HE WAS the behind-the-scenes genius who used to let Steve Jobs do all the talking. But, as Stephen McGinty discovered, Apple’s other Steve – in Edinburgh later this week – has plenty to say himself about the future of computers.
The story of Apple Computers is actually the story of not one Steve, but two. Today, the late Steve Jobs is a secular saint of a lucrative cult that earned him billions of dollars. He was the man who had the reputation of a maniacal screamer whose rage at the incompetence of staff, more imagined than real, was volcanic, and of a secretive visionary who recognised that the future of computing lay not in flogging computers to companies but to ordinary members of the public attracted by a visually desirable consumer product. Then there is “the other Steve”: Steve Wozniak, the brilliant computer engineer who physically designed and built Apple I and Apple II and who helped give birth to the personal computer revolution, only to wind up an advocate of Segway polo and a competitor on Dancing With The Stars.
The two Steves co-founded Apple Computer Inc (now just Apple Inc) in 1976, but agreed that each would have two very distinctive and separate roles. The son of an engineer at Lockheed Martin, who grew up in the Santa Clara valley of northern California (in what would become Silicon Valley), Steve Wozniak was an exceptionally shy young man whose brilliance was recognised by Hewlett Packard when he was a student at Berkeley. His love affair with computers was set at an early age. While other students had a poster of Farah Fawcett from Charlie’s Angels, Wozniak had a poster of a super-computer.
By day, he designed scientific calculators for HP, and by night he and Jobs would bounce around ideas for new devices. They once stayed up for four nights developing a new computer game to rival Pong, only for it to fail to secure proper distribution. When Wozniak developed the design for the personal computer that would become Apple I, Jobs argued that they should set up their own company to develop and sell it, but his friend had a degree of loyalty to his employer and it was only after HP had rejected his plans four times that he finally decided to make the break.
In order to raise the necessary start-up costs for Apple, Wozniak sold his beloved HP Scientific Calculator, which, as he explains on the phone from his home in California, he still thinks about today. “I had worked on chips that had been in that calculator. I sold it for $500 knowing that next month we were coming out with the next version and my employee price would be $370. So it was not a horrible loss, but it was the only way I knew to get money at the time to make a PC board to start Apple. I had to sell something. I sold it for $500 and the guy paid $250 down and he was going to give me $250 later, and I never saw the later. The calculator was a big part of my life, and I did miss it.”
From the beginning, Wozniak knew his nature and where his true talents lay. It was not as a boss, hiring and firing.
“I would develop one project after another after another just for myself, and then Steve would come by later and turn it into money. But when we started Apple I decided that I didn’t want a part of the big money that comes from running a company, really because of what I had seen and how money corrupts people.
“I am way too ethical and moral for that. So I decided I would just be an engineer and do my stuff and Steve would have a tap into every operation of the com- pany at the highest point. So we didn’t stay close friends and stay together every day and do the same thing. We split apart over the years, but we still remained friends.”
An example of Wozniak’s ethical view of business came in 1980, just before Apple floated on the stock market. When Jobs refused to offer any of the young students who had helped him launch the company a share of the stock options, Wozniak set up the “Woz Plan”, in which he gave away or sold at a peppercorn price a third of his own shares to those friends and family who had helped them on their way.
Although Wozniak has not worked for the company since 1985, he remains a salaried employee. “I get a tiny salary – it could be $1 a year. I just want to be connected to the company as loyalty, as a founder. I stay an Apple person, but I just won’t be in a cult or a religion about it”. He insists on paying for each new device himself, which, as he has previously described himself as “extremely” wealthy, is not exactly a struggle. He lives modestly, drives a Prius and flies commercial airlines. What he does value is having fun and educating young people, which is why he flies to Scotland this week to appear as part of the Turing Festival in Edinburgh.
When asked what advice he would give to a technologically minded young Scot, he advocates the importance of the personal project.
