Steve Wozniak is arguably the more universally loved of the Apple founders, having been instrumental in Apple’s early successes while still retaining an engineer’s perspective on how he runs his life. Here’s what he’s got to say about design, fun and why Microsoft may have been responsible for the pre-OS X version of Mac OS running so badly. Giz AU reports live from Sydney…
Speaking today at the Woz Live event in Sydney, Wozniak went into a great deal of length about his own design philosophies and the early history of Apple. From that it’s easy to see how he structures his life.
While Woz is a good talker now, this wasn’t always the case. At an early stage he was quite shy, but this he sees as having had its advantages:
“I was very shy in my life. At around 12 years, I was too shy to ask what a computer was, so for my 8th grade science project, built a huge device to add binary numbers. I think there’s two steps in life; a lot of engineers can look in a book, but then you’ve got to take that step and create something that didn’t exist before on its own. So I did that.”
He’s also a keen proponent of working with what you’ve got, rather than spending money on what you don’t have.
“Always design the architecture around the parts you can build from, and you’ll end up with a simpler design. My (early) designs were sometimes half as many chips as the companies making minicomputers. It was a real fun thing for me.”
Although this didn’t always follow through when he was working with other people’s budgets.
“So at college, I got into the introduction to computing, which was a graduate course; I was in engineering and was allowed to take the course. I ran our class 5 times over budget — I didn’t know there was a budget!”
Even at college — and having met up with the “much more hippy” Steve Jobs — Woz was still a prankster.
“Still, electronics has to be a little bit of fun. I built a TV jammer, which could fuzz up the pic on the screen in our college dorm. I’d hit a switch, and it would go fuzzy. A friend hits the tv, whack, made it go good. You could pound it; it’s an inanimate object, not a living creature. It makes me wonder; why wasn’t I in psychology class?”
Woz started his professional career at HP, where he interviewed based on the fact that HP had the hottest product of its time — the HP scientific calculator.
“The iPhone 4 of that time was the HP scientific calculator. They brought me into HP; they auditioned me and interviewed me and hired me to design. I had no college degree but I could do the work better than those with college degrees. I came to the conclusion that I was going to be an engineer at HP for life.”
HP wasn’t the only company that impressed the young Woz, however. There was also Atari.
“I saw Pong in a bowling alley, and I wanted that machine. I had thought about (displaying images via) voltages on an oscilloscope, but I’d never built one. So I went home and unscrewed my tv and took the back off; ran an oscilloscope and put a wire in; I had my little game with 28 $1 chips, and paddles. If you missed the ball, it put a 4 letter word on the screen.”
This then led to an Atari job — but not for Steve Wozniak:
“Steve Jobs came back from college, saw my (Pong) board, and thought it was so great. Atari was in Los Gatos. Steve drove down to Atari with my board… and they hired him! I think they thought he was the designer. (Atari) didn’t get along with Jobs, so they moved him to the night shift, where he was all alone. That was cool, I could get into there at night, get a look at all the cool Atari games and get really good at them.”
Eventually, though, Atari did hire Wozniak for a job that led to him working rather too hard.
“Jobs told me they wanted a one player Pong; the owner is tired of 150-180 chips for a game, he wants a simple single-player Pong. Steve says there’s a hitch; you have to design it in 4 days. This was not software; this was hardware, and a half-man year job. I said I didn’t know if I could do it, but I’d try. We both stayed up for four nights to do it, we both got mononucleosis, but we did it.”
Equally he was inspired by the early university-only Arpanet.
“I saw the early arpanet; and again I said “I have to have this”, so I got working and redesigned circuits for letters on TV, connected it up to a keyboard and got onto the Arpanet. It was so cool — I could log on to Berkeley as a guest; I could read files and run programs.”
When he designed the Apple I, he was still quite loyal to his vision of staying at HP:
“I’m too loyal to HP; I’ll never leave that company, or do anything behind their back”
So he took the designs to HP’s managers, but they weren’t interested, and in any case:
“HP would have built the wrong machine; it wouldn’t have used your home TV, it wouldn’t have been “fun”.”
Jobs and Wozniak pooled their money with the idea of building 50 Apple I PCBs to make their $1000 seed money back.
“Then Steve Jobs calls me at work; tells me “I got an order for 50,000″. My salary at the time was $24,000 a year, but we had no money. We built them in 10 days on credit and got paid in cash; in half a year we’d built up $10,000. Within 3 months of shipping the Apple 1, I came up with the II; a computer from the ground up. I went 4 days and nights without sleeping.”
Simply working through without sleep was a recurring theme for Wozniak, although it’s here that he diverged from the totally open-source ideals that had seen the Apple I’s design released to everybody.
“We knew we had a hot product. It could do colour games and still do all the normal text things. The 1 we had given away, but not the Apple II. It even had pixels! We knew that this would be the hottest computer of all time.”
Wozniak’s shyness still kept him from aggressively pursuing his own goals, so he’d often find ways around it. For example, when Apple was first permitted to attend CES (along with Commodore and Radio Shack), Woz wasn’t on the invite list… at first. So he asked if he could attend if Apple had a floppy disk drive to show off.
“If in two weeks I could get a floppy disk drive working, I’d get to go to Vegas and see the lights. I’d never worked with a disk drive in my life. When you have a goal that you have to achieve you find every possible way. I took out 20 chips that were unneeded in (existing designs) and didn’t sleep much, but I got there.”
Apple early on didn’t have much in the way of operating capital, but the success of the Apple II allowed the company to have a number of notable failures, including the Apple III and the Lisa. That wasn’t a problem as such:
“When you have a good money machine, use it to fund your failures.”
Speaking of failures, Woz has an interesting perspective on why pre-OS X Macs were so spectacularly crash-prone:
“If you had a Mac, it would crash a lot. You’d move a file into a folder, and it would crash. You’d type something and it would crash, a lot. I looked into it, and it turns out it wasn’t our operating system. Most of our user base had moved over to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and if you ran that, it would crash your Mac several times a day. If you ran other browsers, it wouldn’t crash for weeks.”
Wozniak does believe that Apple’s current mantra of secrecy was vital for its re-emergence, but not quite in the way you might think:
“Secrecy was essential at Apple to recover; secrecy let us think out ideas that hadn’t been thought of before.”
While it’s been noted many times that Wozniak uses a number of smartphones, he’s still very keen on the original iPhone, especially as it evolves away from a phone design that relies on any kind of keyboard.
“I would rather a machine with no input/output; that’s always been the problem with computers. You speak to it, it speaks back. That’s like a human being. The iPhone was more human. You think about the iPad, you’re moving things around on a desk with your hand. You don’t operate a remote control, like a mouse to move an object. We’re mixing the virtual and real world.”
Woz is obviously keen and geeky, but for him it all boils down to a simple principle:
“What should matter is how much of a fun life you have at home, and how much free time you have for entertainment.”
Woz’s talk has concluded for the first half, but there’s more to come, including a Q&A this afternoon. Got a question I should try to ping at Woz? Let me know in the comments below!