Apple to the core

Steve Wozniak Steve Wozniak is the other Steve who founded Apple Computers in the 1970s. Although he no longer works for the company he spoke to BCS assistant editor Henry Tucker about Apple, professionalism, nerds, geeks and robots making coffee. This interview also appears in the ebook Leaders in Computing.

What are your thoughts about professionalism in IT?

Well there's a lot of cases where lack of professionalism arises and grows and doesn't get noticed, partly because a lot of the work in IT is strange and foreign.

It's almost like a language of its own and the normal people in the company, the executives and so on, can't understand the technical aspects.

Even if you're creating a web page it's easy to hack around, play around and get a job done but not really follow standards. In my case for example I didn't have a college degree yet but we started the company.

Apple has been going 30 years, looking back would you do anything differently if you had your time again?

Well I was the technician mainly, I was an engineer and there are a couple of things that I might have done differently but they are rather small things. I judge the work by quality and innovation and everything I did in the Apple days was A plus. I don't really feel that I had any places where I would do things differently.

How about since you left, are there things you would like them to have done differently?

Even when I was there Apple, other people, were doing things. It's questionable, but the trouble is you don't want to look back and say 'oh we should have gone a different way, we should have done this differently, we should have licensed so and so' because you can never really tell the results. Apple is such a strong and successful company as it is, it's difficult to poke a hole and say it would have been twice as large or ten times as large.

There was a time around ten years ago when Apple's fortunes weren't as good as they are now, did you ever imagine that it would come back quite so strongly?

No actually I am kind of surprised. I think it's delightful and largely it's based upon finding more than one industry, basically diversification.

The iPod has spawned so much else

Yeah and I think the iPhone is so excellent it's going to be the same.

One of the things with Apple is that it makes attractive devices and its been an important part of the company since day one and we did lose the way with this for a while. We were just making computers to satisfy the Macintosh re-buyers but we didn't have something you'd just say 'oh my god that's so compelling I have to have it.' That was the case of our early products. We got back to a lot of our early goals, values and culture.

What would you consider to be the most significant and ground breaking technological developments over the past 50 years?

Obviously personal computers, and cell phones, and flat panel displays.

What are your thoughts about the internet and global communication?

Actually yes, even back when we were starting Apple that was being done at a relative low cost for such things as wired teletype - text only. It was being done, but not on an available to everyone basis. But companies could buy into it and universities were doing that sort of thing.

In fact in our club, out of which Apple sprung, we pretty much talked about being able to quickly leave messages on a master bulletin board type computer and then thousands of people could read it at once.

Some of these concepts we had, we just had no idea how efficient and widespread the internet would wind up being. And that other things that we spend time on such as music, television, animations, videos, that those sort of things would be become part of the internet, we had no idea.

And are there any discoveries that you wish you had made?

Everything that Apple has done! The internet really sprung out of other things, early efforts to link universities such as ARPANET and that was one of my driving forces that really got me absolutely straight inline to building a computer. I had to have one these machines that could talk to computers far away.

In my world a lot of things were changed from analogue to digital - I wish I had been involved with DSP modems and then vector technology and others of that type, and I wish I had been involved in inventing modern LCD displays - but you can't do everything in life.

What can the industry do to improve its image and the way that it's portrayed in the media?

It's always been geeky and male orientated and there have been successful times for those sort of people. I think that IT doesn't necessarily have to be so geeky but it has become one of those areas.

I think it's because it's esoteric and it's not in the common realm that a lot of the people who are driven to be different - maybe they are social outsiders?

When they are young they are driven in that direction because it's something that they can understand and talk about, and it's strange and it's something that internally makes them feel validated and worthwhile.

Apple is obviously a cool brand, but then not everyone who works in IT can work for Apple.

That's right and even with Apple we seek the best whether its programmers, engineers that sort of people and sure we have an awful lot of people who would be called geeks.

But then is it a bad thing to be called a geek?

I would say that it's always been a bad thing. I don't know if it's the same in the UK but we have two words, nerd and geek. A nerd follows technology but a geek is almost a word that's negative and implies a bad look - it's like geeks from the circus - strange looking weird characters and it's partly true as well!

It's the sort of person who cares more about IT and technology and they don't do a good job socially, thinking about others. That one of the problems, the engineer doesn't do a good internal marketing job understanding the actual user of what they are working on.

I think the communication channels need to be improved always between not only the IT folks and customers of what they are doing, but between the IT folks and even the executives they are working for. It's very often easy to give an example in IT terminology that doesn't really make sense to a common person, they just sort of throw up their hands and say OK, just do what you need to do.

Although mostly the structure of a company and management is such that you still get a lot of the failures in IT. Products that we get that don't perform the way we would like them to or that have bugs or flaws or missing elements is largely because a manager didn't pay enough attention to testing and making sure that everything works absolutely right. More important they say 'it seems to work, lets ship it.'

Who would you say in the IT industry has inspired you most and has been a role model for you?

Obviously Steve Jobs, I worked closely with him. From day one I admired how important a person of his type is to the industry.

What's your relationship with Steve Jobs?

We're good friends, we don't go out and do things together - we have different lives. We've always been good friends, we've never had any arguments or fights.

What developments by other people in IT have impressed you lately?

A lot of the nano technology work is creating materials and molecules that are going to push the state of the art in terms of speed of chips, strength of materials, quality and low cost of displays, alternative materials that can be better adapted such as plastics that conduct and that sort of thing.

I think photonics is one of the big areas where you can put light switches on silicon, on the micro-scale, this can allow a lot faster processing without the great heat that we have today on chips.

I think that there's a lot of work that needs to be done in the area of artificial intelligence, getting closer to the job that a complete brain does for such things as robots of the future. So robots can be programmed to do normal tasks in the home. And we're not even close, we haven't taken any real steps ever, ever in artificial intelligence.

