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May 98 Factory Floor

Volume Number: 14 (1998)
Issue Number: 5
Column Tag: From The Factory Floor

An Interview with Steve Wozniak

by Dave Mark ©1998 by Metrowerks, Inc., all rights reserved.

This month's column is particularly special to me. I had the distinct pleasure of getting the chance to interview Steve Wozniak (gee, do I need to mention that Steve is one of the founders of Apple?) In reading over Steve's comments, I was reminded of my early Mac days and of the reasons I fell in love with the Macintosh. Enjoy...

Dave: What is your current relationship with Apple?

Steve: I don't have any official involvement at Apple, although I am happy to represent the company in many appearances that I make. I spend a lot of time keeping up with the products first hand and have found that when you buy and maintain hundreds of computers over the years you get a lot better understanding of the customer issues than insiders have.

Dave: What do you think about Apple's future?

Steve: I worry about it as we all do. I think that the Macintosh is so good and popular that its sales will continue to carry the company for many years given a reasonable effort not to sell things for less than you build them. I think that we're in good management hands that way. I fret about the Macintosh future. It's getting harder and harder to find Macintosh drivers for the latest interesting hardware devices. For example, digital cameras and Fax machines with printing ability.

Since so much of the world is now saturated with computers it's very difficult to make a dent in the mass market, particularly the consumer market, with just a superior product. The choices have been made. Apple would have to have a keen sense for emerging technologies and markets (in the sense of a new group of users, not today's) to overturn the world. It's been about 15 years or more since we've had the #1 selling computer in the world. But look what happenned to IBM, who was far and away the leading computer company. PC computing turned the industry around. Perhaps a trend back to centralized systems (NC's) would give Apple another great chance.

Dave: What kind of computing hardware/software do you use?

Steve: I have been very staunchly Macintosh-based for ages, even in my office/school district servers. The sole PC that we use, to manage remote access equipment, is operated from our Macs via Timbuktu. Occassionally I make use of Virtual PC. My friends with Windows machines and NT servers have varied stories to tell from "it works all the time and I don't touch it" to "I touch it and it takes weeks to restore things."

I have been PowerBook based since the first one, a PowerBook 150 I think. When it came out, my life changed dramatically because of computers for the 3rd time, the first 2 times being the Apple I and the Apple II. Right now I have a PowerBook G3. I didn't find it noticably faster than my PowerBook 3400/240 for what I do, except for playing CD-Videos and QuickTime movies in full screen mode.

I find that you think quite a bit differently about what's important and what's good when you're main computer is your PowerBook, versus your desktop machine. Desktop-first users think differently about the PowerBook and don't need *as much* built in.

I refuse to sell one of my Duos, a 2300c, which always reminds me of the most delightful year and a half with that lightweight computer in laptop environments.

I keep a PowerBook 1400 at the ready with every imaginable cable for quickly connecting to and debugging network equipment (routers, radios, hubs, remote access devices, other Macs). I use this computer frequently. I copied my son, Jesse, and put 2 recordable CD's under the clear top, instead of one of the standard inserts or a custom printed one. It looks like 2 big eyeballs and is really cool and unique. I have an internal ethernet card, rather than using the more awkward PCMCIA approach. This is for quick Telnet hookups.

My desktop machine is an 8500 with a Newer MaxPower 275 MHz card, 1 GB of Ram, and a couple of 9 GB HD's (low profile). Also a Jaz 1 GB drive internal and a 12X Apple CD-Rom (instead of the slower one that used to be there). I have a Firewire/fast SCSI card in it but haven't yet edited video digitally from start to finish, as it gives me the ability to.

I think that the 8500 is the best Macintosh that Apple ever made. Before this, I would have said that it was the IIci. I like computers that go on in time, that stick around and are still usable. The 8500 is expandable more than some modern Macs. It will even be Rhapsody compatable (I'm holding my breath on this one). The 8500 has video in and out, always there, easy to use and get to. This was a big benefit in my classes as I didn't have to purchase and install 3rd party cards for multimedia projects.

