He travels the world, dances on TV, tinkers with hardware—oh, and designed the Apple I & II personal computers. Steve Wozniak answers our questions and shares his hacker-ish means of getting things done.
In computer-loving circles, he’s one of those figures you say needs no introduction—and then go ahead and introduce anyways. He and Steve Jobs started the Apple Computer Company from a bedroom, and then a garage, and Wozniak himself put together first the Apple I, then the widely successful and iconic Apple II, the computer most of today’s programmers grew up tinkering with as students. He left Apple in 1987 to indulge his mind in high-tech startups, technology programs for schools, and other projects. Most recently, he’s been seen earnestly, if not successfully, on the US version of Dancing with the Stars, and functions as a sort of homebrew/Hackintosh hero at sites like our sibling Gizmodo.
Wozniak spoke with Lifehacker on the phone yesterday, and was nice enough to indulge our prodding into his productivity habits, thoughts on hardware and hacking, and advice for young entrepreneurs.
Lifehacker: What gadgets and software applications do you use on a day-to-day basis?
Steve Wozniak: I have such a crowded life and crowded schedule. When people send me a link with a gadget, I’ll look at it and buy it if it looks interesting, but I don’t have time to check out everything I’d like to.
I do have a Nixie Tube watch, which I get a lot of benefit from. The biggest benefit in my life comes from my Segway, which I use everywhere I am. If I’m going to San Antonio, for example, I’ll load it in the car and just go everywhere with it. The other crucial thing is my Verizon wireless card, which I have to have because hotel Wi-Fi is just so unreliable.
… I have one MacBook Pro, with a 17-inch screen. I got into that and consciously separated myself from having 3, 4, 5 computers in my life, which just became too much. As far as the mobile devices, I’ve gone through all the different smartphones, all the different gadgets. For a while I was using a Razr for voice and messing with mobile devices, but now I’m travelling with an iPhone and a BlackBerry. I don’t use them very much for email, though, unless I’m detained for a long, unexpected stretch. I save answering my email for when I’m going to be in front of my nice, comfortable keyboard.
Lifehacker: What are you using to manage your email?
Steve Wozniak: The most important thing I use is Eudora, and that’s discontinued.
Lifehacker: Seriously? Eudora?
Any feature in the menu list, any action there, can be added as a button. I changed it so I have a vertical menu bar, so I can have tons and tons of pre-made buttons saved right where I want them up top, and I learn where those place are. You can script actions to the buttons, too, so I can quickly copy messages to my assistants. There are scripts I wrote for joke lists so I can forward a message, remove the brackets and formatting, and make sure all the original attachments are included, to a pre-defined “joke” group. Apple’s Mail app just isn’t scriptable enough to really handle my mail buttons.
Some of the buttons will re-direct mail with quote marks, or not. I’ve got another script that will actually customise a mail forward, like my own version of mail merge. So even if something’s going out to 400 people, I can set it to single out certain people and take away all the forwarding markings, so it looks like I singled out someone to send them mail. Which is, I hope, a nice little moment for them. (Laughs)
Lifehacker: So it’s more important for you to have software that fits your specific email style than having the latest and greatest.
Steve Wozniak: I think that’s fair to say, although I’m also a fan with sticking with the most standard software that millions of other users also use, because you get the benefit of all those other users’ problems and solutions. I’m a fan both ways. I think you get a great set of programs with Apple’s systems, but from day one, I’ve wondered why they didn’t just have a standard API that lets you script anything from the menu bar into a button. Why isn’t it just built into the operating system?
You’ve said that email and RSS feeds are a big part of your day, but you also get overwhelmed by email, according to your site. How do you try and handle all your input?
I think that’s one of the reasons Twitter, and somewhat blogs, too, have become so appealing. I have a Twitter feed, but I rarely use it … a bit more, obviously, during Dancing with the Stars. But I don’t like to write little things. I like to write and explain things out …
… A long, long time ago, I made a long road trip to YellowStone, and I’d write to my friends and post updates, manually coding the HTML. I taught it to the kids in my classes, the HTML, then DreamWeaver, when that was coming out … Now that it’s so easy for the masses to do those kind of things, I’m moving away from it. That’s how it is for me.
