An interview with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak

Published: 04 December, 2011 08:51 IST | Sachin Kalbag |

He is the "other Steve", but to geeks around the world, he is the real deal; the man who practically invented the personal computer and changed the world

He is the "other Steve", but to geeks around the world, he is the real deal; the man who practically invented the personal computer and changed the world. Steve Wozniak, supreme geek of the 1970s and the maker of the Apple II computer which brought about a worldwide computer revolution, was in Bangalore on Saturday to speak to a bunch of young entrepreneurs and achievers of the Young Presidents Organisation who wanted to hear the story of the most-loved technology brand in the world -- Apple. 

Wozniak co-founded Apple Computer (now Apple, Inc) in April 1976 along with Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne. Both Apple I - the company's first product - and the hugely successful Apple II (arguably the world's first fully-loaded personal computer) were designed by Wozniak making him - and not Jobs - the darling of geeks around the world.

Jobs may have created the Apple brand, but it was Wozniak's initial work on the company's first two products that made Apple a multi-million dollar company within a year of its founding. Now 61 years old, Wozniak is still an Apple employee with a minimum pay and goes around the world representing the company - giving speeches and mentoring young engineers.

Wozniak took time out during his Bangalore visit to speak to Sunday MIDDAY. Excerpts from the interview:

What brings you to India?
Oh, I was invited by the Young Presidents Organisation to address their group (in Bangalore) and they had gotten in touch via all my speech-people. This is the first time I have come to India; in fact, this is the first time I have been invited which is strange because about two years ago, I did three keynotes all around the world for Infosys (Infosys Technologies, the Bangalore-headquartered software firm). And I kept telling all the top executives that I would love to come to India some day and I never got an invitation until this one. 

When you see these young guys in India, do you believe they will break the mould of India being the backoffice hub for the world when it comes to developing world-changing software products?
Yes, I do. And I have a reason. I see a lot of technical enthusiasts, a lot of engineers in Silicon Valley. I see a lot of Indian people. I see a lot of people from Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore. But look at the Indians. They are bright, they are enthusiastic, they are hard-working. They have all the attributes to become successful in Silicon Valley. Some of the great engineers and technologists in Apple and all the other big companies like Google and Microsoft are Indians. So clearly they have got some inner skills and abilities. I think then it just means having a sense of clarity and the level of confidence, and they could make it big.

But is being at Silicon Valley so important for technology innovation?
Not at all. Microsoft did not start in Silicon Valley; it started way up north in Seattle. Nor did Apple. And they could have been anywhere in the world. Infosys is "elsewhere in the world" company. So there are ways that technology companies can start off today with the Internet. A lot of our (Apple's) developers are anywhere in the world. And we hire engineering groups in India; in Russia, everywhere. 

What is it about America then that all these young geeks set up businesses and they become super-successful... Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter...
You know, there are already a lot of people around you that have done it. And that gives you the confidence to feel you can do it too and not feel scared. 

You were not scared of failure?
We were not scared. These young people... they are trying something that the formulas of life tell you will not succeed. They think differently and are not scared. They don't think, "What if I don't make any money?" Look, it doesn't matter if you don't make any money. Because you don't have any money to begin with.  Steve Jobs and I did not have any money to begin with. I guess in America, the environment to create successful businesses exists and people around you encourage you to do that.

But that would apply to other countries as well...
Obviously. But maybe it's all the resources being in one place in America. It encourages entrepreneurship; risk-taking. For example, I designed a great computer once - the Apple II - and it was going to change the world. But I could have designed a great computer, and not had all the small pieces that fit together to make a great company. Which means you have to hire presidents, operations people, engineers, factory people, marketing people, accountants. You have to do all that in a small company, even if it is just eight people. Or, your computer just won't get recognized. You might win the Nobel Prize for it, but you can't necessarily change the world.

Is that why the Apple II became so successful?
Apple II became successful because of various reasons. Steve Jobs had a large part to play in it, and he knew where he wanted to go with it. It was an excellent product. Steve Jobs sought the best things in the world. He knew that I was the best designer, and that Apple II was the best computer, and that's why he wanted both. We were best friends, though. So that helped. It was excellent because it came from my one mind. I controlled the entire environment of how that computer was built. It worked so well that very few parts did very much. Only because, I wanted a computer for me. And it had to be that beautiful.

But the Apple III failed... is it because there were too many people working on it?
Yes, if the guys at Apple had built the machine that they would love, it would have been successful. It came instead from formulas from Apple executives. Marketing people were in charge and some very bad decisions got made, in my opinion. There were hardware failures. You put out a product that has failures right away, and even if you fix it a year later, it just doesn't sell. It's the same thing with any smartphone today. It comes out and it has something horribly wrong about it. You can fix everything wrong about it, and it still won't sell. It has missed its window of opportunity.

But a lot of Apple products were failures, right?
Yes, the Apple III was a failure, the LISA was a failure, and the Macintosh was a failure. It was only by modifying the Macintosh hugely and over time that we made it a good computer. And Steve Jobs believed in many of these products.

Is Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs an accurate representation of your relationship with Steve Jobs?
How would I know? I haven't read it. I have been so busy in the last two months. I never got around to reading that book. It is on my Kindle, my iPhone, my iPad, on my computer and I bought a hard cover. But I have been so busy that I never read it. But I have lived a lot of it. So I am sure it is accurate. Steve Jobs was himself after honesty in the book, and he did not want the book to be closed or to hide the truth.

We all knew Jobs was going to die some day because of his cancer. But did it hit you hard when it actually happened?
It was a shock. It wasn't really hard emotionally because we had expected his death for so long. So it was not something to tear up about. But, ah, Steve Jobs was such an important part of my life that sometimes I tear up.

In popular culture - books, television, even magazines - there is often this talk about how you and Steve Jobs were the best of friends and then one day he threw the remote control you had designed on to a wall and smashed it.

That was about the only incident where he treated me like he has treated other people. The reason he did it was because of miscommunication. He thought that I was against him and Apple. I wasn't. I had made one phone call to John Sculley (the Apple CEO then). All I told him was that during the shareholders' meeting, the Apple II was not mentioned once. All they talked about was Macintosh, Macintosh, Macintosh! And the people that I worked with were hurt. They felt ignored; they felt that they did not matter. I stood up for people who had been ignored. But later I sat Steve down, and then Apple gave me a nice letter and let me start my own remote control company (CL 9) even when I was with Apple. So I am still with Apple. At a small salary, but I am still with them.

Wozniak Trivia

During the height of the Cold War, Steve Wozniak organised the US (pronounced "us") Festival and connected via live video American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. He became a hero in the then USSR, but not a single American media house covered it. He finally ended up losing $12 million in the venture.

Steve Wozniak was involved in a near-death air crash in February 1981. He lost his memory for close to five weeks.

Steve Wozniak did not finish college in the 1970s. Instead, he reenrolled at the University of California in Berkeley to complete his degree in 1986. He enrolled in the name of Rocky Raccoon Clark (Rocky Racoon was his dog's name and Clark was his wife's maiden name)

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