With the media spotlight focused on the revival of Apple and especially its histrionic CEO Steve Jobs, Failure set out to investigate the whereabouts of Apple’s other co-founder Steve Wozniak. For those of you wondering what Steve Wozniak is up to these days, the answer is nothing—at least when it comes to engineering. Aside from doing the odd speaking engagement or philanthropic event, the man who basically invented the personal computer seems rather content to putter around the house and do the occasional fix-it project, spending as much time with his family as possible. Taking a break from his routine, Woz sat down with Failure at a Mexican restaurant in the heart of Silicon Valley to discuss the history of Apple, his current relationship with Jobs, and how Apple has been portrayed in the media. Along the way, he reiterated his well-known distaste for newspapers and commented on past failures in the personal computer industry.
How did you feel when Steve Jobs returned to Apple?
I wasn’t totally happy about it in light of the fact that Apple was having horrible problems. Steve being there looks good—it inspires people. I don’t think he’s the best choice as a hero for Apple, but I think he believes inside himself very strongly that he is. You’d rather have a person that just totally believes in the company. But the press is looking for a hero. Basically, the steps he’s taken are to run Apple as efficiently as possible. In the past, we would just take big flyers and have tons of junk leftover that we couldn’t sell, and that was really where we lost our money. Now things are very tight. That means you can’t get computers and accessories very easily. But if you know that a certain number of people are going to buy Macs, build a good Mac for them and you are guaranteed the profit. Just don’t make mistakes and overbuild and try to challenge new markets. So it’s being run conservatively. Good for Apple.
How do you think history views your involvement with Apple?
I get more mention than I deserve. For some reason I get this key position of being one of two people that started the company that started the revolution. Steve and I get a lot of credit, but Mike Markkula was probably more responsible for our early success, and you never hear about him. In the end, I hope there’s a little note somewhere that says I designed a good computer. I’m just kind of amazed how many people say, “We owe so much to you.” They just better not act like I wasn’t a top engineer. That would upset me.
What did you think about how you were portrayed in Pirates of Silicon Valley?
[Laughs]. I was amazed. I thought it was extremely accurate in terms of personality and the way I was.
What about how it portrayed other key people?
Unbelievably accurate. The scenes were all made up, but they were presenting issues and psychological conflicts that really did happen. They even had Steve in the scene where I was showing the press a computer I built, although it was a different guy that built that with me. So there’s inaccuracies—if you want to look at it in one respect—but the personalities and the issues that were going on were extremely accurate. For legal reasons, they didn’t talk to any of the principals. They didn’t have any firsthand input—only from press stories and things that had been said. That’s partly why it was so accurate—because when people talk about themselves they don’t portray themselves accurately.
What do you generally think of the books that have been written about Apple?
I like them more if they have a bit of entertainment in them. I don’t want to read books that are business-y. There was one, “The Silicon Boys,” by David Kaplan, that had some really interesting stories. More like reading People magazine than the Wall Street Journal.
When you were at Apple on a day-to-day basis, what did you like best about working there?
Back then it was so exciting. Everything we did we were setting the tone for the world. We were the computer to have in your home. Any project you worked on had value. Today, if you work on 10 different things, one of them might have value.
Was there a particular point when it started to lose its allure?
For myself personally, there was a point where all of a sudden I wasn’t the sole engineer that was critical for everything. That was a difference for me. And Apple had such great financial success I really didn’t need to be there.
Are you still an Apple employee?
Yeah, I am, just out of loyalty. I’d like to always be an Apple employee—just a real small paycheck and a badge. You know what, Steve Jobs is real nice to me. He lets me be an employee and that’s one of the biggest honors of my life. Some people wouldn’t be that way. He has a reputation for being nasty, but I think it’s only when he has to run a business. It’s never once come out around me. He never attacks me like you hear about him attacking other people. Even if I do have some flaky thinking.
Do you talk to him at all these days?
Yeah, occasionally. Sometimes there’s a new product and I get onto some of the issues real quickly. I’ll contact him right away and let him know what I find.
What were your thoughts back when Microsoft was declared a monopoly?
I totally agreed with the thinking. I was asked back in the early days of the lawsuit to write an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, but they didn’t print it. I got a letter back from the editor months later saying that maybe they’d run it, but it needed a little fixing. So, [I said] re-write it. I wrote ‘Microsoft’s a monopolist’ and the Times wanted to edit it to say, ‘Microsoft is innovative.’ The funny thing is that I had started out in my own head without having a bias. I thought Microsoft did a lot of things that were good and right building parts of the browser into the operating system. Then I thought it out and came up with reasons why it was a monopoly. I specified the strong penalties they should undergo. Eventually I found out that the New York Times had tight friendship ties with Microsoft and that one of Microsoft’s key people had an editorial column in the Times. They were trying to use me. But I know newspapers. They have the first amendment and they can tell any lie knowing it’s a lie and they’re protected if the person’s famous or it’s a company.
What was Microsoft’s motivation for plugging money into Apple?
