Sunday Times, 24 April 2016
Steve “Woz ” Wozniak ambles into the room in a grey suit and blue and yellow Nike trainers. He is very short and round. Now 65, he is grey-bearded and neckless and has leg problems. Yet his bonhomie is unstoppable. He grins at everybody and talks and talks.
Enthralled, this meet-and-greet group listens and listens. To everybody at the Business Rocks convention in Manchester, he is the heart and soul of contemporary technology. An engineer of genius, he co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs and, entirely on his own, designed and built the Apple II . Every personal computer in the world is a descendant of that machine.
Unlike Jobs, he is neither difficult nor ambiguous and, unlike pretty much everybody else in Silicon Valley, he is not greedy. He is said to be worth $100m (about £70m), a piffling sum in an industry in which manhood in measured in billions. He gave a lot of his money away and, from the first, sold his shares cheaply to Apple employees. Last week he stuck his neck out by saying the company ought to pay its taxes like everyone else. “I don’t like the idea that Apple might be unfair,” he said.
He continues on this theme when we talk on stage at the convention. “I never started Apple for money,” he says. “I wanted to show off my engineering prowess. I didn’t want to be corrupted ever in my life. I thought this out when I was 20 years old. I’m not going to be corrupted to where I do things for the sake of money.”
Woz is pure; he’s a tech saint and, in Manchester, they flocked just to touch him — and get selfies, of course. He is like a fragment of the True Cross, a physical connection to the foundational narrative of their tech-soaked lives.
But there’s something odd about him, a strange uniformity of response. This may be something to do with his prosopagnosia — face blindness. It’s an affliction, he tells me, he shares with Brad Pitt. We step down after an hour on the stage together and at once he does not know who I am. Only when I speak does he recognise me.
So the grinning joviality may, in part, be a social defence but it’s also an aspect of his ideology. His management theory is, basically, make it fun. Jokes are sacraments and pranks — usually involving software or engineering hacks — are the stuff of the well-lived life.
It’s hard to imagine how this roly-poly funster formed any sort of partnership with Jobs, the narcissistic perfectionist and artist. Yet partners they were, for a time. This ended in the early 1980s, when Jobs’s marketing genius as opposed to Woz’s engineering became the Apple core. Woz left, but not quite. He has never stopped being an Apple employee, earning, it is said, an annual $120,000.
His main use of the company is the local Apple store. He says he lives in the one part of Silicon Valley with lousy broadband so he and his wife sneak down to the store at midnight and stay there until 6am, downloading movies and TV shows to watch at home.
Sadly, his continued employment does not mean he can leak anything to the Manchester geeks about what’s going on at Apple: “I’m so honest and I talk a lot so they’re scared to get me too close to the inner workings of the company, probably rightly so. But they won’t fire me.”
In the limbo of this not-quite-exile, Woz seems to have had a love-hate relationship with Apple, which he once described as “the bane of my life”. Stories have emerged that Woz doesn’t like this or that — most recently his suggestion that the Apple Watch was inauthentic, not a core Apple product. In Manchester, however, he’s having none of this, blaming the press for exaggerating things or brushing it all aside: “It’s a joke!”
This often makes him difficult to understand but none of it should detract from his genuine purity. He was taught two big things by his father, who, unknown to Woz, designed missiles during the Cold War: electronic engineering, and that America was the greatest country in the world. The former gave him his livelihood and a view of the world as fixable. The latter provided crushing disillusion.
In Manchester he said: “I thought, this thing [politics] is not for me and I’m not going to vote, ever, and I’ve never voted for anybody who could win. The government has wealth and power and I wish they had common sense and spent their money like Apple and Google do and earned money instead of wasting it.”
He’s veering towards Bernie Sanders’s socialism this time round but can sound very right-wing in his dislike of government. Pure he may be, but also confusing.
Never mind, let him be confusing: he is adored — not too strong a word — and nobody can ever question either the genius of the Apple II or his touching faith in engineering. Nor can anybody doubt the value of what is still a hacker’s and prankster’s view of the world — that it can be both fixed, often illicitly, and fun.
Forgetting who I am, Woz leaves the stage for more meetings. In one, a young would-be tech billionaire asks him: “What question should I ask you?”
“How do we not lose our specialness?” says Woz, afloat on an ocean of geek love.