Steve Wozniak: Lessons for NZ from Apple co-founder

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Steve Wozniak (L) in his 2006 Segway Polo tournament. He is playing against NZ tech entrepreneur Rod Drury (C) and Rodney Prescott. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steve Wozniak (L) in his 2006 Segway Polo tournament. He is playing against NZ tech entrepreneur Rod Drury (C) and Rodney Prescott. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Steve Wozniak, or Woz, teamed up with Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne to found Apple Computer in 1976.

Wozniak is bringing his Woz Live tour to New Zealand, hosting an event in Auckland on Monday.

He spoke to nzherald.co.nz from Melbourne, where he has been talking to Australian audiences about revolutionising corporate culture and how Apple has grown from two guys tinkering in a garage to one of the world's most powerful brands.

Steve, how are you feeling about coming over to New Zealand for the seminar next week?

I'm feeling great about it. The seminar is a very long deal for me - I like to go through all the Apple stories from the start up to today. And then I like to get into a lot of ideas on how to be innovative as a company, how to inspire innovation in a company and why it's so important

One of the themes of Woz Live tour is "Disruptive Innovation" - what does that mean?

Pretty much it means shocking revolutionary change. It could mean leap-frogging the steps of what other people are doing but usually it means going in a very different, new direction that is going to change the way that we get things done in our lives.

How many people have that sort of vision though?

Well, everybody likes to look for ideas to do things but only a few hit on the lucky strike. So, there is some element of luck but I think a lot of it is in personality. I think it's pretty well established that there are some people that are innovative.

You can read a book and you get all these great ideas and you're brilliant and you get great grades. But you've learnt what other people have done. You've learnt other people's ideas and really, to be innovative, you have to come up with your own ideas and do your own thinking.


A question from NZ Herald reader @JetVapour: What do you think of NZ's technology sector?

"I'm not too familiar with it. I mean, the people from New Zealand I've run into are just as up-to-date and knowledgeable about the technologies that are changing the world as anyone else and applying them. I don't even know where New Zealand will end up, probably ahead of the United States though!

Apple is a giant - what can Kiwi businesses or innovators hope to learn from it?

If you're running a company and you want to do something really great, you better think it out fully. Think out all the disciplines that are involved. In my seminars, I start describing all the legs that support Apple. They built up a complete working environment that works well for the people really only because they're in control of all the different parts that matter.

That means the applications, the operating systems, the online stores, the retail stores and that allows them to have a transparent iPhone that simply plugs in or, over wifi, simply synchronises itself and becomes a satellite of your computer.

That's not something you can plan out and implement in a year. You have to build a piece at a time and have a very thorough vision of where it might lead to and how it might support more ideas that you'll come up with, that you don't even have yet.

You've said that to be a success "you need to live and breathe your philosophy". What is your philosophy?

My philosophy is to believe that you can be right even if other people are saying 'no, that's not how it's done'. With something like a new technology, where you have different ideas to everyone else, those ideas can still be very, very good. It's kind of a counter-cultural notion.

What are some examples of ideas you've had over the years that people have called you nuts for?

Very often the best things I came up with over the years were because I didn't have money and couldn't just go out and buy a solution, so I had to build it. I was very qualified in science, engineering, putting pieces together and creating things but I didn't have preconceived notions about how 'this is how it's done'. But boy it was important to me to get it done.

Otherwise, I wouldn't have a computer if I hadn't done those things. So I had to go and write the book, rather than read the book. I had to come up with the method that would make it affordable, with very few parts and low-cost. It's extremely difficult to do something the first time. Once you've done it, everybody looks at it and says 'Oh my gosh, that's an easy thing to do'.

Do your ideas about innovation apply outside of the technology-sphere?

Absolutely. I'll finish my event on Monday by going through a list of guides of how to open yourself to innovative thinking.

Where do you see Apple heading without Steve Jobs?

Apple is on a very good course and it's a course built upon what it already has. In other words, it builds pieces that fit in very nicely to a large existing structure. Apple isn't just out there competing with the world, looking for a fresh new piece with no other elements to it. Kind of like the way I used to design and be innovative.

I'd look for a way to make a part that was put into a device doing one job, make it do a second one at the same time and get two for one. And I don't see that changing with Apple at all because it's such a huge structure with all these pieces that work together from the iTunes store, to the iTunes application, to the operating system, to the hardware, to the retail stores, to the iPods, to the iPhone.....they all funnel their data perfectly and work together. And if you took one of those pieces away you wouldn't have the world that Apple has.

So you don't see big changes coming with Tim Cook at the helm?

No I don't because the strength of Apple is not just in its management, although if Apple made lousy products that weren't great, they'd disappear. The reason they'd disappear is because the customer-base knows what Apple quality is. It's a level that's a little above any other company. And it has to live up to that bar.

I read something you said in the Sydney seminar that Apple should become more open and transparent about its architecture...could you elaborate?

