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What the other Steve has to say...

Date: September 2007
Author: Allan Cohen, Jay Rao and BI Staff
Published at:

· · · A. Cohen and J. Rao · Creating Great Products with Woz · · ·

Creating Great Products with Apple's Steve Wozniak, Inventor of the Personal Computer Professors Allan Cohen, Jay Rao and BI Staff. Used with friendly permission by Jay Rao.


2007 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of the Apple II, the first true personal computer. Because of his belief that everyone should be able to afford and use a computer, its creator, Steve Wozniak, pioneered an ingenious low-cost design that combined ease-of-use with valuable functionality. With its own monitor, a cassette for storing data and loading programs and eventually much more, this new computer for the first time allowed non-techies to use a real computer.

Babson Insight recently interviewed the Woz, as he is known, and asked him to go beyond the tale of the invention of the first user-friendly personal computer and tell us how the lessons he has learned can be applied today. He spoke on a range of subjects, including how to foster user-focused innovations and how to identify people who have the potential to produce great breakthroughs. He also shared his thoughts on the future of computing and several new technologies that may reshape our everyday life.


I. Mastering the Art of Innovation

Babson: Very early on you were convinced that people without any technical ability should be able to use computers. This was a very big change and meant that almost everything you designed had to be based on understanding a customer that did not yet exist. How did you do this?

Woz: In my mind I thought about younger people, those who have not been influenced by the world and how they approach problems and learn to solve things. They have not yet learned how things are supposed to work. When given something new they’re going to try to adapt by finding the easiest, most understandable set of steps to get things done. So test your products on young people, people who haven’t used these sorts of things before and find out what works best.

Babson: How do you know when you have created a great new product?

The key to creating great products is that they have to be easy to use. I look at the manual; the shorter your manual is, the fewer things you have to explain and the better you’ve done your job. That has been partly subverted today by the fact that many products have small manuals. But it’s largely a trick; we sort of say it’s alright to assume you know it all, or that you can figure it out. And if that doesn’t work, you can go to the bookstore and buy a 700-page book written by someone else.

Reaching that point of greatness is very, very hard. I would say to people, “Here’s a list of all the things the product has to do in the end, or here’s a list of all the methods it has to have.” Then you have to think through all the functions, the user steps and the possible solutions. Then ask, “How can we combine things to make it easier with fewer steps?” It takes an awful long time to think that out and do it well.

We’ve done that at Apple and in those few periods we really made things easy and changed the world.

Babson: Let’s talk about the innovation process. In your book, iWoz, you describe being methodical and logical, working your way through a problem step by step. You also talk about seeing a complete solution in a flash, without going through all those steps. Are those two very separate processes or do they sometimes go hand in hand in helping you innovate?

Woz: It’s hard to say. Those flashes seem to occur at points when you’re forcing the mind to focus strictly on the end goal, allowing nothing else to distract you and being motivated to do it better than other people have done it.

You’ll fall asleep thinking, “How can I shorten the code, is there a way that I can make it run faster; is there a way that I can design it with fewer components, a way to make it easier?” For me during my early high school days and on through Apple a lot of the solutions came to me while I was dreaming. I’d wake up with a solution in my head.

Babson: There seems to be a common theme in all your product development and design where you have an insight that causes you to make choices that create not just a technical advance, but also a product that is much easier for the user. Where does this focus on the user come from? Is it a conscious choice?

Woz: Yes, I think design and development should always be done from a point of view that believes the human being is worth more than the technology. You just have to have it in your head that you will apply a lot of effort to bend your hardware and create your software design so that the user has a nice easy flow in using this product. In this way it fits their life as they live it now. The opposite way is where someone decides to put in all the functionality in a way that causes the user to modify the way they do things. This difference is where the huge value is, at least for Apple.

Babson: Do you think that happened in you naturally, or was there something that caused you to crystallize on that approach?

