THE WOZ – Apple Inc. Co-founder Steve Wozniak Discusses His Remarkable Career
By Angus Gillespie
The word ‘legend’ definitely gets tossed around rather haphazardly in today’s society when talking about someone who has achieved noted success. Perhaps it’s a desire to show immense respect, but the truth is many ‘legends’ don’t really fit the bill. But there are instances where using that word is the perfect description for greatness and such is the case when talking about Steve Wozniak, often referred to simply as ‘The Woz’ who is credited with inventing the personal computer.
Wozniak, the man who brought the Apple computer to life, was recently a keynote speaker for an event at The Four Seasons Hotel in the posh Yorkville section of downtown Toronto and CBJ was there to speak to him directly and also listen in on an insightful keynote speech.
During Wozniak’s discussion he spoke about everything from his long-term working relationship with the late Steve Jobs to driverless vehicles. As a major international celebrity, a great deal of Wozniak’s time is out at speaking engagements. So does he miss spending all of his time designing new inventions?
“I’m thought of as a technical genius but I go back and look at some of my old work and have no idea where that stuff came out of my head,” he chuckles. “It was so different and in violation of how it was done in all the engineering books. I then got sidetracked for 30 years by Apple.”
Starting the Journey
The incredible tech journey that would ultimately change the world began to formulate in the early 1970s when Wozniak’s fascination for engineering and technology led to him single-handedly developing the Apple I in 1976, which launched the Apple brand. He was also the primary designer of the Apple II the following year and it quickly became known as one of the first highly successful mass-produced microcomputers in the world.
While Wozniak’s technical genius was known as far back as his days in high school, he didn’t possess the skills to market his inventions and is the first to admit that. Enter Steve Jobs, the late enigmatic, albeit bombastic marketing genius who oversaw the brand marketing development. The pair formed one of the most successful alliances in business history.
Wozniak was working at Hewlett Packard designing calculators when he first met Jobs, who was still in high school and had taken a summer job at HP. A colleague felt the two young men had many things in common and that they should be introduced. He was right.
After months of design work in the garage of Steve Jobs’ parents’ home in California, the official launch of Apple Inc. came in 1976 but it wasn’t until five years later that Wozniak finished his degrees in electrical engineering and computer science in 1981. He had dropped out of college in the early 1970s for what would best be termed as disciplinary reasons.
As Apple began to experience exponential growth by the mid-1980s, Wozniak knew he wasn’t interested in managing the company and felt his time would be best spent somewhere else, and so he exited in early 1985. That same year he and Jobs were awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It is widely regarded as the most prestigious honour bestowed on America’s leading innovators. In 2000, Wozniak was inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame and received the Heinz Award in Technology, the Economy and Employment.
A Self-Taught Genius
A career in software and hardware development was a natural because Wozniak had always been fascinated by electronics, engineering and calculations.
“I discovered a journal by accident and it talked about how you add ones and zeros. Obviously you could teach a child two plus three equals five, but with ones and zeros I realized you didn’t need more than a fifth grade mathematics education. All this computer stuff doesn’t use high-level mathematics,” he says.
Bit by bit Wozniak taught himself how to design computers. It took him weeks and months at first. Then he replicated it over and over again. But he didn’t ever think he’d wind up having a job designing computers.
“I just wanted to be superior and best at one thing. I was a social outcast at school. In high school I told my dad that I would one day own a 4K computer, which was the minimum you needed to do useful work and write a program,” recalls Wozniak.
But in those days a 4K computer cost about as much as a house.
A major stepping stone for Wozniak came when he was hired by Hewlett Packard. Although he didn’t have a college degree, his immense knowledge on design was readily apparent. It was Wozniak’s job to work on the development of calculators.
“I had a reputation for designing things with many fewer parts than anyone else in the world,” he says.
With virtually no money, Wozniak eventually was able to make his own 4K computer, which included a $20 microprocessor. To this day he says the Input and Output is the most expensive part of computers.
Wozniak had numerous designs and products, but the key was getting it out for the rest of the world to see.
“I always loved designing things for free, just for myself,” he says. “I had met Steve Jobs five years before Apple. He had come into town and looked at the latest thing I had invented and always turned those inventions into money.”
Wozniak had the ability to design devices such as computers but there were people in his computer club including Stanford professors and grad students who talked about how computers for human beings were going to change lives. They envisioned be able to type a message and within one hour 100 people could read the message. In those days, that was an amazing dream.
“I gave away a lot of my stuff for free in the public domain, with no copyrights. At this time Steve Jobs didn’t know the club existed. By the way, the Apple II was the only successful product in the first 10 years of the company. I had given away the Apple I for free, so multiple people had the formula on how to build a personal computer – use a television display and a keyboard,” states Wozniak.
There is also a scene in the movie Steve Jobs that The Woz says is completely inaccurate.
