A conversation with Steve Wozniak

Consumer Electronics IndustryScienceHewlett-Packard Co.Bill GatesEducationSchoolsApple Inc.

First of two parts

Though out of the spotlight since leaving Apple Computer Inc. in 1985, Steve Wozniak remains revered for his integral role in helping Steve Jobs establish the company in 1976. He is credited with single-handedly designing the Apple I and Apple II machines.

A native of San Jose, Calif., Wozniak was introduced to Jobs in the mid-1970s by a mutual friend, Bill Fernandez.

Wozniak, who had dropped out of the University of California at Berkeley to get a job, was five years older than Jobs, who was in high school. He later received his degree from Berkeley.

Since leaving Apple, Wozniak has dabbled in several unsuccessful technological ventures, such as a wireless universal TV remote control company called CL-9, while devoting much of his time to educational causes.

In January 2002, Wozniak announced the formation of a startup company, Wheels of Zeus, to design and build "new consumer electronics wireless products to help everyday people track everyday things." The company has yet to announce any products.

Wozniak, 52, was in Baltimore last week for the silver anniversary celebration of the Maryland Apple Corps. He received a standing ovation before beginning his remarks.

In an interview, Wozniak discussed Jobs, the first Apple and the 1999 cable television movie, "Pirates of Silicon Valley," which depicted the showdown between his colleague and Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates.

The Mac Experience will feature more excerpts next week.

How did you and Steve Jobs meet?

I think it was my second year of college. I finally got some parts from a company that I had worked for, so I could build a computer of my own design. It was the first computer that I had ever built in my life. It was a minimal one. It couldn't do much, but it had switches and lights and it ran.

We built it down in Bill Fernandez's garage. He lived down the street, a few streets down. And Bill introduced me to Steve. That's my recollection.

Steve thinks we met much earlier, but I don't think so. Bill said: "There's this guy you've got to meet, because he likes electronics and he pulls pranks. You two have so much in common." And we did.

What was Jobs like? Was he like how he was portrayed in "Pirates of Silicon Valley"?

He was very much like he was portrayed there. He was sort of a free-floating hippie who could go a lot of different ways. He ate a lot of nuts -- and walked around barefoot or in sandals. He could get a job at Atari as a technician-engineer who could take designs and finish them. And then he'd go out for a few months and work on spreads in Oregon, or go over to India, bathe in the Ganges River. Then he'd come back.

I was very much the opposite -- just real stable. A settled, middle-type person, feet on the ground, have a normal life and a family and a home.

Has he changed much over the years?

No. Those values are very much unchanged. But his head was always looking toward business. Always. Even in those days. The questions he would ask: "With this design, could you ever put a disk drive on it?" "Could you ever have multiple users on it, sharing it?"

It's funny that, way back in time, these little questions he was asking, they're things that he keeps making sure Apple does to this day.

What is your relationship now with Apple?

I get a small salary. I want to be an Apple employee forever, if I can. I don't know what the salary is, but it's real small. Whenever I'm in the press, it sorta represents Apple. And I have occasional phone calls to Steve Jobs; sometimes, we'll get together for lunch. He might ask me a few questions about what do I think about that, how are we doing here. I let him know what I really want or I'll list bugs in a new product.

But it's funny because, sometimes, I'll report something that's serious -- just not working -- like [a new drive] just doesn't work with Apple's new PowerBooks. And, sometimes, I get told: "Oh, you're wrong. No, everything works." And sometimes I'll get the top manager at Apple: "Oh, yeah, they work fine." They work fine if you've got some special set-up program, but not what Apple ships.

A whole bunch of other people find the same problem, eventually. So it's real, but I get told it's not. I don't have any special avenue. I never want to use Apple either, in a privileged way. I don't ever try to get products cheaply or free or anything. I buy at normal retail to be a normal person -- just to see what regular people go through.

Does Jobs trust your opinion?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. Sometimes, I don't really have a good understanding of something I'm being asked about -- and sometimes I do.

But, generally, yeah. What I want in some levels of Apple's products I'm sure matches what he already knows and feels, or research shows -- or, sometimes, maybe even inspires him.