Lifehacker: What’s your browser of choice?
Steve Wozniak: A few years ago, the people that I respected the most, the truest geeks, were using Firefox. Some sites that didn’t work for me in Safari did work for me in Firefox, so I started moving over, and I liked it. Then Safari started getting standardised, and working on more and more sites … I still keep Firefox around for when I need it, but I like to reduce, when I can, to the simplest tools that get me where I want to go, and that’s Safari right now.
Lifehacker: A lot of our readers want to know if you use Linux at all, and what you think about where it is today.
Steve Wozniak: I never got into Linux. I swear to God, it’s only lack of time. I’m past the years of my life where I can really dig into something like running a Linux system. I’m very sympathetic to the whole idea; Linux people always think the way I want to think.
Lifehacker: What can you tell us about your work with Fusion-io?
Lifehacker: You’ve said, or at least been attributed with the quote, “Never trust a computer you can’t throw out a window.”
Steve Wozniak: I’m not sure I said exactly that but, hey, I’ll take the attribution (laughs). I probably said something about a computer’s size, someone added that bit, and I said, “Yeah, that’s right.”
Lifehacker: Does that relate to how you see the future of server-based computer, “cloud computing”? Richard Stallman is certainly concerned about the privacy and security issues there.
Steve Wozniak: Well, I tend to agree with Stallman, but … I do think that it really is the end of the line. I don’t know if that’s good or bad for us, but it seems like the future direction.
Lifehacker: Is the future focus on servers part of why you’re working with Fusion-io?
Steve Wozniak: No, I’m with fusion-io because I’m more of a hardware guy. It’s a company that lets me have a close connection from hardware to firmware to drivers. What they’re doing is cutting out the “middle man” that gets in the ways of performance, and I’m very intrigued by that.
Lifehacker: We know you’re a fan of hacking in general, and Hackintoshes—or at least will sign a Dell Mini with OS X installed on it. A lot of our readers are, too. But I’m wondering if you think all the work that’s being done will eventually push companies to offer more open access to hardware and software, or if that kind of hacking will always be a 5 percent type of niche?
I think it will always be a 5 percent niche, and I think it’s always been. When we first started with Apple computers, it was my dream that everyone would learn to program, and that was how they’d use their computer. But, obviously, that’s not the way it turned out. That’s where I think we see the advantages of open-source software. I think it’s a great thing, and a lot of companies are using mySQL, open-source software, and, well, Linux, too, to make the software work exactly the way they need it to.
That kind of hacking is the centre of my heart, that’s who I am.
Lifehacker: Do you still have a jailbroken iPhone? What kind of apps, unofficial and official, are you using on it?
Steve Wozniak: I was into jailbreaking earlier on, but then it came time with the firmware revisions to undo it, redo it, redo it again, I got so tired of worrying about losing everything on my unofficial setup. I’ve probably got 100 apps I’ve looked at, but the one I use the most tells me what to tip in every country I’m in (iTip). I did make a Skype call the other day from my iPhone, but then I found out AT&T might not let that onto their network, so we’ll see.
Steve Wozniak: You’d better have the technology knowledge to do it. I really urge you not to think you can start a whole company and business with just ideas on paper, because you’ll end up owning so few of those ideas. You have to create a working model, something that you can show people and demonstrate that it works, and then you can start building a future for it.
Lifehacker: Is that spoken from experience?
Steve Wozniak: It comes through, partly, experience. Whatever develops your skills—you did certain things in your life that prepared you well, that gave you an open mind, and you should stay closely connected to the technology when you start your company. People can say, “Well, I’m the business man, I’m out trying to make deal,” you might get your company going. But you’d better make sure you’re around some good technologists that you can trust, or your business doesn’t have direction. A lot of things seem to be worth almost no money. but if you do them very well, and they help people fill a need, there’s a great business you can build around that.