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Meet the Wizard of Woz: Apple Genius, Philanthropist, Dancer

Steve Wozniak talks about what he's been up to since Apple, his (non) use of social media, philanthropy, favorite teachers at Homestead, and how he got on Dancing with the Stars.

The inventor of the personal computer, Steve Wozniak—simply known as The “Woz”—isn’t a social media monger but likes to be found, spent eight years volunteering as a teacher in the Los Gatos school district, and answers his own phone himself no matter who’s calling. Oh, and he’s a dancer, too.

He’s 61, is said to have a net worth of $100 million, lives in Los Gatos and graduated from Homestead High School. He spoke at length over the phone with Patch. Below is part of the interview—learn more about Woz and his relationship with Steve Jobs in another Patch article, "Q&A with Woz: Apple’s Other Steve."

Patch: I wouldn’t have been able to find you without the help of Twitter and Foursquare. Tell me about why you use Foursquare.  

Wozniak: Basically, I want to be accessible so I'm never hiding out. Like, I've always had a philosophy not to have unlisted numbers. So I never try to hide things like contact information, email, whatever. If it comes to a point that it…doesn't let me live my life then I'd have to give it up.

I don't have time for Facebook or social media, because I go through hours and hours of normal email process all day with my friends or getting business done and answering people... I don’t have time to go out and browse and even learn how to use the social media efficiently. Of course, I get 200 emails a day at least that quickly take me into Facebook to answer somebody's question or to see what they wrote, but I don't really use it.

Foursquare's the only source of media I really use. I have a life where I’m constantly moving around and traveling these years. It hasn't always been like that, so the places I go to show a little bit of interest in who I am. I've never taken the time to set up a blog. I don’t go out and try to get fans or anything. I don’t go out and try to be a celebrity who wants to build a basis for themselves.  I just basically answer the phone. That's the guy who I am.

Foursquare lets people see what I do and where I am...Foursquare's the best if I remember to check into places—I remember about half the time—then my wife can sort of see "Oh, here's where he's been today," or my close friends [can say] "Here’s where you are." And I really like the ability that fans sometimes see that I’m in a certain restaurant and come by and bring a book to get signed or whatever…so it's very good, anyway, that you sorta got a hold of me.

That's great because I want that to be always possible for everyone.

Patch: What do you consider your legacy as a part of Apple—or in your own ventures?

Wozniak: Well, I’m already getting a legacy as sort of the inventor of the personal computer. Which is actually true, and people who read my book, they think that’s such audacious claims.

You know, just building project after project after project leading up closer and closer to it, and you know doing things that had never been done. Being an outstanding engineer. Kind of like the scientist who stays in the laboratory.

Even when we started Apple I would not run a company. Money didn't matter to me; I didn't do it for money. I stayed in the laboratory, kept writing software, building new great devices, always interacting with the people who did these sort of things.

So I was kind of a laboratory scientist type guy. And I never wanted to run a company, never wanted to (duel) with people around, and push them. It was kind of like almost being too nice a guy.

I mean I gave all my money away to philanthropy, to museums in San Jose. When we went public, when Apple computer went public, I gave a lot of my own stock to employees so that they could make some of the money, rather than just a few people at the top making good money on the company. 

Patch: Are you saying you wouldn’t start your own company today?

Wozniak:  Oh I would. I love those starts. I love the experiences. Apple was so wonderful.

To think of new ideas and be able to build them…like, I had an idea to build the first universal remote control. Started a company here in Los Gatos, and we built it and it was a great product and a great experience.

And I started a company to build a GPS. Very simple, easy to use tracking, finding, notification devices... started a couple of other little companies, I financed a few friends' companies and went along with them.

I love the experience of three people, two people, five people, [when they] sit down and start throwing out ideas. Get ideas of what we can do that isn’t being done yet, and I love doing that.

And I’m with a company now, I wasn't with it when it first started, but I got involved in its earliest days.  And the reason was? They designed their products with the same philosophy I used when I designed products.

