Before we come to an end: Do you have a favorite place or city in Germany?
Absolutely. Actually I like a lot of places in Germany. When I was married to an Olympic kayaker, I’ve been in the Augsburg area for some kayaking. I like Munich very, very much! I like walking around there because of the layout and the comfort of the city. Then there are the modern buildings and glass structures all over Frankfurt. There’s this one hotel in the shape of a circle. I haven’t had time to get around Berlin too much to comment on, but I like everywhere I’ve been in Germany.
The last question is a traditional one we like ask our interviewees: What piece of software you wouldn’t want to miss on your computer?
Mine would be, oddly enough, Eudora for email.
Still. And you know what, how long can a program go, when it’s not even from the manufacturer, and still be unchallengeable? There are almost no complains you can have about Eudora, it can handle the largest email loads and mailboxes. But the main reason is, it let’s me take anything in any menu and create a button in the button bar. I have a sequence of buttons running up and down on the side of my Eudora, and I can click this button and it files that email in a certain folder. Other buttons are linked to little Apple scripts. For example, I can reply to an email and carbon copy to my assistant with just one click. I wish every single program on the Macintosh did this! It’s saves time, movement, thinking, and work. And Apple’s Mail just does not have this feature.
Steve, we have come to an end. Thanks for your time. We really appreciate you being available for our interview today. We wish all the best for your plans and thank you for the interview.
Okay. Call any time. Bye!
Interview: Matthias Lange, Transcript: Stephan Hoyer