Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An Interview with Steve Wozniak

In September 2007 I had the opportunity to interview Steve Wozniak as part of the Digital Minds interviews that I've conducted at the time with leading digital figures.

Wozniak, who together with Steve Jobs co-founded Apple is considered by many to be the inventor of the first personal computer. Since the personal computer has been like an integral organ of my body for the past 2 decades, speaking with Wozniak was a bit like talking to the architect of existence, almost a sort of demigod really.

The Interview was previously edited and published in Hebrew as a part of a magazine piece I did for Nana about Wozniak. I publish here the full and unedited version of the interview itself.

Hartogsohn: Hello Steve, why don't we start with the feeling that are currently keeping you Busy. So what are you up to these days?

Wozniak: Well, I'm doing a lot of speaking engagements around the world. I'm also involved with a few start-up companies including one that started up and went public with some former apple executives. It's called jazz technologies and we were formed to be an acquiring company and we acquired the chip maker jazz technologies. And I'm involved with some other people who are doing energy efficient house start-ups

Hartogsohn: How did your interest in this field of environmental housing actually evolve?

Wozniak: It just sort of always been with me, but only never high priority. Actually the way it evolved was I discovered somebody doing energy efficient housing that was kind of like the clean simple approach to things. Fewer parts doing more. And that's just something I believe in. There is more to that than I'm trying to save energy, because if you try to save energy there is always somebody else who says they are saving more.

Hartogsohn: Let's get back to the beginning of your career when you were making the first computers? When did you first realize the impact of what you were doing? When did you realize that the personal computer is really going to change things?

Wozniak: Oh it's very difficult to say because I've been building computers my whole life. I've even built the hardware for the personal computer 5 years earlier in 1970 but this was the first one that really worked. And I just knew that it would solve a couple of problems that I had like playing games and writing programs to help my engineering. I didn't know that would change the world. I was involved with a lot of other people who believed that the small computer would soon be owned by everyone and make a huge difference in the world. But the differences that we foresaw never came to be. So it's difficult to say that we foresaw the future. No, we were just accidentally right in some way that low cost computer made sense for a lot of people

Hartogsohn: It's always interesting to see how technological inventions look at different points at time. What did you foresee then that didn't happen.

Wozniak: Well we foresaw that the users would be technical people like ourselves writing programs to solve problems, whereas what really came to be the case is that people tried to buy a pre-bought solution to solve the problem. We foresaw the internet in some crude fashion, of people communicating at a very low level. We didn't see such things as music sitting on a computer. Sure we thought of music going through a computer, but not being stored on a computer. So almost anything that goes at all with today's large hard disks we didn't foresee at all. We did not foresee video on a computer, ever. We did not foresee even storing huge amounts of email.

And we didn't foresee digital cameras, but who could have, I mean they weren't here so nobody foresaw them. And besides when they tried to come, they were so expensive that they really couldn't change the world yet. You know when you realize that something is way too expensive to even think about, you don't think about it. And then at a latter year, oh it makes sense. Some things that's been too expensive but had niche markets maybe, all of the sudden they take off and become mainstream.

That happened with apple products quite a bit. The product that we first had was only applicable to a few people. As far as real dollar savings it's very hard to measure. Maybe a person would have a computer and be more capable than other engineers at his work. But it's hard to put a dollar tracker on that. The typical engineer salary back than was maybe 25,000 dollars and if the computer costs 2500 dollars, you have to weigh that in. But still it's a lot less expensive than a computer that costs a 100,000 dollars.

Hartogsohn: At the time when you began working it was still a very small scale industry in which one person could design a computer by himself. How do you feel about the way this industry evolved and the high-tech industry of today?

Wozniak: Well, one thing that changed is: I didn't design a computer for the world. I just designed the best computer for myself. I had No business plan and no intent to sell it, it's just that it was my life long goal to own a good computer someday that I could write programs on, and the way I achieved this was just to build it myself.

As to way the computers have gone to this day it's absolutely wonderful. I love everything about the computer. It's the nicest the interface we have to the world. Sure it's not as good for some things, not as big a screen as my large screen television set. When I look at google earth it's not like a globe. It's on a flat screen.

