Steve Wozniak Interview

  Matt Cone       November 28, 2011      Tutorials Apple

Editor’s Note: This “interview” was actually a series of questions that I emailed to Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, on December 31, 1999. While the rest of the world was ringing in the New Year or worrying about Y2K, Woz was typing up his responses. He responded about two hours after I emailed him!

If the questions seem a little odd, that’s because they are. I was a junior in high school at the time, and I had no idea how to conduct an interview, let alone what to ask one of the greats of the computing era. Anyway, this is still an interesting read - especially for educators and anyone interested in Apple’s cofounder.

Cone: Some people claim that Bill Gates will be given credit for creating the personal computer in the history books. What do you think about this and Microsoft in general?

Wozniak: That’s ridiculous. Bill did have an important part. In 1975 when I was in the Homebrew Computer Club and designing my computer, Bill’s BASIC brought a usable computer language to those technicians that could now afford a cheap Altair computer. Tons of games were the starting point for this revolution.

I’d spent a couple of important, earlier years of my life teaching myself to program a computer language in machine language, even though I never had access to a computer to even start debugging my programs. They were just written on paper, generally during college math classes and the like. I saw Bill Gates’ BASIC and decided that was the language for me to use on my ‘second’ computer, which became the Apple I (the first had been built a few years earlier). In the end, I spent a lot more time on this than on the hardware designs and other things.

Do note that I did all the hardware and software and keyboard control programs and BASIC and graphic programs and apps and demos and peripherals (cassette interface, printer interface and driver, serial interfaces and drivers, floppy controller and driver and boot code and OS kernel, and more). Bill Gates gave up engineering (programming) after one program and made all of Microsoft’s programs as a businessman, primarily ‘buying’ them.

Once in a while history credits the scientist or engineer over the businessman. Einstein is an example of this. But usually the measure is in terms of dollars and power and longevity in the business.

Cone: In an interview with MacAddict, you said that you hoped computers “would get simpler, but they always get more complex.” Do you still feel that way?

Wozniak: Yes. It’s hard to explain many functions and error messages. Even the words are very hard to understand. The basic simplicity and the sophicated features of powerful programs are hard to find, especially since menu and setup wording is not the best. More than almost anything else is the problem of having lots of interesting and fun and useful programs that don’t go well with the latest OS upgrades. It’s sometimes very hard for anyone but an expert to solve such problems. So the students wind up being slaves to the technology, less important in some respects than the administrators. For a while, when we started, things were reversed.

Cone: What would you do if you were 17 years old today?

Wozniak: I’d learn everything I could about computers that isn’t easily encountered in school. I’d try to write programs that aren’t in books just to figure out how to write them, using any books or references I could stumble onto. If the passion is strong enough, you learn no matter what.

Cone: What do you think about Steve Jobs being CEO again?

Wozniak: I think that he has a good head that does common sense things. Even his experiences away from Apple helped him see other important aspects of the world and markets.

Cone: I am a student representative on my high school’s technology committee. Based on your experience, what advice can you give to the committee and to teachers in general about computers in schools?

Wozniak: First, I’d advise you to have some clear ideas of what your purpose is and what you want to achieve. This should be in terms of what characteristics of the schools and students you want to promote. Let’s call it a mission statement. Educators and Administrators have to be included in forming this statement. It should have about a dozen or so key points (‘acedemic excellence’ might be one) and should be written. Perhaps your school already has a mission statement to work from. From that you can derive technical goals for your commitee. When questions arise (platforms, access, services) you can answer those questions (sometimes) by looking at your overall mission statement.

You may want to consider the aspect of plurality and of minority platforms. It may be important that mixtures of platform be elevated so as not to give students experience with only one. This may override other efficiencies, depending on your mission statement.

Cone: My school district is very worried about students going to porn sites. As a result, the security is so tight that students feel like they can’t even use the school’s computers. What do you think about this?

Wozniak: Personally, I believe that students learn more and faster when educated rather than restricted. But I believe that these things should be the choice of each individual parent. That generally leaves schools no choice, especially after parents complain. If all students have to log in then you could possibly ‘record’ access to such sites, using the protective server software, and report it to parents. A better approach might be to make a contract with the students that they are given more privileges than at most schools as long as they don’t do certain things. In my own classes, for example, I’ve always put out the goal of accessing other student’s computers over the network to have fun, even to mess up the computer a bit. But I make the deal that they can never touch another’s computer directly, only over the network, and that any changes can be undone easily. In 8 years my students have never violated this, but they do have a close relationship with me.

Cone: Can you tell us about “Dial-a-Joke” and some of your recent practical jokes?

Wozniak: Dial-a-Joke was a GREAT thing. I did it all alone, a little before Apple. I did a lot of great things back then. Dial-a-Joke was the first one in the San Francisco Bay area ever. It cost a lot because you couldn’t buy answering machines back then. You could only rent an expensive machine from the phone company.

I can’t even start on pranks. I still pull good ones all the time. This would be too long a story. Perhaps I’ll get to my book some day.

Cone: What is your favorite quote?

Wozniak: A family of five deserves five votes. It’s my own quote. Schools get funding from government. Government spending is in accordance with voting power. The kids that we are trying to help in schools don’t get counted in this money allocation method. In California (50th in class size, 43rd in $ per student, 47th in computers per student) we require 2/3 of the vote, not 1/2, to pass property tax overrides for a school district to get more funding, yet only 1/3 of the families have children in the schools. If a family of 5 had 5 votes, these override issues would pass with 67% a lot more. Now they often fail with 63% of the vote. It’s a shame.

If a family of five had five votes, schools would wind up with perhaps twice as much money and we’d have the great education that we say we want and that we are wealthy enough to afford. We’d have a lot fewer students fall through the cracks and be ’lost’ with unproductive lives. Class size is the biggest key to this.

Cone: Who has made the biggest impact on your life?

Wozniak: My father, followed by my high school electronics teacher who had the most excellent course and who arranged for me to program computers at a local company since our school had no computers. My father taught me electronics whenever I needed the knowledge and gave me strong ethical and educational values.

Cone: I helped someone visit their first website last week. It was almost as if this person was afraid of technology. Would you like to give this person any advice?

Wozniak: If the person has time, they can become an expert browser and advisor to others. It’s the future and they can be a leader, even with very little experience. Try not to have dissatisfying experiences at the start. Computer setups can be a total turnoff. I got my mom WebTV and all she does is push one button and is connected. She’s been on the internet and sending email every day since. I get jokes from her all the time. If you want to do it with a computer and you’re timid, please use an iMac or iBook. If you don’t want to get into ‘ISP’ get America Online, which comes pre-installed on all computers. It has a front end that helps you learn how to use this extensive world.

Cone: What kind of an impact have kids had on your life?

Wozniak: It was the greatest goal of my life to have kids and I am very lucky. The happiest and most important day of my life was the birth of my first son.

Cone: How would you like people to think of you 50 years from now?

Wozniak: That I was a great engineer and a free thinking person about my designs and that I cared about people too much to go for the politics of business.

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