As the inventor of the Apple I and Apple II, along with Apple’s original software, Steve Wozniak is a living legend. Legendary, too, is his complicated relationship with Apple (AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs, as well as the practical jokes that “Woz” played on colleagues in the headiest moments of the company’s formative years. This fall, Wozniak will publish his memoir, I Woz: How I Invented the Personal Computer and Had Fun Along the Way, written with tech journalist Gina Smith (Norton). BusinessWeek associate editor Hardy Green interviewed Wozniak on May 20 at the book industry’s annual extravaganza, BookExpo America, in Washington, D.C.
Your story, however fascinating, has been the subject of many previous books and articles. What prompted you to write a memoir now?
Parts of my story are well-known and parts are not well-known. A couple of times I’ve been asked to write a book and have not had the time, so I’ve had to return the money. Then, a little over a year ago, a friend asked if she could write my book. Now we’re in it together. So that guaranteed it would happen.
The amount of time spent was equal to that needed for two books. First, I would tell stories into a microphone, and then she would rewrite them. Then we had to redo everything all over again to put it back into my voice.
What is an example of a story you have included that is not well-known?
There’s the account of the TV jammer that I built during my first year in college. I was able to get students at the University of Colorado to move their bodies around thinking that was what they had to do to get better reception. One time, a guy left his hand on the middle of the screen and a foot on a chair for the last half-hour of Mission Impossible, thinking that was necessary to complete the ground loop.
I also describe how we’d work on projects for days at a time, going without sleep. But I found that I could come up with the clearest ideas in that sleepless state. For instance, I realized that color, if you could think of a way of doing it for no cost, might be good for computer games.
The exact date and time when the world changed is in the book. That took place back when I was working on the Apple I. Every previous computer had a panel that looked like an airplane cockpit. Every computer afterwards had a keyboard. That was the change.
Are there larger lessons that you have drawn about creativity and innovation?
That schools close us off from creative development. They do it because education has to be provided to everyone, and that means that government has to provide it, and that’s the problem. Also, we’ve trained kids in schools to only do things certain ways, not to get out of line, not to go off into other topics.
Every time you do something for the first time in your life, you’re going to do a better job than other people who have done it before. You’re aware of the most modern components. I was aware of the best chips that existed and used them for jobs for which they weren’t intended. Poor design is a result of people not wanting to work hard. By working very hard, you can make devices that operate more simply.
Then there’s the iPod. Its success is due to the fact that it’s a satellite to a computer: The computer has become absolutely central to our lives.
Do you feel that your past has at times been misrepresented?
Yes. The press tries to make it look like I’m at odds with Apple. They made it sound like I left Apple because I was mad. But I was leaving to start a company that made a remote control — and I really remained an employee of Apple, too. To this day, they try to bring up big conflicts between me and Steve Jobs. But we have never argued — there’s not one person that has ever seen us in an argument. We are different types of people, but I’m a non-conflict person.
Do you feel that Jobs ever ripped you off, perhaps in the case of the game Breakout that you invented and he claimed credit for with Atari?
He was more concerned about money. In the case of Breakout, all he had to do was ask me. I had a job at [Hewlett-Packard] (HPQ) and didn’t need the money. He was always into business, and I was into designing. And that’s not a good vs. bad thing.
Steve turned down doing the foreword for the book. But there’s nothing really bad about him in the book. He may have misinterpreted something.
This spring, you and former Apple CEO Gil Amelio formed Acquicor Technology, essentially a public venture capital fund. What’s the latest with that?
We went public in a short time frame and raised something like $200 million. For now, there’s a bunch of money sitting in a trust, and we have a time limit to make an acquisition deal with 80% of the money. The shareholders have to approve any acquisition.
Will the book help the new company, perhaps bringing you back in the public eye?
Not really. But maybe I will get asked questions on television about Acquicor. Someone might hear about the company and be interested. Our plan is to find some kind of troubled division, buy it, and make a big turnaround.
How do you regard the state of innovation in the computer industry?
The industry is so mature at this point that there just isn’t that much room for innovation. There are lots of little companies around, but they don’t get noticed. Apple kind of owns the movie program, the photo program. There’s a lot of feeling that instead of 50 companies making computers, maybe there should be only a dozen and only room for a couple of operating systems. So there aren’t so many areas that haven’t been swamped. Still, Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! (YHOO) are very innovative.
I gather that you have been involved some with teaching.
I taught a fifth-grade class, sixth through ninth graders in another class, and I taught teachers, all just in the local schools. It got to where I was teaching seven days a week. I’m looking forward to the day when a computer can be a teacher. We’re not there yet, since we haven’t yet conquered artificial intelligence. Once we’ve made a robot that can make a cup of coffee, then we’ve probably got enough artificial intelligence. Then we can have 30 teachers in a class of 30 kids, and the computers can go at different rates with different students.
Have you ever thought about why it was you, and not somebody else, who was able to invent so many things?
That’s what the book is all about. I took a lot of lucky, accidental directions, and they all converged on the Apple II computer, the greatest product of our time. I was in the right environment, Silicon Valley, I had a supportive father, I stumbled on to the right manuals — I stumbled into it so accidentally.
But you know in your heart when you’ve stumbled into the right thing and that this is what you want to do for the rest of your life. I did this for no other reason than a love and a passion, and I wanted to do it better than any other person.