Computing

Woz On Innovation, Robots And What Apple Does Wrong

In the second session of his Woz Live tour in Sydney today, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak opined on what you need for genuine innovation, why he doesn’t read reviews, and why he loves certain hotel rooms.

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Woz On Design, Apple And Fun

Speaking today at the Sydney Woz Live tour, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak spoke on a range of topics. Woz has some very definite ideas on what you need for true innovation:

It’s still changing faster than ever before; you have to be ahead; a lot of companies have to think about — what could this change mean to me?. Silicon valley is known for innovation; it’s almost like a worldwide ideal for every country to have its Silicon Valley, but that’s not a good idea. Tim Cook shouldn’t try to be Steve Jobs; you’ve got to be your own.

Ultimately, it’s the human factor that he reckons is most important in innovation:

Innovation comes from brain power; it comes form having smart people around. It doesn’t come from just cranking a wheel.

He’s also a keen participant in the current digital revolution.

All the computer revolution that we’ve had theoretically makes our lives better than ever; we have more time, more money — in theory all this work is going to get us a nice easier life.
Now we have word processing; when I grew up we had typewrites; it was painful; now we have computers, type whatever you want; it’s such a different world that we have than before. All my life engineers tried to build better speakers; mp3s came along but the sound was bad; ease won out out over hifi. We publish from home; what did we do before that? We had places; you could post cards on a billboard in town; now 10,000 people could read it on Facebook. You’ve got to make things accessible to the small person; Mobiles have changed my life in ways I wouldn’t have expected (because of apps). I used to teach kids in school — “You’re in a science fair; think of something in home you could make better.” Sometimes those apps catch on, they go viral, and all of a sudden millions of people are using it; that’s a great area for innovation.

But he’s not a big fan of product reviews:

I don’t like to read reviews; a lot of reviews are really kind of shallow. They don’t get into the things that matter. (With a feature): Does it bother me? Does it frustrate me? Those kinds of user interface things, and the computer being a friend and really making it useful is how we judge things. You can’t define it with words, you have to see it yourself. Like with a song. Or a movie. Innovation is an art form; some people can like what other people don’t like, so you have to understand that. The important part of this is engineering.

People have plans and ideas; they go to a venture capital firm, they get funded as a buisness. Then they have to build a product, but they don’t know how. No. It’s always better to start with some great engineers who are inspired to build things. With engineers it’s important that they can know the pieces that exist in the world already.

Then there’s the engineer that’s special, like an inventor; it’s so important to them to do this; almost never do they ask for higher pay; they want to do it for themselves. Those types take risks; nothing the real world has ever done; when I came up with the colour formula to deliver colour with a $1 chip; it was very risk taking. Would it work? It had never been in a book. Would all TVs work with it? Inventors are thinking about going our own way; we don’t care where the world has been before. Venture Capital firms find that’s very good for them. They want to invest places they have’t been before. They want to own that market.

It’s not that you’re going to get crushed by the big players, either:

“(When we first started Apple) Steve Jobs was worried that the big companies will jump on us; they’ve got more resources. (What we found was that) if our people are smart they can do just as good a job; if you start out early and do a good job and get a good market share, you’ll grow and maintain your percentage as you grow.”

At his base, though, Woz is just a big maths geek:

“I love numbers; when I go to a hotel room I look at the numbers on the door and decide if the room is going to be a good one or not; I’m not in a good room in my hotel right now, but when I converted it to base 8 it was a good room. Mathematicians are very curious.

Wozniak’s also a fan of going your own way rather than being penned in, something he puts at least partially down to the way education systems are implemented.

“We get directed; when you’re at home, pretty much anything can go; at school, teachers try to track 30 kids, so you’re turned down for your exploration; you’re told that trying to do your own thing is bad; hopefully we’ll see a future that’s different to that. It’s so important to bring human emotion into mathematics. Discovering things has a positive emotion; it’s got to have some meaning to you inside because that’s where the greatest products come from. I did teach; I taught 5th grade for 8 years. You give yourself if you care; that’s an ethical quality. The best inventors have a strong ethical quality;

He’s also quite constant on the subject of fun, and why you should take breaks when working.

Creativity should always be fun; we should allow a lot more fun than some places allow. Engineering is hard work. You sit there at 2 in the morning, just trying to solve the last little tiny detail that makes it correct. Breaks give relief and help the tough engineering get done. It’s easy to follow the steps that have been done before, but to do something that’s been done before is hard.