You know what, I would like it if Apple experimented with openness but my bottom line, which wasn't reported, is that Apple's products are so great that if we had to risk having that great a product to be open, then no, I'd much rather have the great product.

So, that's the bottom line. But I still think that Apple could experiment on being a little more open. I don't know , maybe it's just a revenue model that doesn't work. But that's not where I come from - I come from good technology that helps people.

I know you're not a fan of the rumour-mill, but what are your thoughts on the Apple TV?

I know nothing about it and if I did, I wouldn't tell you. But if Apple has a TV, I'm pretty sure I'm going to buy it. I would love to see what makes it so special. If it's a big glorified iPad I might take my time but my next television would be an Apple.

I've heard that you're first in line to by new Apple products. Is that true?

That is true and it's sort of a celebration thing. It's not like something I have to do - I order it ahead of time anyway. But it's a kind of celebration in my life because it's an important thing.

You're 61 now - do you still have the same energy as you did back in the 1970s when you kicked things off?

I'm surprised - everywhere I go I have a ton of energy. Back in the '70s I didn't want to sleep as much. I like to have a little bit more rest time now. But I'm so busy. I think I'm actually busier now because of the heavy travel schedule, especially since Steve Jobs' death, I'm very popular as a speaker. But also, the internet has killed me! The amount of email and Facebook and news reading I do per day sitting at a terminal, that's a very big change and I don't have the time left for my first love in life, to be a real designer and engineer, really creating things from nothing.

Another reader, Mike Scott, asked what your least favourite gadget is?

I get rid of the lousy ones so fast. In the last couple of years I had a phone called the Thunderbolt and that was probably the worst of the batch. It turned me off. I don't think I've touched another HTC product since. I'm sorry but I want something that works like a polite human being would work with you.

And your favourite?

My favourite is my iPhone 4, although I'm more dependent on my computer. I still like to sit down at the keyboard and use the Macbook Pro wherever I go.

But I tell you, I buy every little gadget there is that I can afford. I try every little button on them and get my opinions on them. And I speak openly about what I find. I'm a gadget guy. I travel with about ten cellular devices in my backpack and it's the only way. I believe in self-experimentation. I don't like to read reviews. They give you a good idea of whether something's so lousy that you won't touch it or something so great you've got to try it. I try a lot of them and I come up with my own opinions and then I find another one and I have something to compare it to.

Another reader @matchavez asked if is a fact that you don't have broadband at home?

That is true. I define broadband as what the US Government said - four megabytes per second which is enough to watch an iTunes movie as you download it. I do not have that because Broadband is a monopoly which has never ever been addressed in our country since the start of the internet. I live one kilometre out of town, I'm up a hill with a lot of other houses but oh my gosh, we only have one set of copper wires that can carry the signal and they can't carry a good broadband.

Mark Darbyshire asked if you think technology is being held back by issues such as Digital Rights Management (DRM)?

Wow. I don't know. I don't know how to discuss the pluses and minuses of that. I'm not for or against it. I think it gets in the user's way, more than it gets in the way of someone trying to develop technology and bring it to you.

One company might have digital rights management so a song will only work on their product. But gosh! Why can't I take my song with me on whichever phone I'm carrying? That doesn't sound like I own things anymore. Somebody else sort of took the ownership.

Obviously you get asked a lot about Apple but what are you working on personally these days.

I'm actually way too busy to be doing that kind of engineering work but I have some ideas in my head and some projects I want to work on. And I'm hoping to work on them with my company Fusion-io that is dear to my heart, as Hewlett-Packard and Apple are.

It's really to further the efficiency and performance of the big computers in the data centres that run the internet, for starters. Or to bring the power of the super-computer into the home. But my style would be working in very different directions than other people are going. Don't go with something that may have been spotted on the horizon. Try something that's so different it may never work. And sometimes it doesn't.

Where did that kind of inspiration come from for you when you were only a student?

Well, I had a life before university where I was building my own projects. I got to a point in high school where I could design just about any computer out of good chips in about two days. I could do good designs. My designs got better and better and better. I constantly worked on them but I never thought I'd have a job building computers or designing them. I wanted one of my own someday, somehow. So, I had this whole background and that's what I'm talking about in my speeches. I describe the whole background that led right up to the Apple computers.

Did you know what you had with Steve Jobs in the beginning was special?

I had a belief that this was a revolution, a disruptive revolution, that we were going to change the way people lived their lives in the home and it was just going to get rid of typewriters and use computers.

How are you feeling about a trip back to NZ and what plans have you got outside the seminar?

I've been over to New Zealand many, many times, much more than Australia. It was a long time ago I was selected to be patron of the Wellington Apple Users Group and I would fly over around Christmas time and give speeches and meet the people. I saw the South Island and the tourist stuff in the North Island.

Plus we had the first ever international Segway polo tournament in New Zealand which was New Zealand versus my team.

I heard that you were quite a fearsome competitor on the Segway?

Well, over time we developed more strategy and it was less about being fearsome. And I kind of dropped in the ranks.

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