Sometimes, he gives me a little credit, but I think he's just being nice. Like, I had done wireless classrooms long, long before 802.11b [a common wireless networking standard] -- way back when some early companies were doing it another way and it was real successful, and [Jobs] said it was one of the inspirations for Airport.

Many engineers often are astonished by your early achievements. For example, disk drives had been built with 50 chips, but you reduced it to five.

It was [an achievement] because I had never designed one or studied one or knew how they were built or what they did. I didn't know. So I just went out and said: "How can I build a short little circuit that can somehow put out a signal onto the disk-like tape -- a disk drive is like tape -- and somehow when it comes back, figure out what it is?"

So I just built a circuit that would do that. When I was done, there were so few chips, I knew that there was a lot more that you would have to put in to call yourself a disk controller. So, then, I studied the competitors' schematics -- and they did less than mine.

It seems you had an intuition of how to do it?

I had a real good fundamental [concept of] how do you construct -- if you know what you want to build -- a circuit, how do you take the components available and make it out of them.

I was extremely good at that. And I was good at it, because way back in high school -- when you couldn't ever get near a computer; you could never touch one -- I fell in love with designing computers.

I would design a mini-computer for Digital Equipment Corp. I would design one for Hewlett-Packard. My lines got better and better. Then, newer chips came out. They had two gates on a chip instead of one. So I started counting the number of chips that I used to measure myself. It was a game.

I never did this with any person -- no classes; nobody knew I did it. And I would always try to make my designs tighter and tighter. Then, I started finding tricks that no human would think of: If I use that chip over there, that could do a whole job and save three packages of gates. So, you cut three down to one.

When you built the Apple I, you had to offer it to H-P because you worked for them, right?

I don't know if most people would think that way, but I had this real strong ethical background that came from my father.

Even when we were building the Apple II, I wouldn't let us build a channel 3 transmitter [to send data signals to a television set] because I'd been a ham radio operator, and you protect the airwaves. You don't build transmitters.

So I went to Steve Jobs -- and he felt that if I designed it on my own, it's mine. But like I said, I don't know if everything I did belonged to H-P; it's my company for life, so I pitched it to them.

What would have happened if H-P had said, "We want this"?

It's odd because I never think about that. I never have, but I thought about it this morning.

My answer was, it would have come out all wrong. They did start a project up later -- and it was all wrong. I would have been happy to work on it, doing one little tiny piece of the job [that] I'd done already on the Apple I. Now, they had 15 people who were going to do everything I'd done on the Apple I. I would have done one little part of it -- and it still would have been a loser and as lousy as it was.

There were reasons a Hewlett-Packard product just couldn't be the bright, not-quite-finished, do-it-yourself-type thing that the Apple II was. It just couldn't have been a Hewlett-Packard product. It would have had to have been more complete, finished and expensive and restrictive in some ways.

Going back to the "Pirates of Silicon Valley," did you think it accurately reflected Apple's early days?

It's probably common among people like myself, but I don't like to read Apple stories or books or see shows.

Even "Pirates of Silicon Valley," I wasn't going to watch it at all. It was just going to be "another one of those" -- I don't ever pay attention to them. And they hadn't interviewed any of us, so I had no idea [how it would come out]. I have a little part in it. My wife wanted to watch it, so I had a bootleg tape a month before [it was televised] and I stuck it in.

I'll tell ya, right from the start, it caught me. The tear gas at Berkeley started the memories [laughs].

How realistic were the scenes -- like, in the end, where Steve Jobs confronts Bill Gates over the introduction of Windows?

The words aren't exactly the ones that were used, but the confrontation was the equivalent to what the significance of world events were.

How much of it really happened and how much was fictionalized?

Every one of the events happened. Every one of them. That's what shocked me. They didn't interview one person because they were afraid of legal [issues]. They just did it from research.

Every one of those events I can remember -- and if I wasn't there -- hearing about them. They were just portrayed with not the exact people that said the words and not the exact words that were said.

They had to reconstruct a scene that matched what had happened. Sometimes, they even got things out of date by a few years.

Next week: Apple's first computer and Windows.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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