The written instructions from the company hosting the international phone hook-up were brutally specific. Dial in on a landline, they said, because using a mobile would result in “the clarity of the call” being “severely impacted”. There was a considerable irony to this, given that the bloke on the other end of the line was Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, the company that transformed telephony and much else when it launched the first smartphone in 2007.
By then, though, Wozniak had given up his seat at the boardroom. The Woz, as he is universally known in tech circles, was the engineering genius who with Steve Jobs designed Apple’s first two computers back in the 70s and, along with Bill Gates’ mob up the road, kick-started the modern world. He could have been as rich as Croesus by now, but opted not to be.
“I didn’t want to be in the category of managing a lot of money, so I pretty much gave most of mine away to good causes when I was very young,” he said.
Steve Wozniak at the University of Technology in Sydney.
In the popular history of Apple, Wozniak tends to be overshadowed by the cultish attention paid to Jobs and the high drama of his early death. To tech heads, however, the Woz looms larger in the story. It’s a bit like AC/DC – Angus and Brian might be out front, but it was always Malcolm’s band.
Arguably, it could have been Wozniak’s company. In 1976, having teamed up with Jobs and a third dreamer, Ronald Wayne, he single-handedly designed and built what became known as the Apple I, selling his VW Kombi to fund the project.
A year later he designed the innards of the Apple II, while Jobs designed the casing. In several ways that are interesting primarily to people who carry miniature screwdrivers in their anorak pockets, the machine was revolutionary. It was Apple’s first commercial product and remained on sale until 1993.
By that point, the Woz was long gone. It’s possible that a near-fatal plane crash in 1981, followed by two years of intensive rehabilitation, prompted him to have a good hard look at his life. Whatever the reason, in 1985 he sold most of his Apple stock, quit the board, and walked away. At the time, the company’s value had just topped a billion dollars.
He’s still officially an Apple employee – receiving, according to one estimate, a very modest salary of $120,000 a year – but these days enjoys a rollicking life as entrepreneur, academic, mentor, and critic. He turns 66 this year, and while he can walk down any street beyond Silicon Valley unmolested, in electrical engineering and computer programming circles his status is pretty much godlike.
He also has a long relationship with Australia. In 2014 he accepted a role as adjunct professor at the impressively named Centre for Quantum Computation and Intelligent Systems at Sydney’s University of Technology. He’s heading over here at least twice this year – in August for a speaking tour, and this month for family reasons.
“My son lives in Sydney,” he said, “and his wife recently gave birth, so I’m heading over to meet my first grandchild.”
Apple co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs pictured with an Apple I computer. In the foreground Jobs launches the iPad at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2010. Photo: Tony Avelar
He said it over a landline, as per instructions. The disjunction between the ubiquity of smartphones and the inability of a call company to deal with them wouldn’t have surprised him. Expectations of technological promise, he said, always run well ahead the actuality. It’s all the fault of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.
“I believe the narrative is running way ahead of the reality, especially because much of it has been written by science fiction writers, starting way back 150 years ago or more,” he laughed.
This is especially so, he said, in the current case of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the much-hyped state at which all household components are internet-linked, autonomous, and controllable via an app on your smartphone.
Often portrayed as the logical next step in industrial – or perhaps post-industrial – society, to Wozniak the IoT is not a done deal. There is no plan; only trial, error and guesswork.
“It can already control all these little personal things in our life – the lights in the house, our radio stations and everything,” he said. “Once it’s all on the internet, it’s nice to have access to it. I can access my car with it, for instance. If I want, I can honk the horn or set the temperature before I get into it.
“Clothing will soon have devices built into it that monitor us and transmit the data to the internet. Then there are things like Fitbits or the Apple Watch that can tell us how far we’re running.
“These are all good, helpful things but I don’t see anything like, oh my gosh, every appliance in our life is hooked up to the internet. It’s coming gradually, one thing at a time. It’s like getting apps on your phone: one app for this device, one app for that.”
The piecemeal nature of digital development can easily lead to piecemeal operating systems – complex and confusing bunches of software that seem reluctant to co-operate with each other. It’s an outcome that runs counter to the intuitive simplicity that Wozniak and Jobs both made the defining design element of Apple products.
Indeed, there is a definite theme that characterises all of Wozniak’s work, during and after his Apple years. As an engineer and programmer, he’s all about integration, about doing more things with fewer controls.