Students should love the tools that will allow them to get places; the modern tool is the computer; some kids fall in love with it and have to be on it all day long; they’re the wacko kids who will wind up starting Facebook. Every student of mine had to have a laptop so they could take it with them, it had to become like part of their body.

He’s still positive about the potential for computing in education, however:

“It’s tough to keep 30 kids thinking for themselves. But what if — you can never fail one on one — you will sense what they’re learning; you’re a human being and you can do that. What if the computer could be a teacher; it’s so inexpensive; we could have 30 teachers in a classroom. The kids haven’t taken to the computer the way they take to the teacher. Why? Because a computer isn’t human, personable, it doesn’t feel. In the future I hope we get to the state where computers are conscious, they understand us. And then we can reverse the paradigm going in; you can choose the classes going in, not just the ones the teacher knows.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of being in the right place with the right product.

I look at today’s smartphone; it could be any smartphone, they’re all similar. A lot of people had some sort of smartphone (before the iPhone) like Blackberries. It was still marketed more as a phone that did internet stuff; (Apple saw that) people are more into the internet; this will be the internet that you carry with you that also does phone calls.

The Newton was an innovative device but it was too early to sell; too early to catch on; quite a few years before the PalmPilot hit it off. I took a newton to Disney with my kids. I saw a button called assist and clicked it. Oh my gosh, I thought — I just thought a though the way a brain thinks; not procedures. Now we’ve got Siri, and we’ve got Android phones where you just speak to them. It’s like the way you would speak normal commands. I’m getting real answers. This is getting more an more like a person I would talk to.

More on secrecy, and why it’s vital for Apple’s success:

“Apple got so innovative with iProducts; that’s what we know Apple for today. Well, all I brought was a good company that had a culture of doing things different, and also being delightful and entertaining to the consumer. It started out with Soundjam (which became iTunes); iPod went so easily with it. How did this happen? There were a lot of trials involved, but with secrecy. Steve Jobs kept a lot of products secret when he returned. If everyone knows what you’re doing it makes you scared. To this day, a team can work on its own, to just think out the best possible pure solutions to get things done. Now the iPod wasn’t let out until it was so obvious that this was an extreme step different to everyone else’s music player. You could buy carts for sony minidiscs, but you have to record them yourself. People like things that are easy. With iPhone, the secrecy allowed us a lot of ways to look at it. Apple developed other phones, for 6 years, but he problem is, they just didn’t have that special gleam; that’s what led apple to finally recognising that once we’d solved the problems with the iPhone, (we had a product that) the world had never expected to see. That’s the way that you should think about your own products. Your company is the beneficiary, because you should always seek high brand value.

In Woz’s future, there will be robots:

In the future robotics will be important; people who know how to build with motors, microprocessors and software; they’re going to get a lot like humans; so far we’ve had a lot of thins that are simulated intelligence, but they’re going to have to learn. (Other interesting things I see are) nanowave tech, which can detect viruses, bacteria or glucose levels without touching your body. Sound and voice; I speak to my phone so many times. But so often it won’t understand me. Why doesn’t it get what I mean? That’s going to be improved in the future. If I had a son going into computer science right now, I’d say go into voice .That would be an area to explore for the innovative future.

The Q&A Followed thereafter; I’ve noted down his responses, but wasn’t able to get a question in myself:

Q: How does a business person constantly hit the refresh button to be innovative?
Woz: “I think it’s inbred; a lot of it comes from your personality; a lot of people can appreciate innovation and apply it to that business. You can obviously hire consultants to learn your business; there is a slight cost in it; it’s like a research that may not come through; it’s risky type stuff; but that way we have a market to ourselves that others don’t have.

Q: What’s the line between having a goal and an impossible dream?
Woz: I’m not sure I understand the question! I knew i had abilities to steps to get there; I believed in myself to have the ability to do that. It’s possible i wouldn’t — but I did! Always notice the new research, new things you can use in your products; almost always those are the things that lead to products that will change the world. In my case it was microprocessors, because they were cheaper. If you’re more motivated — the starting thing for any CEO is to look for innovative people

Q: Why is it hard to buy a mobile?
Woz: I didn’t know it was! I read so many tech blogs and reviews, I’m usually so aware, so I usually know; I just walk in and I just — in an Apple store, I broke my phone, they replace it. I don’t ask for it — but I don’t turn it down. I thought buying a phone was an easy experience!
Pretty much all the smartphones will satisfy somebody — if you’re trying to switch, you’ve got to jump in the water and learn how to swim. Find a friend who knows gadgets; they will always say you should have the phone this way. I never get in the way — I don’t take sides — I just want to be objective and helpful to people.