“I have always respected education, which is why I actually went back secretly and taught school for eight years. I just believe that the way that young people’s minds develop is fascinating. If you are doing something for a grade or salary or a reward, it doesn’t have as much meaning as creating something for yourself and your own life. Your first projects aren’t the greatest things in the world and they may have no money value, they may go nowhere, but that is how you learn – you put so much effort into making something right if it is for yourself. A few years doing that will be much better than a college education. Put together your own projects for your own reason. The projects that I did for Apple were largely because I wanted these things for myself. It was not for a salary or a company. Always keep some fun in there. Keep the element of humour.”
If one story illustrated the difference between the two Steves, it was the time they both took jobs dressing as characters from Alice in Wonderland in a shopping mall to earn a little extra money for Apple’s launch. Years later, Wozniak told Jobs he thought it was fabulous fun bringing such delight to little children. Jobs looked at him as if he was insane. Since leaving Apple, Wozniak has done a number of things for the fun of it, including setting up his own Segway polo tournament and competing on Dancing With The Stars alongside the Bond actress, Denise Richards, and the rapper Lil’ Kim.
As a significant player in the birth of the personal computer, it is interesting to hear Wozniak’s predictions for the future, which include bionic eyes and a “digital Steve Jobs”, with Apple, like other major companies, eventually controlled not by a chief executive but a computer.
Wozniak explains that while he can see a “beautiful future” with computers, he does harbour some fears. “Way off in the future, I really believe that they will become conscious,” he says. “They are going to get feelings like we do, and they are going to think better and faster than us.
“We are building all this technology to do the work of the world for us, to take care of us, and eventually we are going to be in that state, taken care of by all this machinery. We can’t shut it all down. We can’t turn off any of the machinery that makes products for companies or products that make profits. We can fire people, but not machines. The trouble is they are going to be so important that we can’t ever turn them off. We are going to be the lower species some day.”
The role of computers will only grow deeper into the matrix of businesses. “Look at the big financial banks – 80 per cent of transactions have no human being involved. Think of a company like Apple and how it could work [in the future] with computers that are 500 times better at thinking about what the company’s strategy should be and what changes they should make every single day.
“Well, the company that keeps the slow human to make the final decision is going to lose out to the company that skips the slow human. Then, eventually, the company across the street running totally on computers without even a human touching them, those companies will be superior economically, and that is how they will win.”
He believes that this future is still a long way off – “40 to 200 years out” – but in the meantime the relationship between humans and computers will grow even closer.
“Eventually, we will have microchips in our eyes so that we can see with much better resolution and see through walls. Once that happens, people may want to say, ‘I want to be a natural person. I don’t want to be a person plus technology’. But if all the kids at school are doing it to improve their vision, I would put it in my kids, right? A lot of these technologies in the human body are going to happen.”
On the future of Apple, Wozniak still believes it has the underdog revolutionary spirit that it once had, despite becoming such a successful behemoth. “We were two kids in a garage when we started, but we had belief in our ideas, and this is still what drives us today. Yes – Apple has enough money to create fine products, but it is still the imagination that makes it a little different from other people’s products. We put so much attention into making it better for other people.”
However, he dislikes the perpetual obsolescence that exists in the computer market, and the lack of freedom a consumer has to resist changes and upgrades. “Today, you don’t upgrade a program; it gets upgraded automatically. When I grew up and you bought a broom, that broom was going to be the same device doing the same job for you for 40 years. To buy a computer today is to be outdated in a few years.”
Before ringing off, Wozniak explains that he is assisting Sony Pictures in their plans for a biopic about Steve Jobs which will be scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter of The Social Network.
When I ask if he still misses Jobs he said: “Very much. Very much. When you have a relationship that goes back to school days, it is very tough. But I still think he is with us in Apple.”
• Steve Wozniak is speaking at the Edinburgh Playhouse on Thursday at 4pm as part of the Turing Festival. Tickets from £21.