“Don’t believe the movie (Steve Jobs) that shows him dragging me off to a computer club. I was a hero at that club,” laughs Wozniak. “I took him to the club to show him what was happening. He had been working on surplus electronics and said we should start a company and build a board that helps them build your computer. We’d build a PC board for $20 and sell them for $40.”
Rejected by HP
With no desire to ever be in management or work as a regular businessman, Wozniak thought it would be good to remain with Hewlett Packard. In fact, he presented his first computer to them before ever working with Steve Jobs. He told them what the computer would be able to do and the economics of producing it.
“My group boss and section manager and the marketing guys turned me down for the first of five times. Hewlett Packard turned down the whole personal computer concept,” says Wozniak.
Wozniak calls the Apple I a ‘clumsy little computer’. He says it was never made to function as a computer but rather he designed it as a terminal to get on the Arpanet, which was essentially the precursor to today’s Internet. Although back in those days there were just six universities on the Arpanet – it was considered a gigantic network for its time.
The Apple II was designed to be a computer.
“It’s as if the most genius designs of my life were pouring out,” notes Wozniak. “Colour was a big part of it. At Atari I designed games like Breakout where you hit the ball against bricks. I designed it for Atari late at night.”
According to Wozniak the most important thing Apple’s ever put out in his life is the third-party App store. He used to think it was the Apple II or maybe even the iPhone, but upon reflection he realizes that it is in fact the App store.
“Siri was a third-party App. It was not owned by Apple,” notes Wozniak.
What also isn’t commonly known is that there were three equal partners when Apple Inc. got off the ground back in 1976. “There was myself, Steve Jobs and our investor Mike Markkula, who owned as much stock as we did,” says Wozniak. “He was the adult in the family. He’s the one who said here’s who you hire to set up a technology company and here are the roles and the different departments and their responsibilities.”
Steve Jobs did an incredible job in marketing the Apple II but it was the older Markkula who had the business acumen and contacts throughout California. He originally came in as a partner with $250,000; $80,000 was an equity investment and the remaining $170,000 was a loan.
“He (Jobs) learned his marketing principles from Mike Markkula. Steve wanted to be the important guy on the front of magazines and the frontman for Apple. Me, I was kind of shy and just wanted to be in a laboratory inventing more stuff,” recalls Wozniak.
To this day Wozniak is still viewed as an innovative disruptor and his thoughts and ideas are heavily sought after by many hi-tech companies. He probably gets tired of being asked about driverless cars, but is always enthusiastic about his responses as to whether Apple, Google or Tesla will ultimately come out on top.
“Every major company in the world seems to be working now on autonomous driving cars, no one wants to be left out and disrupted,” he says.
Technical innovation is changing on a daily basis at what seems to be light speed. Jobs died in October, 2011 but if he were alive we asked Wozniak what a conversation between the pair would likely have entailed with respect to all the tech changes we’re seeing today.
“I don’t like to hypothesize about such things because I’m not good at it,” he responds. “I’m an engineer with both feet on the ground. He used to tell me that he wasn’t technical, but that wasn’t important. He knew what people wanted and knew about engineering principles and who he could count on to create quality products. You’re not judged on what you don’t do. You’re judged on what you did when you were here – and he was the greatest ever.”
There is the constant argument about whether Apple or Google and its Android system are superior. Wozniak diplomatically says there really is not one correct answer. “Most people don’t buy their phones based on megapixels on the camera or various other features but rather it’s based on what your friends are saying and doing. I buy all the new hot products and test them and play with them. Everyone is different. It’s just a matter of what you want.”
Microsoft has been the main rival to Apple throughout most of the entire history of both companies. The co-founders of Microsoft – Bill Gates and Paul Allen – are both worth billions, yet the co-founders of Apple never had a net worth much higher than $150 million each. Why the disparity? One only needs to look at the immense generosity shown by Wozniak and it’s easy to see why his potential wealth was diluted so much.
“When Apple went public, three of us had more incredible wealth than you could ever imagine for a lifetime,” reflects Wozniak. “And I looked and — wait a minute, we’re called founders, what about these other kids some were in high school from the computer club. If they hadn’t been there, hanging around in the garage days, by my apartment, by the garage, if they hadn’t been there, why would I have been motivated to do what I did? So I went and I gave tens of millions of dollars of my own stock to five people who were there in the early days. I then looked at 80 other employees and I sold stock at pre-IPO price so each of them could basically make a house. If a company is as successful as Apple a lot of the employees should benefit from it too – not just the three who have their name on the contract.”
Now, at the age of 66, Wozniak serves as the Chief Scientist at Primary Data where he has been for several years. He’s also a best-selling author and his celebrity has landed him several guest-starring TV roles, including The Big Bang Theory. He was also a participant on Dancing with the Stars.
Throughout a very busy schedule that includes speaking engagements and working on more technical inventions, Wozniak still is a kid at heart and loves to have fun. So, is there another appearance on The Big Bang Theory coming up anytime soon?
“There might be. We’re good friends with them and go to see them all the time,” he smiles.