Wizardry of Woz

He's still spreading the gospel of geek

by Clint Swett

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

23 May 2007

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, speaks to an audience at the Government Technology Conference at the Sacramento Convention Center, May 16, 2007, in Sacramento, California. (Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCT) 

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Steve Wozniak never questioned that his calling was science and electronics.

The 56-year-old co-founder of Apple Computer was weaned on Tom Swift books, and recalls being thrilled that Tom could develop a plasma field to trap space aliens.

He earned his ham radio license in sixth grade and later built massive projects for school science fairs. In high school during the 1960s, he was programming computers when that skill was more exotic than rocket science. The first time he saw the video game Pong, he says, “It changed my life.”

“Woz,” as he is sometimes known, gave a brief interview to The Sacramento Bee recently. What follows is an edited version of his remarks.

You talk about the importance of teaching math and science in schools. How can it be improved?
Some charter schools and private schools do a great job. But first you have to inspire the kids about math. But in (public) schools, it’s all about technique, and it doesn’t apply to kids’ real lives. Who really wants to know how long it takes two canoes to meet in a river? Maybe we should just teach (advanced) math well to only the few who really like it. Does everyone need to do calculus to get through life?

When you were teaching math and science, were you getting through to all the students?
One hundred percent of the kids I had responded, but I had the funds to buy myself safety. If I was trying to teach about sorting numbers and the kids didn’t get it, I would go home and agonize and then try something else the next day. A normal teacher who hasn’t gotten something across can’t go back and redo it with another approach. It’s all because of money. If you had six kids per teacher, then there would be that kind of flexibility. A teacher who really cares about learning can’t fail with that small a number.

You talk about the importance of simplicity in designing electronics products. What do you think has good simple design?
Apple (computers) were simpler in most cases than PCs, but that’s not universally true anymore. Some companies like (high-end stereo company) Bang & Olufsen try to hide all their technology so it looks simple. And the user interface on the iPod is so natural. That’s the way simplicity should be. You don’t need a million buttons for all its functions.

Do you have a lot of gadgets?
I love gadgets. I have a watch that’s run by vacuum tubes and a digital watch that displays the time in binary. I like to buy a lot of cellular phones and try them out, but I’m pretty frustrated by smart phones.

What kind of computers do you use?
I have an Apple G4 laptop, a Powerbook signed by (basketball star) Yao Ming and a 24-inch iMac.

Why do you think Apple has done so well since Steve Jobs returned (as chief executive in 1997)?
I think a lot of it was put in place by (Jobs’ predecessor) Gil Amelio. The iMac was already in the pipeline, they had hired (acclaimed designer) Jonathan Ive, and they cut down and reduced overhead. But Steve is the best promoter and he helped bring the faithful back and buy into the new products.

Do you ever have any contact with Steve Jobs?
I talk to Steve occasionally and might send him a comment by e-mail. Recently through a friend I put out a message wondering if there might be a place for me at Apple, maybe on the board of directors. But the response came back negative.

What are you doing these days?
I’m part of a new startup (Jazz Technologies) and may get involved in that full time. I have a lot of speaking engagements, I try to inspire kids in math, technology and science, and I’m working on taking a trip to the South Pole.

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