It’s easy to overlook now, but the fact that the Apple II comprised computer, keyboard, and screen all in the same unit was groundbreaking. It rapidly became the norm across the industry.
The Apple l, the first Apple computer made by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976. Photo: Andrew Burton via Getty Images
After leaving Apple, Wozniak designed another piece of mass-market labour-saving household technology – albeit one far less glamorous. In 1987, having formed a company called CL9, he lodged a patent for the world’s first programmable universal remote control for televisions and VHS players.
In 2002 he formed another company, called Wheels of Zeus (yielding the acronym WoZ, of course). It played a key role in developing wireless GPS technology. A few years later he signed on as chief scientist with a mob called Fusion-io, a company that designs flash memory systems for really, really big things like cloud computing.
UK musician Paul Weller, a near contemporary of Wozniak’s, has released a dozen critically lauded solo albums since 1992, but for a whole generation of people he will forever be known as the man who founded the genre-defining neo-Mod trio called the Jam in 1976. Wozniak has the same issue – it doesn’t matter what he’s achieved since, he’s always going to be the Apple Guy.
This remains the case no matter what he says about the company he co-founded. Although he remains an employee, he is not perhaps a completely loyal one. Last month he told fans on Reddit that he thought the Apple Watch had taken the company into the jewellery market. He said he wasn’t a big fan of the product, noting that “basically about all you can do on it is talk and tap a little”.
Apple refuses to release sales figures for its watches, leading pundits to suggest that the invention might have been a commercial flop. That’s significant because the company’s world-changing success has never been just about innovation and invention. It’s also been about business, and building an extremely efficient corporate structure.
That same combination will ultimately determine the shape of the Internet of Things, in which Apple plans to play a central role. Indeed, it may well be that the business side of things is most influential, given that, at least for computer wiz Woz, the technical challenges of the IoT are pretty minor.
“I see it evolving,” he said. “It’s not like there are many homes now that function at any level you would call complete today. But lots of these little things on the internet are things that have existed before.
An Apple I computer held by the US Smithsonian Institution. Photo: supplied
“It’s very easy to apply some kind of intelligence and make them communicate regarding their status, and their controls. And that means they’re good for start-ups.
“It doesn’t take a whole huge company to necessarily make a whole lot of these new products. Each one individually is fairly small and simple on its own – but it becomes a part of something much bigger.”
It’s hardly surprising that Wozniak views small business as the likely driver of the next great digital cultural shift.
Net-based commerce is increasingly portrayed in terms of rags-to-riches disruptive businesses like Uber and Airbnb. More personally, though, he has been several times reminded this year that it was exactly four decades ago that he and his geeky mates changed the world from inside a California garage.
Then, just as now, there was no blueprint for the technological future. Recently, Wozniak has spoken of the great promise of machine learning – the use of “smart” machines to automate research and analysis tasks. He is happy to admit, however, that he has no idea what tomorrow will look like.
“You know what? The way we live our lives was defined before the internet,” he said.
“We already had closets and bathrooms of a certain shape, and things like that. And no one’s thought out how a home could be designed very differently. How could it serve my patterns, respond to them, and make them available on the internet?
“You see, we never think out all these crazy things, and they sound unrealistic, but some of them will catch on – just like all fads catch on and some of them stay. Hey, who could have predicted what the value was of a pet rock? That was the best novelty in America, ever.”
In time, history may judge the Apple Watch to be a novelty that failed to emulate the success of a lump of sandstone with googly eyes glued on. By then, it’s quite likely the Wozniak – the man who, decades before, engineered the product’s DNA – will be living in happy retirement in New South Wales.
He has spoken often about his desire to relocate to Australia – especially now his first grandchild has arrived.
“It won’t be for a few years yet, because I have to do a lot of travel to fulfil my public speaking commitments around the world,” he said. “I could buy a house there now, but I wouldn’t have the time to live in it. But having a two passports remains a very important goal for me.”
Meet the Woz
Wed 24 August 2016 | HBF Stadium, Perth
Fri 26 August 2016 | BCEC, Brisbane
Sat 27 August 2016 | MCA, Melbourne
Sun 28 August 2016 | ATP, Sydney
Tickets at www.thinkinc.org.au