They didn’t plug money into Apple. It’s a phony perception that was conveyed that way to get public opinion swaying that way. Microsoft has billions of dollars in cash, and a small little chunk could be invested in Apple for a while. It doesn’t mean, “Oh, yeah, we’re buying into this company.” And it wasn’t their choice to. Basically, Apple accused them of ripping off a lot of software patents—this story has been told—over a billion dollars worth. Microsoft wasn’t going to admit that and they weren’t going to pay a huge billion dollar fine in a settlement, but they were willing to do things that were worth a lot of money to Apple. They were looking for a low cost way out for themselves and this was a logical one. It brought cash into Apple, and it really didn’t cost Microsoft anything. So it’s not like Microsoft came in and said, “Hey, we want to buy into you.” No, no, no. It was the other way around.
The public perception is that Microsoft injected money into Apple so they wouldn’t look like a monopoly.
Nope. It was just a proposal that was good to Apple and it didn’t offend Microsoft.
Would you describe it as a win-win for both Apple and Microsoft?
I don’t think it meant much to Microsoft. Where was Bill Gates proactively speaking out, “I really believe in Apple. I think they’re going to do this and that and go here and there.”
I’m going to name a few defunct computer companies. What comes to mind when I say . . . Commodore?
We went to Commodore in the early days and showed them our Apple II before it was out and offered to sell it to them for maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars—I don’t know what Steve was talking. They turned it down and said, “No, we’ll just design our own. We’ll go cheap here and cheap there and we’ll only have black-and-white and we’ll have a crappy keyboard and we’ll only have this much memory, no expandability, we’ll build in a little black-and-white monitor. . . .” They could have been the Apple II. Jack Tramiel made the decision, but after our presentation, his head of engineering, Andre Souson, talked to us for a while. He believed in us and left Commodore to come to Apple.
Atari is a very sad story. When we had the Apple II we were looking for a way to shop it because it was worth selling thousands a month but we didn’t have enough money to build thousands. We went over to Al Alcorn’s house in Los Gatos and we put the Apple II on his big projector TV and showed it to him. He was very impressed but they were about to come out with the first home video game. They were going to sell millions, and they had their hands full with this hot project. They couldn’t do two things at once. So they also chose not to buy it, just like Commodore. It’s funny that in later years they had their own computer, but it just didn’t go as a long-term platform.
No closeness to Tandy. After the Apple II was introduced, then came the Commodore and the Tandy TRS-80. Tandy, like Commodore with their Pet, was non-expandable. You would buy it with 4k of memory and you’d have 4k of memory for life. Early on we came out with our floppy disk drive. How do you add a floppy disk drive to a Tandy? It turns out there was no designed way built in. So the Tandy machines and the Commodore machines, because of their lack of expandability, lost out in the early exciting things, which were floppy disks and VisiCalc. They had to go back to the drawing board. They tried to make their products go for a while longer, which was another mistake. They would have been smarter to get to the drawing board sooner. That’s really where Apple won out.
What’s your primary computer nowadays?
For a decade it’s been a PowerBook because I like to be free and flexible and have it all with me in my hands. A certain size computer—go right back to the Apple II—is just the size I want.
What do you see happening over the next couple of years with computers?
Well, you can always say that the speeds and the hard disk capacity are going to go up. Hard disks have disappointed me more than most technologies. Speed, it’s hard to say where we need more at the moment. I’ve always noticed it in the past and now for the first time in my life I’m just not pressed to be seeking speed.
I think computers are obviously getting thinner and smaller. The screens on laptops have gotten larger and larger. The display size is approaching the size of a briefcase. It would be nice to design a real briefcase—you open it up and it’s your computer but it also stores your books.
Obviously, prices of displays are still dropping. Maybe they will replace televisions. Other than that I don’t know. The world is going a lot more wireless. But I don’t react to it as strongly as most people do because 7 years ago I taught a class that was wireless. Everybody came in the door, plugged in a little transmitter, and it sat right next to their PowerBooks.
What would you say your biggest strength is?
Right now? Probably being able to listen and communicate and teach others, especially how something works. I am also very observant of things that the Macintosh stood for originally—user interface and the ways computers should work for us and not against us. But anything new you get for your computer, it’s horrible to go through a five minute installation. Because you know there’s a 50% chance that you’re going to wind up spending five hours and you may not even get it working. Every techno product is that way. It’s always the dumbest little tech things. A switch won’t work—one switch shuts down your whole life and you think, "Why are all these low-tech things going wrong?” It’s just not right that so many things don’t work when they should. I don’t think that will change for a long time.
What would you say your biggest failure is?
I don’t know. It depends how you define failure.
How would you define it?
I think everything I have done in my life, my reasons at the time were right no matter how things worked out. However, I only applied to one college, the University of Colorado, and I think MIT was the perfect school for me. Maybe that was a mistake. That’s about the only thing I question, right down to addresses not being linear on an Apple II and things like that. I don’t ever look back and say, “Oh, I wish this would have been different.” I don’t live like that.
Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
Not now. I’m not trying to do that because I wouldn’t put 20 hours a day into anything. And I wouldn’t go back to the engineering. The way I did it, every job was A+. I worked with such concentration and focus and I had hundreds of obscure engineering or programming things in my head. I was just real exceptional in that way. It was so intense you could not do that for very long—only when you’re young. I’m on the board of a couple of companies that you could say are start-ups, so I certainly support it, but I don’t live it. The older I get the more I like to take it easy.