But just think of the many things that we can do so easily on the computer that we had no way to do in the past. Maybe the smartest most well funded researchers could do those sort of things that we do today.

Hartogsohn: You have been known to be a programming purist. I once heard you say that your best design decisions were made because you didn't have enough money. How does the obese software of today's operating systems and desktop programs make you feel? Does purist programming and technology still stand a chance?

Wozniak: I think it got undone by abundance of resources, basically RAM that allows a programmer today to grab as huge a framework as he can, and just put in a few little things to master routine what somebody else wrote rather than writing their own programs and getting the job done. I think a purist would not program that way, and there are a few examples. On Macintoshes when I buy shareware occasionally it's tiny, it could have been a big programs but its only 47K, which was also a huge program back when we started. So I think the real strongest purists would force themselves to adhere to it.

In my own case I really when I didn't have money. I couldn't even afford an assembler to type my assembly language programs into. So I wrote them on paper and then I wrote down the ones an zeroes they would get translated to by an assembler. Nobody's done that, except in the early days of computers. Or when you're trying to develop a brand new computer and you need a blue scraper team. So I wrote these couple of hundred pages all by hand. It's hard to imagine, but it brings you closer, more intimate with the code that you are writing. It becomes a part of yourself. And you have to understand it so deeply that it is very good for an engineers not to have as many bugs.

Hartogsohn: So vast software possibilities and computing powers degenerated programming?

Wozniak: Sure, but you can't totally say it's wrong. Because for example I had to design a lot of circuitry that put out NTSC video, but now you can buy a chip, one chip, and plug in where you want the colors, and it puts out the video. Why would you bother having 10 chips do the work when you could just buy one, already made. Sometimes simplicity just goes: the world is right here, I just have to do a much less part myself. And that in it's own form is simplicity even though the end result may wind up being monstrous.

Hartogsohn: Let's get back to the eighties. Do you think that had Apple done a few things differently than it could have the power that Microsoft today holds in the operating system world?

Wozniak: I wonder, but it doesn't feel right and proper to look at the past as though as if we had made a different decision we could have owned the world. It might just be that the Macintosh was unfortunately was too early, 5 years too early, before the cost of resources could have justified it.

Apple was pushing out a new technology that was too expensive to do the full job well and especially the problem of software angles. Microsoft had all the software that the burgeoning business market needed and we were leaving that to our apple 3. So we really just pitted the apple III against IBM, and the Macintosh into other people's needs. And maybe we hoped for the right kind of software. The PC's had [Lotus] 1-2-3 and it was just a solid community built around that.

So maybe we should have saved our dollars, fought it out, had more software from the start, or put our resources into the apple 2 in a way that we could make the Macintosh low cost and then the market for it would be used. We diverted a whole company for a market that was gong to be small for 5 to 10 years. And by the time that market got large, Microsoft had an easier play to make. They build a base of fans and those fans just stuck with the hardware. If we had built the Macintosh in the year when we could have sold it for 1200 dollars or 1800 dollars, but we build it when we could sell it for 3,000 dollars. It was so expensive for a tiny little black and white screen. we had to give up so many features to get it out on the year that we did, and if we had waited just 5 years we could have had a very soft transition to the GUI world. I think jumping the gun was probably the biggest error with the Macintosh, not something technical. The pricing, people talk about the pricing, but that's just a factor of jumping the gun.

Hartogsohn: I've read somewhere that you have been doing some teaching and working with children?

Wozniak: I've wanted my whole life to work with 5th graders. And then I started teaching 5th grade in 1992 maybe. And then I taught higher grades, and then I taught teachers too. And I kept the press out of it. Just something I wanted to do. One on one.

Hartogsohn: Do you feel that all people or all children can learn to program, or is that something that only a select few are able to do?