Woz: I think it was just luck. In my own case, I believe it is well known that when Jeff Raskin sat down with Steve Jobs and me in our garage in the early Apple I days, he explained a lot of the thinking about making products simple. I admired him so much because he was saying, “This is what the academics are thinking in colleges, the professors who are thinking so far ahead on how this technology interacts with human beings.” That influenced me so much. But, in my own work, I was thinking, “I’m building a product for myself that has to be so good.” It had to be the best in the world, very simple, straightforward. I had this very good idea about architecture and components. Whether it’s the architecture of a house or the architecture of a computer, you should look at the pieces that are available and build it in a way that with very minimal steps and parts you wind up with just as good a solution as if you had many more parts.

It’s like building a house. You could build it out of southern yellow pine, which is wood that is a natural air conditioner. It can be 51 degrees hotter outside the house than in. The inside of the house will always be around 71 degrees, and the wood now is the frame of the house, so you don’t need insulation. It is also your air conditioner and your heater. Why build a house and then add the air conditioner and heater? Think it out from the start. That’s the way to be broad with engineering covering multiple disciplines. You know the materials that are available, you know the end solution that you want, and you just design it to be the most efficient way to get there. That’s the way I think about engineering.

Babson: You have said in your book and elsewhere that a lack of money and resources forced you to think differently. Because of this you had to find a better way of doing things than if you had been at a big company with a large budget. You built a prototype of a computer using a television set and store-bought components. Is having limited resources one of the keys to creating original designs?

Woz: It doesn’t mean being too sparse on resources, but it forced me to be a lot more efficient and absolutely led me to think of ways of building things that used very few parts. For example, when I was starting out, I could have never afforded an output device for a computer.

I was thinking about that output problem and, well, we have these TV’s, but TV’s didn’t even have video inputs back then. Nobody would build a device to talk to their own television, but I wanted to be able to see the instructions I was putting into the computer and have it show me the response, the output. So you know what I had to get? A Pong game. The game had input through the hand-held controller and you would see the output on the TV screen. I saw one and had to have it. It could work for my computer problem. So it forced me to think, “Is there any way I could I do this with my limited resources?” And basically, I had to build it.

Working this way I hit on a lot of good approaches and I was able to start from scratch – fresh. Everything I did, all the early Apple stuff, was on things I had never done before in my life. I studied the data sheets to see how they worked, figured out a real good solution, and my real good solution tended to be better than anyone had ever done before.

Companies can also foster thinking like this by creating challenges for their people. Before Apple, I worked at another company and a manager there would sometimes give us a little problem, such as, “Can you program this in the fewest steps?” It was a challenge to look for solutions that other people might not see. Some companies think we educate people only by sending them to Stanford. But they can foster inside learning with these little challenges by saying, “Hey, we’ll sponsor you with some resources, parts and tools, and we’ll challenge you to do this better.”

The education that led me to writing great software and making great hardware was not in schools. It was largely just little challenges throughout my life. In high school when I designed all those mini-computers over and over on paper, I had a rule of trying to beat myself and design it with fewer chips than last time.

Babson: You mentioned the word luck. Even where there are great people and processes, the element of luck also seems to come into play. What is your view on that?

Woz: My view on that is that markets can’t be predicted precisely. In my case, a lot of the time I worked at something I was very interested in working on and all of a sudden it became very valuable to the universe, such as the personal computer. It was just something I was going to be building that year in my life no matter what, and I’d been working toward that from the time I was 10-years-old. So it just turns out to be that valuable. That’s what I was going to do. Sometimes, you could build a device that is so incredible, but it doesn’t solve a need for the masses, and you don’t get recognized. Some products hit it bigger than others. You know, there were a lot of people looking for the formula, too, for a personal computer. I guess ours just turned out to be the right one.

II. Managing and Leading Invention

Babson: How do you know when you have a great innovative engineer, particularly if it’s early on?

Woz: Sometimes you can spot people who are going to be productive in an extremely creative way because they have some strong internal goal. When you watch and listen it is just so obvious they are passionate to solve something that nobody else has solved before, they want to find a better way to do it, but they don’t have the resources yet. These are the people that are just thinking very differently. They are usually excited and continually spouting a whole bunch of stuff about their subject and this intensity and energy tells you right away that they’re gifted in some sense.

Babson: How can you tell the difference between the people who are simply creative and those who are creative and able to produce something of great value?