Ways to simplify things, and make them connect in (intermittent) ways that had never been done before, but that were really better for the user. And sometimes you fail when you do that, so I joined this company to help them get attention and get noticed for what they'd done, and the company was very successful and went public.

Patch: Is that Fusion IO?

Wozniak: Yeah. It grew as fast as Apple in the early days. Fusion IO is the leader in the world in what they do. And basically they're replacing big mechanical hard disks with tiny little chips.

Patch: And what advice would you give to young developers today? I know you said you feel Apple's a bit closed towards them.

Wozniak: I'm thinking of a kid like myself, maybe went to college, learned to use a few programming languages, maybe some Java stuff, some easy stuff.

Why can't they just pull out a computer and write a program to solve a puzzle that they saw in the newspaper this morning? Write a program that goes out searching the web and looking for keywords—that does something they thought of.

Why can’t they do it easily in their own language? They have to use one of these high up-front cost programming languages. Apple only allows one system.

The first thing I would recommend is learn to write apps for iPhone. Or, learn to write apps for any smartphone.

That's sort of where the future is...get into the business of writing useful apps for people, and yeah, yeah, yeah, I know there's 400,000 apps. You get one category of app [that] might have 500 that you have to choose from—which is the best? It's hard to get noticed.

Always try to do the absolute, most excellent job, think a step ahead, also try to think that people don’t want apps that help them solve a problem. They want the solution to a problem.

For example, right now say you're in a web browser and you can do a Google search to get a lot of answers [to questions] that you used to ask people, right? No, we don't want a search to a link that gets you to a answer: We want the answer.

Patch: What’s taking up most of your time these days?

Wozniak: Two things. One is occasional work appearances with my company, going to the big events, and also doing a lot of speaking around the world in different places.

I like entertainment...I don't watch TV, but I get to concerts...I take care of my dogs here at home, and I play Segway Polo.

Patch: And you were on Dancing with the Stars pretty recently, too!

Wozniak: Yup. Well, I answer my phone and I got a phone call and they said do you want to be on Dancing with the Stars and I said, what is that?

I don’t watch TV and I had no idea. No idea what it was. I don’t read any of these kind of celebrity news sites or anything, so it took them a year to talk me into it. At first you think, “Oh my god, there's so many dances,” so you know you're scared to death about the prospects. But it was a lot of fun. 

Patch: Who was your favorite teacher at Homestead High School?

Wozniak: Mr. [John] McMullen was a very important part of my life. He taught electronics, he taught [his] electronics program with equipment that was more than the local colleges had...he wrote his own course everyday and I always wanted to be a teacher someday in my life.

So when I was…a teacher in Los Gatos for eight years…I would write [the course] myself. Mr. McMullen was really an incredible teacher, he was very different from any of the others I ever had in my life.

He found ways for myself and even for a few other students in other classes through the years, to go outside of school and work at a company, or just go down and explore, and just use equipment in the company because they were too advanced for the stuff at school they were ready to get more experience than even the school provided.

So he went beyond the boundaries of the school, and rarely teachers do that. And I got to go down and learn how to program a computer at a company.

An English teacher…Mr. Simon, and he introduced us to this idea that songs had meaning; the idea that how you interpret poetry and things, and put meanings to them. And that really influenced us quite a bit.

Patch: Did your parents introduce you to electronics, or did you get into it on your own?

Wozniak: Well, my dad was an electrical engineer and we had little parts around the house and…whenever I did science fair projects he would suggest electronic ones and he would also teach me on a blackboard...only if I wanted to learn.

My two siblings didn't want to go that direction. They never got pushed, never got pushed to become electrical engineers or electrical anything. I was just the only one who decided I loved this stuff, that wanted to go that way.

Mark Weiss September 02, 2011 at 01:47 PM
He might be an interesting guy to get involved with the efforts to revive the Varsity Theatre.
Rebecca Sanders September 02, 2011 at 06:25 PM
Good Idea, Mark! Looks like he answers his own phone...

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