Wozniak: I think that you have to be in the age where your mind can adapt to algebra before you can learn to program correctly and well. And that's 7th grade. And I do think it can be taught to all. It just teaches mental rigor of getting things right, of building large projects out of small. It's an excellent category of life but we'll never really teach it very much in our schools because nobody really wants to rock the boat and change the status quo. So we are just going to have just as many hours in the class learning the same history, the same mathematics, the same English or writing skills as we have in the past and there is no extra room in school for something like computer science, for programming, it will only be taught to a few.

Hartogsohn: How do you think is a good way to teach programming to children or people who have no knowledge about this world. How do you think is a good way to start with them?

Wozniak: I don't know a good way today. I am sure they exist. I know in my time I'd look for a programming language. I didn't teach 5th graders to program, I've waited until they were 13 to program. I taught them when they were in the 5th grade how to make their homework look good and proper, and take care of a computer and everything. For programming I used the language we had at apple called Hypertalk where you could type in programming statements and instantly something would appear on your screen in a window, or instantly something would appear on a menu. And it is immediate feedback that helps learn programming. The language logo has that feature but logo is a very restrictive language. You can only go so far with logo programs.

And I also only picked examples that would be fun for the kids, I didn't have a book on programming. I taught it and everyday we'd practice a few of those steps. And then we'd right our own programs to sort numbers or play Tic-Tac-To. I'd look for fun games, fun results, or have little men animated walking across the screen. Whatever it was that someway they could feel they have done something unusual. Now days this is common, but back when I did it, this was so uncommon that the kids were just in awe to see the ability of themselves on a computer.

Hartogsohn: I understand that you still work in apple

Wozniak: Oh no, I am an employee but I really don't work

Hartogsohn: Sounds like the best kind of job.

Wozniak: I just do it to stay on the computer. The only work I do is I consult with Steve Jobs over the phone or via email, once in a while, on some products and directions of the company.

Hartogsohn: So what do you think about the direction Apple has taken? It seems like the direction is shifting towards more portable machines like iPod or iPhones

Wozniak: I think apple discovered almost unexpectedly what a huge market the iPod was. Finally apple had a great product that really reached the masses and not the Macintosh small percentage community and I think it opened a lot of eyes at apple to some great huge dollar rewards for doing good products in the consumer electronics sphere that don't apply to Macintosh only.

It's the first time apple stepped out of the Macintosh only realm of things very well. They had tried to do printers, but they just hadn't really done it well. So I think the iPod was a very good lesson for apple and the iPhone would follow and basically expand apple into more than one business at the same time, which is very healthy financially. Not just for the revenue within, but also if one product line is doing poorly due to competition or whatever the other one is there.

Hartogsohn: How do you see the future of computers and personal computing in the next years?

Wozniak: I think it is going to continue pretty much as it is. I think the main user interface is still going to be a keyboard and a video type display. I don't have a mysterious sense that says we're going to have many different categories for things that we're going to be doing that are different from what we do today. I don't know what they are.

People often speak about doing the same things better or in a different form factor. I could imagine a flexible display making a globe in the shape of Google earth but I don't really expect it. I do wish that the computer would become reliable and do what you want when you want it to, with less effort on your part to remember how to get things done. And it's pretty unlikely that's going to happen. It's basically Macintosh and windows, and each one of them is a monopoly in their own way. There really isn't the incentive to have new features that kind of work the way a human mind works.

It used to be the Macintosh got a very good reputation for making everything very visible and obvious and now I try to use GarageBand and some of the most important aspects are little hidden icons down below somewhere. Can't even find them on the menu. It's very difficult. You want the world to be simple and really you're told: once you learn it then you know where it is, so it really doesn't have to be simple. But that is what put us in business with the Macintosh. Computing should be much more intuitive, if you remember the early Macintosh we had Mac paint and Mac draw with little icons on the side and it all made sense – a bucket, an eraser, a square, some colors. It was all real obvious and right in front of your eyes all the time. And I am one of those people that likes that kind of world, but now days it's very difficult to realize – oh yeah, there's a plus sign somewhere, oh yeah and that and that will make a new entry. Or provide some of the other commands in menus. I believe in the early Macintosh dreams of people that came with these concepts of how computers would really work as more of a friend side by side with the user. I still believe in those dreams.