Woz: I think you can tell the difference pretty quickly, but maybe not instantly. Some are just creative, like an artist doing things in a lot of new and different ways, but not all will come back to something real. The problem is that you can’t instantly separate the creative and productive from those who are merely creative, because sometimes the value of what they’ve done is not immediately seen. Every once in awhile they may stumble onto something that isn’t useful for their project, but can be built on by others, or used for an entirely different purpose.

Babson: In your book you talk about good engineers being creative and approaching work like sole practitioners, doing it all themselves like an artist. We deal a lot with corporate situations where the complexity of a problem requires the collaboration of several people. Do you see a way to foster collaboration for creativity and innovation?

Woz: I don’t think of it so much in terms of managing the people as how the company inspires them. One way to do this is to give people time to work on the things that interest them the most. Google does this formally. In my time at Hewlett-Packard they offered resources, such as parts from the stock room for your own designs, figuring that you are going to work hardest on the things you design yourself and these are the things that you’ll learn the most from, making you a better employee.

The trouble with creating innovation in larger corporations is the culture. There is a message that goes along with the company’s products that causes engineers to design and develop new products in a way that fits the existing products. This limits people’s thinking, yet the big breakthroughs come from people doing incredible things that don’t fit the culture.

Babson: Research and design has in many cases become too complex for one person. How do you get these inward-looking engineers to work with others who may have different skills?

Woz: The people who have specialized knowledge may simply understand how it has been done before. But someone who is very goal oriented and extremely skillful, (sort of like me), will take on a task they have never done before by just reading examples, or thinking through how people actually use the product. Working in this way they may write the new textbook on how to do it. When given the most modern tools, techniques and components, people like this are going to come out with probably a better solution than others do using the standard well-known way.

Some people might see this as breaking the rules, but good engineers don’t have to break the rules. They can use the same processes and by being very motivated and goal oriented, they are going to solve that problem no matter what it takes. So if they have to grab another person to do something they can’t, maybe write a piece of code, they’ll do it.

Babson: You’re saying that you can create ownership of a project by giving someone responsibility for both the detailed tasks and the broader project result, creating a passion that overcomes ego and makes people reach out to draw in others and their skills when needed?

Woz: Yes. The most important thing from the management point of view is to not tell people what they should be doing, or how they are going to do it, but instead to communicate a passion for the goal and its benefits. All the plans, facts and figures in the world that you may provide an engineer won’t result in anything if you can’t motivate them to want to get this thing done well. Then give them some freedom in the work to think up great ideas along the way.

Babson: You mentioned finding the right people; how do you find the right people, bring them along and encourage them?

Woz: The people you want for great innovative engineering are the young people, some of them may not have even attended college yet. They’re out there building a bunch of stuff on their own. They’ve looked at many examples and have taught themselves which parts to use to be more efficient, how to wire things, make their own PC boards and write their own software. So you have to look beyond just the campuses.

Often, they are not the sort of person who wants a corporate job; you know 9-5 jobs, they want a lot of freedom. They work best when the ideas are flowing, whether that’s dinner time or two in the morning. So freedom in their work is the key to drawing them in and allowing flexible hours is a big part of that.

Encouraging them is really just a matter of giving them important work and the resources to do it, along with the freedom to solve things in new ways.

Babson: Are you saying that we have to find people who are already involved in creating new solutions and then set up an environment that is encouraging and not too restricting?

Woz: Yes. One problem with this is that people who are already recognized for being creative have probably developed something that became a big success. So they’re already established and they’ll come at a high price. You have to find very creative people at lower levels. These are usually young people and they may be difficult to manage. So you have to give them responsibility and take some risks.

Babson: You just started a new business with some former Apple people. Are there specific characteristics that you look for when you are trying to find great technical people?

Woz: I look for someone who will explain what they have done before in terms of why it was so much better than what others had done. They should sound like they can’t live without solving these problems. It’s just what’s inside them; it’s their passion. You can hear it in the words they use and the excitement in their voice. They have trouble falling asleep because their mind is still on the problem. And when they do sleep, they dream about solutions, sometimes waking with new ideas they have to rush off and try. I remember that happened to me with the Apple I and II and other early Apple products. I’d fall asleep and wake up with a better way to make something work.

Babson: It sounds like you want people to describe more than just technology; you want to hear about the benefits to the user.

