Apple Cofounder Steve Wozniak on Smart Watches, Motivating Engineers, Siri, and More

Steve Wozniak, speaking at a Samsung event, admits that he once faked out tech historians

Two men seated in chairs on a stage are engaged in a conversation.
Photo: Tekla Perry
Samsung senior vice president Jim Elliott [left] talks with Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak at Samsung’s Tech Day in San Jose, Calif.
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In a fire hose of stories old and new, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak reminisced about staying up all night to design products at Apple, bragged about conquering computer games, and opined on AI, smart watches, and Siri. Speaking at Samsung’s annual Tech Day, Wozniak leapt from topic to topic, and ended with some astute advice for today’s corporations. The audience of Samsung employees, customers, analysts, and media hung onto every word, and burst into laughter when his frankness skewered tech companies—including host Samsung. (Wozniak’s talk was structured as an interview with Samsung senior vice president Jim Elliott, but Elliott could do little more than hang on for the ride.)

Some stories were familiar to me—and likely to anyone who has followed Wozniak’s career or read his 2007 book, iWoz. But some were new. A roundup:

On making computing history—and just making it up:

Sunday, 29 June 1975, has gone down in computing history as the day on which Steve Wozniak first showed Steve Jobs a working prototype of the Apple 1, and as the first time that someone typed a character on the keyboard of a personal computer and it appeared on a screen. That day, to quote the website The Cult of the Mac, was “the moment of conception not just for Apple, but for everything that followed, including the Mac, the iPhone, the iPad, and pretty much the entire world of consumer tech.”

That date has appeared in a number of origin stories about the company and the technology, so it’s not surprising that moderator Elliott asked Woz to reminisce about that day.

But the answer he got was not what he had anticipated. Said Wozniak, “You know I’m a prankster—I actually made up that date and just kept repeating it.”

The actual event, as he can best recall, happened weeks or months later.

On how the cost of computing changed his path:

Wozniak spent his freshman year of college at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “I loved that school,” he said. “I worked as a dishwasher in a dorm, so I had money to buy extra computer manuals; I could do what I wanted with my learning. In my programming class, I wrote programs to calculate tables from the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, like Fibonacci numbers, and would print them out. I printed out reams and reams of tables. Eventually, they cut me off. It turns out, I ran our class five times over its computing budget, about $50,000 in today’s dollars; some in the department said I should be billed for that. So I couldn’t go back.”

Wozniak spent his second year of college at De Anza College, a community college near his family’s home in California. There, he says, “a friend of mine worked in the computer department; he made a duplicate copy of the key so we could go in late at night.”

On one way to motivate an engineer—Vegas:

“We were having a staff meeting,” Wozniak recalled, “and I found out that Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack were going to be allowed into the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (for the first time). CES! I was a young engineer and had never seen Las Vegas. Mike Markkula [a critical investor and one-time CEO for Apple] said we were only going to send three people. I wasn’t on the list.

“I raised my hand at that staff meeting, which I hardly ever did, and said, if we have a floppy disk, can we show it?  They said yes. I spent two weeks doing it, day and night, I had never worked on disc hardware before. But I was thinking if I did this, I would get to go to Vegas! I made the disc controller with eight one-dollar chips—I looked at competitors’ [disc controllers] when I was done. They had a lot more chips, but my disc controller could do more.

“I had a great time in Las Vegas: I taught [Steve] Jobs how to play craps.”

On video games and high scores:

Back in the day of the Nintendo Gameboy, Wozniak recalled, you could get a photo of your high score published in Nintendo Power magazine if you took a photo of it (with a film camera), had the photo printed, and submitted it via snail mail. A Tetris fiend at the time, Wozniak says, “I was always at the top, and one day they said they wouldn’t print it anymore, they wanted newcomers. So when I took a picture of my newest score, and sent it in, I spelled my name backward as ‘Evets Kainzow’, put Saratoga, Calif., down as the city, then forgot I had sent it in. When I saw it in the magazine, I wondered, ‘Who is this guy at the top of the list?’ I got chills, when I saw that he lived nearby. Then I remembered doing it.”

In the arcade days, Wozniak said, his game of choice was Breakouta game he had originally built for Jobs, who was under contract to Atari. “I was a champion at Breakout,” he said, “I got to the point where I could almost turn the score over a million, but when you got there, it blew up the game.”

On AI:

The A is OK, said Wozniak, but “I don’t like intelligence. That implies thinking, and we don’t know a thing about how the brain is structured. Are computers going to be something to be feared, taking over from mankind? Not a prayer.”

On Siri, before and after Apple’s ownership:

Wozniak got his hands on early versions of Siri, and, he said, “I loved Siri for years. I could ask it: ‘What are the five largest lakes in California?' and get an answer. That’s hard to do any other way on the Internet. Then, Apple bought it and now, if you ask that, it gives you a list of lakeside real estate developers.”

On smart watches:

Wozniak is a notorious early adopter, waiting in line for the latest Apple product (even though he doesn’t have to do that to get one), and scooping up gadgets of all sorts wherever he can find them. Today, the smart watch is Wozniak’s favorite gadget; he’s recently moved on from the smartphone.

“I’ve got Apple Pay on the watch, boarding passes, movie tickets—everything is so easy!” he says. “I love the watch more than anything.”

He didn’t always feel this way about smart watches. Said Wozniak, “I bought the first Samsung Gear watch. That’s the only tech product I’ve bought in all these decades that I sent back after one day. I couldn’t get anything out of it except the time.”

On predicting the future:

“I’m the engineer, not the futurist,” said Wozniak. “I can predict what is going to be out next year because I’m working on it; I couldn’t predict two years ahead if I tried. When I was young and saw that Dick Tracy had a [communicating] watch, I was a ham radio operator so I knew you couldn’t build a radio in a watch—it would need vacuum tubes and all.”

On why every company needs a Chief Disruption Officer:

“Companies gotta keep the money machine rolling, that’s the CEO’s job. But they also need some inventor types around. And every company should have a Chief Disruption Officer, with a team, to look at what is going on in the world that could change things. And Chief Disruption Officers should not report to the CEO, who is worried about making money today; they should report straight to the boards.”

On getting back to his tech roots:

“I got sidetracked for 30 years in my life because of Apple’s success,” Wozniak said. “I loved following Apple, showing off what apps I had, little tricks. But that isn’t the life where you sit down, work on a program all night trying to make it work.”

So he recently bought a Raspberry Pi. Actually, a lot of Raspberry Pis. “I’m back to doing little projects. I’ve got my Open VPN on my Raspberry Pis. I have 100 Ethernet outlets in my house, and now I have a microwave link and use Raspberry Pi’s to connect my Ethernet,” he said (he lives in an area without broadband service). “I have them taking pictures when there is motion. It’s fun, fun, fun, doing project after project. That’s the Steve Wozniak I really am.”

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