(Giz AU Editor’s Note: Can I take some pride that Steve Wozniak and I think exactly the same way on this topic? Yes. Yes I can.)

Q: How do you harness people’s potential to make the most successful company in the world?
Woz: Apple’s a successfull company in terms of market cap share, but there’s a lot of ways to measure that. It turns out — I hate to say it — there’s a lot of luck. Apple’s had had some luck on the way. We’ve got all these huge companies, and they all play together in this structure. If we develop a new product, say a television, it will help us grow. Couldn’t be done if they were all independent companies.

Q: How would Apple be different if things were made by engineers?
Woz: Fortunately they weren’t. If we had engineering making decisions, it would have been very bad. Engineers come with clever ideas for something that makes a given thing improves 1000x faster — for something that rarely happens; it doesn’t have any user impact.

You’d also have all the engineers incoming with all the ideas; you wind up with something that’s overgrown and complex. Have to have good friendly things for normal human beings; I used to see all these Japanese gadgets — buttons and buttons and buttons — I don’t want my life that way, I want it simple. It’s important to recognise engineering ideas; one thing I like to promote that engineers (in a company) can (be given) parts for anything they want to build of their own. When people build stuff for themselves, those skills will copy over to the work environment. It’s a Very cheap education compared to the university system.

Q: Steve Jobs was very against open architecture, but you weren’t — do you still hold that view?
Woz: I don’t know that Steve Jobs was always against open architecture; the Apple II was an incredibly open machine; I wanted the wold to see what I had done so they would learn. The hardware was very open; 7 slots you could plug boards in; Steve Jobs only wanted 2 slots; he never did engineering; so I said, get another computer. Thankfully we did because with printers and extra memory people filled up all seven slots eventually.

Steve Jobs remained committed to closed from then on; I’m not going to go back; I like a lot of the openness in Facebook and Google; and Apple makes it difficult to get into (things like) calendars. I think Apple cold be just as strong and good and be open. I’d like a programming language like Applescript on my iPad; but no, no no. There’s a lot of things about the closed-ness of Apple I don’t like, and wouldn’t do myself. But obviously there’s a lot of quality to the products; if making it open wouldn’t make the quality the same we want to make it, I’d say keep it closed.

Q: What can you tell us about the iPhone 5?
Woz: I could tell you about iPhone 5, but i’d have to kill you.

Q: You’re known for carrying many smartphones. How do you multitask between Android, iPhone and Windows Phone?
Woz: My favourite way to multitask is to carry two iPhones. One verizon, one AT&T. If the battery runs out i’ve got a second one. As for switching back and forth, they’re not too dissimilar. I get to a point here sometimes based on what I want to do. I’ll use iPhone forvoice, but Android for navigation, because the iPhone doesn’t do that right yet. With Windows Phone 7 I really just admire its visual beauty. It’s like what Apple does. I think somebody went to Microsoft form Apple. I think Steve jobs might have been reincarnated there.

Q: What’s the biggest risk for Apple?
Woz: I’m confident in apple’s ability to introduce new products that fit into your life. Lots of devices have never been done well enough. I would hope Apple would get into navigation. Think about what TV is like. Apple’s in a very good stance to grow from.

The worst thing would be… the value is more in the brand than anything else; if you look at the Zune; better specs, but the iPod sells for more. It’s the name Apple, the expectation of excellence. The worst thing would be if you looked at them and think “this is not apple quality — apple is losing that shine.” It sorta happened to Sony. Apple’s got to be very careful to keep the best appearance. As long as you keep satisfying the customers that you’re getting a product that does what they want and looks good; they’ll notice it if they ever stop appearing.

Q: With Apple, do you regret leaving when you did?
Woz: I judge my life not by Apple’s success, not by the amounts of money we made. When I was 20 I had formulas for happiness; I didn’t need any of that; I do a little bit miss out on being on the spot for iProducts because they were exciting, but as a consumer I can get that. I left Apple, did a degree under an assumed name — Rocky Racoon Clark — and I love startups; I love what we were at Apple when there were 3-4 of us; so I left Apple to start up the first universal remote control company. The big company thing isn’t for me. I will be an engineer forever.