Wheel-life games of Wizard of Woz

By Peter Nowak

Being mega-rich often results in the acquisition of some strange hobbies.

That's certainly the case for Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak - also known as "Woz", the "Wizard of Woz", or even "the other Steve".

Having made his fortune more than 20 years ago as the inventor of the Apple II computer, Wozniak spends a good portion of his time these days promoting the Segway - a two-wheeled, self-balancing gyroscopic scooter.

To that end, Wozniak was in Auckland this past weekend for a four-on-four polo tournament played on the scooters. But despite being heavily favoured, his American "Aftershocks" team only managed a draw with New Zealand's "Pole Blacks".

"We're analysing it every which way we can and we're absolutely convinced we had the slight win, but we were up against equal competition," Wozniak says.

"They're tough. We learned a lot and we're going to go back and have to work on strategies."

But fun and games weren't always on his mind. First and foremost, he's an engineer - and has been since a very young age.

At 11, he built his own ham radio station. At 13, he began designing his own computers. By university, he had met Steve Jobs and the two were building infamous "blue boxes", which allowed users to manipulate phone networks.

The duo formed Apple in 1976 and set about revolutionising the computer industry by selling inexpensive, fully assembled machines. By 1980, the company had gone public and the two Steves had struck it rich.

Jobs and Wozniak left Apple in 1985 after an internal power struggle. Jobs returned as chief executive in 1997 and has since led the company to new heights. But Wozniak has stayed away. His dealings with Apple are minor, he says, although he's still on the payroll "just out of loyalty".

Still, it's hard for Wozniak not to pay attention to Apple. With the runaway success of its iPod music players and its recent shift to Intel processors - a move no one would have dreamed of a few years ago - Apple is heading in some drastically new directions.

The change in processor, for one, is something Wozniak never imagined.

"It's like consorting with the enemy. We've had this long history of saying the enemy is the big black-hatted guys, and they kind of represent evil. We are different and by being different we're better," he says.

"All of sudden we're the same in this hardware regard, so it's a little hard to swallow your words."

The switch to Intel is a necessary one, he says. Apple had been looking for a way to improve performance and Intel seemed to be the way to go.

"I wish that Motorola had a brand new silicon process that would be applied forever, like IBM had copper to get higher speeds at lower power. Intel just did a very good logic design.

"If it wasn't needed, I would say we shouldn't do it. I still have some questions as to how much it's needed."

As for iPods, Wozniak has mixed feelings. The success of the devices has been fantastic for Apple, in that they have diversified a company previously dependent on one product. But they are distracting Apple from its focus, and the company may be better served by spinning off the business.

"We're a computer company, and we really think computers," he says.

The iPods have their own operating systems, software and processor, so "there's a different group working on it anyway".

Wozniak says when Apple had two successful computers in the eighties - the Apple II and the Macintosh - the two units were in separate buildings and didn't interact much.

Of course, the iPod's success has competitors drooling over taking away some of Apple's market share. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates recently vowed a rival MP3 player, but Wozniak doesn't appear concerned.

"If they do it, they better do it excellent, excellent, excellent, because the iPod sure is. Doing something weaker and somehow trying to use your size and market power ... that's just not good."

Steve Wozniak

* Favourite gadget: His vacuum tube watch. "It looks like one of the hugest watches ever, but I love it."
* Next big thing in tech: The next wave will be driven by broadband-enabling. "What's going to work and what's not going to work? What's going to come in and work, but then be replaced by something else?"
* Spare time: Hasn't had any in six months, but goes to see unknown singer/songwriters whenever he can.
* Alternative career: "No, I'd be an engineer for life."
* Favourite sci-fi movie: The Matrix.

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