Woz: More than that. I want to hear what’s the greatness? What’s the excellence? And why is it important? You don’t even have to be able to understand the excellence they are describing, but you can feel how important it is to them. It’s this passion that made them do things that other people did not think of.

Babson: You mentioned passion and compared engineers to artists. Do those characteristics help you identify the people you would want on your projects?

Woz: You really can only spot that kind of excellence after the fact. You can look at their work and talk to them and understand exactly why they use a certain code sequence instead of some other method. No one else did it that way because no one else drove themselves that deep into the problem. The fact that they care about the excellence so deeply is, in a sense, what makes them an artist.

Babson: Is that why you say they work best when they’re alone?

Woz: The best part of working alone is that you have one mind, one mentality that will make a product extremely good. That one mind doesn’t have to be limited to a small part of the project and spend time interfacing with everyone else. They don’t have to be a strong personality because they are totally insulated and protected. That person can have skills in many disciplines and then reach out to others for additional knowledge on particular things.

Babson: At several points in your book you hint at being apprehensive toward marketing and marketing people. What problems do you see in the marketing function that collides with invention and innovation?

Woz: Engineers, marketers and managers all contribute in some way to the problem.

Many engineers are inside people. They do their jobs with a mental intensity that means they pretty much work alone. Some engineers have a difficult time communicating and are also wary of marketing people. But they would be a lot more effective if they had a better understanding of the process; such as the trade offs that have to be made in design and the selection of features based on their value.

Often a product’s greatness comes from the little ideas that engineers come up with as they are working through the design problems. But management creates a problem with this because they make the important decisions without leaving room for this.

Marketers like to work in a way that is opposite to this discovery process. They want to have a product completely defined with 50 pages covering every little detail before the engineering work starts. This doesn’t leave you any flexibility for new ideas that come up along the way. So marketing is also not very understanding of the critical engineering process.

Babson: One hallmark of your career is that you’ve created simply for the challenge, for the sake of making things better. You shared everything you created and didn’t seem concerned about patents. Do you see that things have changed today because of all the money in initial public offerings, stock options and venture capital? Do you think it has changed the craft or the process for the engineer inventors?

Woz: I do not. I do think that sometimes things have to be structured so that the engineer is allowed to be an engineer. You have to allow them to be the creative problem solver and get recognition for that. An engineer should not have to sacrifice their desire to do good things for the world. That doesn’t mean that you’re working for free. Being in a money-making operation is okay. It’s just that it shouldn’t change the sort of person you are, or the quality of your product and designs.

Babson: One of the challenges in business today is to retain great players. How do you keep good engineers and innovators? How do you compensate them, reward them and give them visibility?

Woz: I would have a policy like Hewlett-Packard had when I worked there, before starting Apple. They encouraged you to work on little inventions of your own, and you would get some financial support from the company to build them. The company benefits in two ways. You’re becoming better at designing things for the company because you’ll force yourself to learn ways to solve your own problems and you’ll carry the quality of this design work over to your work for the company. But also, if you come up with something that is worth a lot of money, there may be a spin-off and the company would get a good share of this new business. That kind of support policy can be implemented very openly at some companies. Stock rooms should be open for engineers so you can use the parts for your own designs. If this happens, and your mind can take flight, you’re going to love your company more.

III. A View of the Future

Babson: What’s the future of the personal computer as we see it today?

Woz: It’s going to be the primary technology device in our life for the foreseeable future and the long-term future. I guess we used a keyboard on a typewriter long before computers, but we are going to be using this keyboard-based machine basically forever. Even our programs, back in the early days of computers, got typed into something and popped up on a card. The only example of a program that didn’t get typed into something was the Apple II.

Babson: You mentioned that you think we’ll be interfacing with computers in the future using speech recognition.

Woz: I see some applications where speech recognition will work, but keyboards will not disappear. They’ll be your main storage information tool.

We talk about this a lot. I haven’t been too happy with any speech recognition I’ve seen; they all take a lot of correction steps. We’ve never really built a device that can hear like a human. It’s a huge change and we can’t really predict when some technology or formula may come out that works well.