I like discovering things that most Mac users wouldn't know when I have a lot of Ram. For instance, I put 256 MB in the first 8100's. I discovered that with that much Ram it wouldn't boot up on the supplied CD-Rom. Turns out that some driver code on the CD wouldn't work with more than 256 MB of Ram, and the computer had 8 MB on board. Apple engineers told me that they got that one corrected. With 1 GB of Ram, you discover that the few programs that wouldn't work with it were the few that you thought would. Apple's Memory Control Panel won't let you set a Ram Disk to larger than 256 MB. So you can't necessarily make an image of your favorite CD Rom game on a Ram Disk for speed. Also, Connectix's Virtual PC wouldn't work if your Ram Disk was greater than 128 MB due to sharing the address space. And Newer's MaxPower G3 card wouldn't work with 1 GB of Ram until they came out with version 1.3.1 of the software.

My children have the same computers as myself, with as much speed, Ram, HD and accessories. Kids learn faster and exceed our computer skills very quickly, so they SHOULD have the better computers in a family. My 10 year old Gary is quite involved with QuickTime videos and music and MP3s and recording CDs and uses both his PowerBook and his 8500 (or whatever other computer around the home, over the network) extensively in these recent pursuits. 15 year old Jesse primarily uses his 8500 and wants to expand his programming skills and write computer games. I hate to say it, but a PC may fit his needs in the future.

Dave: What do you think about Microsoft's relationship with Apple?

Steve: I see it more as a token and portrayed relationship. I don't feel that Microsoft invested money in Apple. They wanted a cheap way out of pending patent infringement issues. Buying stock isn't making a gift. We might ask whose stock they bought. Would it have been a lack of faith, or an attack, if instead they had sold a huge block of Apple stock?

I don't think that Apple's heritage is one where we'll confine ourselves to places in the market where Microsoft deems we won't bother them, one in which they are still in control because of their size.

I think that much Macintosh software needs to be rewritten in order to run on Rhapsody and keep the Macintosh faithful. Apple's greatest gain is if Microsoft does this with their key pieces.

Dave: Who was Apple's most effective leader? Did they ever have a chance to win the platform wars? If so, how should they have proceeded?

Steve: The goal from day one should have had more emotion and fight and less accounting in it. In the '80s it was easy to see that the rampant PC clones were a threat to Apple. If the Macintosh was so good and different, it should dominate the marketplace.

We were by then a software company, and the industry was driven by software. What apps worked how well was what really mattered. The Mac OS helped by keeping Mac apps more consistent and supportable and usable. The Finder was the first drag and drop app. People bought a Mac for the Mac software, not because we had better serial port connectors or a better HD. If you could afford it, you tended to buy the superior Mac OS.

But, we operated as though we were a great hardware company. We ran the business as though we were so good at making and selling hardware. But we had no way to measure it. If you really wanted to buy our software, the catch was that you could only buy our hardware. We always spoke of the advantages of the tight hardware/software synergy but it's easy to see, especially if you've been a heavy Mac customer, that 3rd parties did a much better job than Apple ever did at this. Too much lying to ourselves.

Let's say that we have an OS that's so good that it's worth $1B per year in profits. We spend $6B to manufacture computers and sell the product for $7B. The profit is all due to the software since that's all Mac buyers were really basing their decision on. But the company is way up the fortune 500 list. Egos are more satisfied. The alternative would be to license the software so that we make $1B per year without the risks and effort and hassle and overhead of manufacturing hardware. We're a smaller company, but the profits are the same.

The leaders of Apple were adamantly against licensing in the 80's. They spoke of how the Japanese (and others) licensed so much American ingenuity and made tons more off of it. The message was that the outsiders were ripping America off and therefore we must be losing. But that reasoning is faulty if you think about it. Suppose a California company writes an OS and sells (licenses) it for $100 a copy. An Oregon company buys it and builds a computer around it which sells for $3000. You could say that they had $3000 in revenues for a $100 licensing fee, but it's easy to figure out that nobody lost out and it's not a ripoff.

Politicians like to present issues in absolute fashion, as though there is an absolute choice between black and white, zero and one, licensing and not licensing. But there's generally shades of gray. In the case of licensing, you could say (could have said, that is) that Apple loses some sales and some profit for each competitive product sold. So we merely set our licensing fee to make up for this loss and our profits are unchanged. We just don't have to do all the work of making as much hardware. So what price to license the OS for should have been the issue. It's probably too late for this now.