A robot that can make a cup of coffee will never happen. This is because we're so far from all of the different steps being applied. All the different disciplines being applied together that a robot can come into my house and make a cup of coffee.

One of the most important things that's missing is that a robot hasn't lived a human life of having used coffee makers, of having lived in houses, of having learned from experience. It's not the sort of thing you can just program a solution. You've got to program it to be like a human and humans learn by watching others and by making mistakes.

How do you feel about the way that IT is reported in the mainstream press?

I think that it's reported pretty honourably, like IT is a learned discipline akin to doctors, lawyers - it's a profession.

Do you see IT as an intrinsic part of business?

I think it's like you need a car, people who make cars are experts in that area and they are professional and sure it's just a tool or an enabler if you want to look at it like that way, but it's a part of life. Lawyers are on the whole paid more than IT people and that implies that they do it because they love it and that they are more ethical.

What do you think are the challenges facing the IT industry over the next few years?

Innovation and growth, computers haven't changed a lot in 50 years. I mean we still have a keyboard for input at some level and something we can see. Computers haven't really replaced, for example humans as a teacher.

Computers are a nice animated book, but somehow it doesn't walk up and notice your facial expression and tell if you're having a good day or a bad day, or ask you a couple of questions about your family, or know when to slow down and break just from the way that you face looks. So computers haven't really done the job that a human would do, in education that applies a lot.

It would be great if we could make one low cost computer a teacher and then every student can proceed at different paces. Every student could then easily say 'I want to learn subjects to the ultimate of professionalism, to the top level' and they can go at different speeds to my fellow students if I want to - but I'll get through it all and get the learning done in the end.

But you would need a computer that intrigues and pulls the student in, in the way a human would. I think this is possible and reachable but will take an awful lot of work in areas of AI.

We try to run artificial intelligence projects in university research environments where it's normally the size of the job one person can do. This one almost needs a hundred very intelligent people working well together to solve a lot of the different aspects of everything from understanding a lot about vision, and what it means and drawing conclusions about it.

You can't even go on Google yet and say 'find me a picture with a blue bowl.' But these are things that normal people would ask. You can find any web page that ever wrote the word blue bowl, but you can't pull it out of pictures, you can't pull it out of audio recordings yet, we have to take those kind of steps to understanding the human side of the world.

When you were working at Apple did you ever imagine that computers would be so all pervasive as they are now not only in business but also in the home?

It's hard to say, we spoke of it but we didn't realise, even after we started the company, we didn't realise that we would have music on a computer or a photograph, or a video - be able to store them or manipulate them.

Even in the latter 80s, when it was getting close to the point when 1MB of RAM was affordable, we didn't think that. We didn't look ahead and think this is going to be the tool for editing video.

A few of us were trying to get companies to go in that direction but it's very hard to see beyond a couple of years.

Mac or PC?

Mac. I always like to joke that I'm not very PC, that I don't like PC people, but that also means politically correct.

Geek or nerd?

I would call myself a nerd, and a bit when I was growing up I would say geek.

Smartphone, PDA or iPhone?

I love the iPhone. I threw away every PDA I ever had but that's largely because none of them lived up to Apple's original Newton message pad which operated more in the way that my brain works. I could think of something and write it with my own hands and the Newton would do it.

I could write 'Sarah, dentist Tuesday 2pm' anywhere and it would know that I am typing a command for a calendar and it would bring up the calendar and bring up the entry. I didn't have to think out a set of steps to do it. Whenever you've memorised a set of steps to get something done it's like you're a slave to other people's procedures.

How far away do you think we are from a different type of interface?

I think we're very close, for example a lot of the stuff on Google simulates what I just described. With Google calendar you can actually type in phrases - time and date and places and it figures it out for you. Of course you have to already be in the calendar mode.

[The iPhone] has a type of intuitiveness that is very human that we so often lose with technology and it just looks like the world we are used to on our normal computers. The gesturing with the hand actually becomes such fun.

Almost everything that Apple's done has really been based upon finding the normal human metaphors, the things we do in normal life, and applying that to computers. Right from calling a screen the desktop, because everyone already had a desktop, or shaping the mouse like a nice smooth stone that you might find in a creek. All these sort of aspects, right down to the shape and feel of an iPod compared to all the other music players that are around.

How would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as a brilliant engineer - number one. Also as a humanist who cared about other people, I did a lot of work in Cold War peace areas. I was a teacher but I hid it from the public. I had a goal in my head to teach ten year olds, and I'd had that goal since I was very, very young.

If you didn't work in IT what would you do?

I think I would have been a teacher. Since I was young I respected teachers, I felt they were very important, as low paid as they are. I might have been some kind of social worker.

If you could give one piece of careers advice what would it be?

Try to know inside what your internal passion is. The thing you would do if you had no pay and no job. What would you do that makes you feel good inside? And that's what you should do, you shouldn't follow a formula from others saying this is the way you should go and this should be your career path.

What gadget do you think you'll buy next?

I buy all the gadgets so I'm trying to think of what gadget I don't have. I buy more than I actually use as I like to play with them in my hands and come to my own conclusions about what's good and what's bad about it. And I don't even pre-rate Apple products as for-sure good, until I have them in my hands. Just because they are Apple is not enough to sell me.

If you don't like something would you tell Steve Jobs?

Yes but I told him more in the past and things would get fixed very quickly when I reported them. But every once in a while they would fix part of something but blow up another part of it. I'm more interested in fixing the little flaws in computers that are obnoxious and annoy people.

Computer companies like Apple and Microsoft are more about pushing forward with the new than fixing the old stuff to be more human and more intuitive - the way that GUI computers were supposed to make life. 

October 2007

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