For example if we’re all sitting in the same room right now I could talk and you’d understand what I am saying. We know where to direct our attention, and we sort of know that the syllables have a regular rhythm, so we can finish sentences in our head. If I begin a sentence by saying “Tomorrow I’m headed to Florida,” you’re already thinking that I’m going to say a place and that helps you get the word forward correct. Computers don’t yet know this. There is research going on for this, but we’ve never really combined the technology with the logic to create a full human ear.

Babson: In your book you describe walking into Xerox Park Research Lab in 1980 and having a eureka moment, seeing many gadgets instantly and realized what the future would be like. Are there any products, developments or technology you have come across lately that create those same eureka views of the future?

Woz: Yes, ideas just pop into my head and I think “This would be a fantastic product for the world.” Or I’ll see a new technology and maybe all of sudden I wake up and have an image of a use for it that’s really good. Sometimes I’m walking around and see other people’s technology and say “Wow! That’s really incredible.” The iPod is an example of that. But this doesn’t happen now as often as when I was younger. That is largely because I’ve gotten so occupied with my daily life. My routine is so full right now.

Babson: Are there any core technologies that you’ve been thinking about or seen that you find interesting?

Woz: Yes, absolutely: Photonics. Photonics are basically photon switching systems that can be imbedded in silicon. It still needs a lot of development. You can have extremely fast processing in the middle of a silicon chip without the heat issue. You can make chips that actually run 100 times faster than we have now, and then we can start approaching some of the needs of the future, such as making computers more like humans. With technology like this, we could make a computer that can be a teacher. A real human teacher can sense a child’s feeling by looking at the child’s facial expressions. A real teacher can sense the tone of the voice, can ask questions about the family, and can tell if something is on the child’s mind. Our education software to this day doesn’t do all of these human things.

Babson: What new things get you very excited?

Woz: I like things that other people largely don’t know about, but are very, very well run, very intriguing. One of them is from a specialty company kind of along the lines of Apple. Bang & Olufsen has a cell phone called the Serene cell phone and it doesn’t look like a phone in any way. It’s like a little fold-up clam shell with an odd shape. It’s soft rubber, with no display and no buttons. You can’t even tell it’s a camera phone because the camera lens is built into a hinge. You start to open the phone and a motor opens it up for you. The dial goes around in a circle, sort of reminding you of the old rotary dial phones. In the middle of the circle is the little scroll wheel on the user interface with the click buttons to operate through the menu system. The menu operates very much like the iPod and it’s just the most gorgeous phone in the world. It does all the things that a modern phone does. I love showing off products that have a lot of unique and different thinking and yet work so well. Everybody is amazed by it.

Babson: Here we are 30 years past the start of the PC revolution; if you were 20 again what would you do, how would you change computing?

Woz: I honestly don’t have the answer. Computing is pretty much in the right place, but I sure like portability and computers need to keep getting smaller.

I’ve got this little device that displays a little laser-created keyboard on any table surface. It doesn’t work well enough to use now, but what if eventually those three lasers were able to produce a full color display? I could carry this thing that is the size of a salt shaker in my pocket and it displays a full color keyboard in front of me on whatever surface I have, a table, paper, or whatever. Then I can touch-type using it. Eventually it could be a touch screen. Now that would be very nice. I could have the full computer, as full as today’s, minus the CD and DVD and carry it in my pocket. That would be interesting; having a strong, full computer that’s portable and not be limited to the tiny display of a cell phone.

Babson: What are you working on now? What drives your passion and enthusiasm? What might we see out of the Woz in the future?

Woz: Ever since my last son graduated from high school I’ve been really busy. I wrote a book. I’m on an exploration drive to the South Pole with a group of people including former astronaut Buzz Aldrin. And we have this new starter company where my role is not clear yet. It’s a chip-making company. I won’t be deciding what chips to make; I want a role that sort of defines what the technology will be.

There are so many ideas that I have, like many people, but if you stick with the ones that are pressing you, you can succeed. It doesn’t happen in just a couple of months, it usually takes me years, but almost all the strong goals in my life have come through eventually.


We owe a special thank you to Jim Watkinson, Tom Nutile and Gabriele Ricci for their enthusiasm and tireless work researching, planning and conducting this interview, as well as reviewing and editing this article.


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