Dave: What do you think about Apple's purchase of NeXT? What do you think of Be as an alternative?

Steve: In education it's less important what you teach and more important to motivate the students to learn. I think that the way to inspire and motivate the workers at Apple is to make them feel that they are creating their own product, that they are doing more than anyone else, that it has value, and to let them take risks. Perhaps the former workers were all pretty worthless, and could not be managed into creating great enough stuff themselves for a successful company. Buying NeXT communicated a message that we were not creating the future of Apple ourselves, but rather we were buying it.

Also, along the lines of inspiration and motivation, Steve Jobs is hard to perceive as a 'hero' at Apple. Even his stock selling and not being up front about it don't ring true in this regard. Is he saving Apple or saving NeXT?

Although Be was only a start and not as mature as NeXT, I think that Jean Louis might have been a popular addition to Apple and we could have felt like we were designing our next OS ourselves. But even he didn't seem to be acting in Apple's interests, more in his own. Still, it's 1998 and whose to say that many 3rd parties would have developed for it anyway?

We know that Rhapsody will run on PCs and Macs. Which group will be more important to Apple's future? Wouldn't it be strange if Apple became another of those companies that, for business reasons, doesn't care about the tiny Mac market share?

Dave: How should Apple proceed now? What do you think of Steve J's stewardship?

Steve: Steve Jobs doesn't use a Mac and won't because it's too crappy in his opinion. Perhaps this is the only sort of person that can take the necessary steps to guide Apple to profitability and future success. I think that there were still alternatives that would have been better for Macintosh owners. We could have taken a slower approach to a future OS and kept the value of a Macintosh purchase higher by devoting resources to developing drivers for recent PC hardware, to not leave Macintosh users out. This would have kept the price of Macintosh computers higher. We could have done this and still proceeded on Rhapsody or whatever.

We probably should have proceeded one or two years ago toward making the education market our prime directive. More than half of the Mac users in the world are in U.S. K-12 schools, and they were the most loyal users. Education is a rapidly growing market at present. It's better to make products for a growing market. We were in there but didn't take advantage of it. Education was poorly represented within Apple, and spoken of with disdain at the highest levels, but made all the money when and if the accounting were straight.

Dave: What do you think of Apple's current commitment to education?

Steve: I think that the commitment to the education dollars is high but that the commitment to education is low. That Rhapsody server/Mac (or NC) client is probably being targeted toward education. But Apple wasn't just a great computer company. We had become a great education company and were perfectly poised to take advantage of it. I was inspired by insiders that spoke of making Apple an Education Technology company, supplying the totol technology needs of any school. As the school districts grew up, and many are still growing in this way, the technology choices became more and more the purvue of MIS departments. They had good reason to cover some bases with PCs and NT servers in particular, even in Mac districts. If Apple had an education division that sold both platforms with Apple backing and branding, we would have been in a much better place to keep the sales connections going longer. Buy it all from one company.

So, we are for Macs in education, and Rhapsody in education, but we should be for education.

Dave: I know you are a big supporter of education. Why is this so important to you?

Steve: It started with my father telling me why education was so important. Plus an early teacher who made a difference. By 6th grade I had a ham radio license and I told my dad that I wanted to be an engineer like himself. But that my second choice was to be a 5th grade teacher. All my life this desire to teach, to teach the very young, stayed strong. I came close to completing my degree in psychology instead of EECS with this goal in mind. I regularly tutored over the years, all ages of students, and none of my students ever got less than an 'A'.

I also enjoyed interacting with the young, being a part of their lives. In 1974, before Apple, Steve Jobs had me take him down to apply for a job. It sounded so interesting that I applied too. I took a week's vacation from my engineering job at Hewlett Packard to dress up as the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter in a shopping center, for minimum wage. It was a fun and memorable week. I even got to meet and talk with some youngsters who recognized my shoes as being the same as the ones the Mad Hatter had!

Once I had kids in school, the local schools became a big part of my life. I had an ethical problem with donating computer labs but not giving of my own time, so I started teaching computers and gradually expanded my role in the district for many years. Eventually it became too time consuming a job so I worked with the district to gradually develope a computer support department.

