Before laptops fit into briefcases, before iPads fit into purses, and before iPhones fit into back pockets, computers were as big as vending machines, and certainly not portable. In 1977, Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple (with Steve Jobs) changed all that by unveiling the world’s first personal computer. In his riveting talks, Steve shares his personal story, the history of Apple, and speculates on the future of high-tech. Steve recently presented at an event and talked about Apple and of course, the new Steve Jobs film:
Like many people, I long believed that Steve Jobs deserved most of the credit for founding Apple, and then rescuing it, and then making it into perhaps the most important tech company in the world. Sure, Jobs’s Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was important to the narrative, but didn’t seem like the star player. But after listening to The Woz share warm, generous, and insightful opinions last week, I’m starting to reconsider my biases.
Wozniak spoke in a fireside chat keynote at New Relic’s FutureStack15 user conferencein San Francisco last week, but he focused on the new Steve Jobs movie, the early days of Apple, his passion for tech education, and other elements of his long and storied career. While the conversation casually and delightfully touched down in various places, I’m going to try and create a rough temporal narrative, and conclude with a few lessons from his remarkable life (disclosure: I am an employee of New Relic.)
Teaching yourself tech
The Woz said he became a tech geek by accident: He didn’t encounter it in school, he said, but stumbled on math and science on his own and said to himself, “Hey, I like this stuff.” It’s actually a good thing that computers weren’t an academic subject, he added, because “the stuff you do on your own is the most important to you… the things you teach yourself you learn extremely well. If you’re in a class you do a project, you get your grade, and you move on to the next project.” Instead, the young Woz locked himself in his room and designed computers on paper—over and over and over again.
That self-education has served him well.
“Every fifth grader has all the math he needs to know for everything in a smartphone,” Wozniak said. “Except the radio.”
Steve and Steve were pranksters in school
Steve Jobs was a fun, outgoing guy when the two met in high school, Wozniak said. “We played a lot of pranks,” Wozniak confessed. The two used to go down to the pay phones outside their high school cafeteria and use blue boxes to make calls anywhere in the world. But one time Wozniak was able to convince Jobs that the chief of security for AT&T was calling them. “He thought they were on to him,” Wozniak laughed, and the two ran off in a panic.
“But by the time we got money at Apple, Jobs’s personality changed,” Wozniak revealed. “He became a real serious business person.”
The Steve Jobs movie
Wozniak was very impressed by the quality of the production of the recent film about Steve Jobs, including the writing, cinematography, and acting. Perhaps most importantly, “I’m glad they picked a cool guy [Seth Rogen] to play me!” He added that he’s become friendly with the actor.
But he also noted, “It’s not really a biopic. The movie barely touches on one or two negative sides of Steve Jobs, and there were hundreds.”
The film also takes liberties with the actual events, Wozniak said. In the movie, his character continually complains to Jobs that the engineers who worked on the Apple II don’t get enough credit, even though that device was providing nearly all the company’s revenue at the time, Wozniak said. But in reality, he said, that happened only once, and Wozniak called then Apple CEO John Scully about it, not Jobs.
What does Woz think of Apple now?
“I like the Apple products that are coming out under Tim Cook,” Wozniak said, and shared his opinions of a number of key products.
Woz said he’s “more of a laptop guy” than an iPad user, partially because you can’t change the iPad keyboard to a Dvorak layout. But he is trying to order an iPad Pro, because when it comes to tablets, “the bigger the better.” Unfortunately, the Apple store in San Jose didn’t have the model he wanted when he visited.
As for the Apple Watch? “I was skeptical,” he said, deciding that the negatives initially outweighed the benefits. But with the latest updates, “now it’s coming up to better than breakeven.” But he still doesn’t think he needs to wear it all the time.
What iPhone does he use?
“I have five or six iPhones,” Wozniak said, “I like to experiment.” His favorite iPhone ever is the iPhone 5C: “I love the design.” But he also loves to play with Android phones.
What he doesn’t love is being stuck in the Apple ecosystem. “I don’t like being trapped,” he explained, noting that the conflict between curating the experience and providing more options goes back to his early days with Steve Jobs.
Back in the day, Jobs saw a need for only two expansion slots in the Apple II, to attach the then-popular printer and modem. Wozniak told Jobs the machine needed eight slots to accommodate people who wanted to tinker with their computers, and when Jobs resisted, Wozniak told him to put in eight slots “or get another computer to sell.”
Siri, past and present
“I love any technology that seems to make life easy,” he said, citing Siri, Apple’s voice-controlled personal assistant app.
When he first saw Siri as a third-party app, Wozniak recalled, he was amazed to be able to ask it to list the prime numbers over 87, for example, or to list the five largest lakes in California to settle an argument, and get back the information he was looking for.
But now that Apple has bought the app, he complained, the same queries might return information on where to buy a prime rib dinner or lakeside real estate.
Supporting computers in education—personally and financially
After leaving Apple, Wozniak fulfilled a childhood ambition to be a teacher, quietly working with kids for eight years, sometimes seven days a week. He also contributed funding to bring more tech into schools, and tried to help figure out how to make the most it.
“We put all these computers in schools, but they didn’t make people come out any smarter,” he said.
So his goal was to teach students how to use computers to help with all the other things they were doing in school.
What he’s learned
So what has Wozniak learned from a career that’s included everything from competing on Dancing With the Stars to promoting rock concerts (The Us Festivals) and now bringing Comic Con to Silicon Valley?
“The highest value in my life is honesty,” Wozniak said. But he also preached tolerance: “Don’t push your values on other people,” he said. Don’t tell them “You have to be like me or you’re a bad person.”
At the end of his talk, the audience gave The Woz a standing ovation, kind of like the ones that used to follow Apple’s big product announcements. I haven’t heard of that happening at the end of the Steve Jobs movie, though.