Dave: What legacy remains of your time at Apple?

Steve: The greatest legacy is the feelings about Apple that people have, much of it due to past publicity of the company and its origins. To myself, engineering was the most demanding discipline imaginable. The stress near the brink of impossibility that a good designer, or programmer, has to endure to keep dozens or even hundreds of interconnected facets straight in the brain is not endurable forever. The greatest new technologies need strong young minds. They can go into management later. Although that seems easier to me, I'm sure that the very top managers have such mental stress too. But I was lucky to be able to basically retire and devote myself, to an unusual extent, to my family, the schools, keeping updated with technology, travelling, and other fun things with friends. My last engineering times were in designing some remote control products. I spent one week totally alone in a resort in Phoenix to complete some intricate microprocessor code to my own standards. Then I spent some more weeks alone in Maui trying the same thing for another microprocessor in the product. I came back determined to have a more restful life forever and hired someone else to write that code. I've never once regretted my decision.

Perhaps the usual situation is that someone in my position goes on to run a company or take a major role in it. My non-political and anti-political senses wouldn't let me do this. I wouldn't be good at it. I'd always be way way too soft. I can't make enemies and want everyone to be a friend. So, without this, it's easy to retire and enjoy life. As strange as it might sound, I'll be happy when my kids are grown and gone and I can retire to the Sierras to fish all day.

Dave: What is your fondest memory of your time at Apple?

Steve: I'd have to say that it was a miraculous month or two working on a floppy disk controller. The design was very tiny with chips being used in unusual and nonintended ways. I couldn't have done the amazing design if I'd known anything about disk controllers. When I was done, I knew that this piece of hardware must be missing something that an OS would need, even though it could read and write data on a disk. So I studied an existing floppy disk controller circuit with 50 chips, as compared to my 5 chips, and discovered that mine did ever more than the other one. I was now super excited and made up a somewhat phony excuse to work on the software/hardware of it for 2 weeks over Christmas vacation. Mike Markkula said that we could bring the floppy disk to Las Vegas for the first CES to include personal computers.

I'd never been out of California except for a year of college in Colorado. Randy Wiggington and I worked on the floppy disk controller over Christmas vacation, all alone at Apple. We worked Christmas day and New Year's day. We had it within hours of being done when it was time to catch the plane to Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, at our tiny booth (little more than a table) at the convention center, we worked all night to get the last bits done. We could type "Run Checkbook" and the Checkbook program would run. One would no longer have to wait a minute to read it off of casette tape. Walking around Las Vegas, Randy won $35 at Craps, although he was only 17.

At 6 AM we decided to make one backup of our good floppy. We would put the source in our one drive and read one track into Ram. Then put in the destination floppy and write the same track. We did this for 34 tracks and then realized that we'd copied the bad floppy onto the good one. It took us until 10 AM to fix that one.

Eventually, it became time to make a PC board for the floppy disk controller. By this time Apple was successful enough to have a company that designed our various PC boards, for printer controllers and the like. But, to my delight, they were currently busy with other jobs. This gave me the needed excuse to come in nights and lay out the PC board myself with mylar tape on acetate. I was in almost every night for a week until 2, 3, or 4 AM. I'd come into Apple about 10. At one staff meeting Steve Jobs jumped on me as though I was slacking off!

When I got the board finished it had something like 8 crossovers, holes connecting one side of the PC board to the other. I stared at it for a very long time thinking if there was some way to reduce this as close to zero as possible. I came to realize that if I ran a shift register chip from right to left instead of left to right, and changed a couple of gates, that I could lay out the board with only 5 crossovers. So I tore my layout apart and started from scratch (we were short of supplies to make a new one). It took a few nights to complete but was precious to me.

Some rewards in life are extrinsic and observable. Your salary, your job title, your clothing, your grades. But some are only inside. In this case I knew how much effort I'd gone to to make the PC board perfect, even though no customer would ever see it. It was an intrinsic award. So were the rewards of teaching myself to design computers in schools that never heard of a computer, where I couldn't share the worth of my designs with any other person. But each design, I knew that I'd accomplished something of value, as well as a human could. You don't need outer acknowledgement to know that you did something well.


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