17 minutes with Steve Wozniak

The man who built Apple is full of ideas for everything from smartwatches to 3D printshops

At Apps World at the end of last year, we got the chance to talk to one of the most important figures in technology: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

The countdown begins.

23:00 My editor phones. The trains are broken, as always, and he can’t make it to Apps World. Can I take his place interviewing Steve Wozniak? In about five minutes?

22:30 A shifty look around the press area, my screen angled away from prying eyes, I Wikipedia Steve Wozniak.

Obviously I know who The Woz is. I know he built the first PC - the first one to display a character on a screen - by hand, programming the operating system from scratch. I know he formed a company with his friend Steve Jobs to sell the computers he built, and that company became the most successful enterprise in the history of capitalism. Still, it helps to do a bit of homework before you interview someone, even if you only have five minutes.

For example, did you know that Steve brought the first programmable universal remote to market in 1987? I probably won’t ask him about that.  

19:00 It appears from his Twitter feed that The Woz spends most of his life on planes, where he binge-watches episodes of Big Bang Theory. I briefly consider showing him my SanDisk Connect Wireless Flash Drive, which I use to stream video to my iPad, but then I also consider that one of the most influential figures in the history of computing might not be all that impressed by my favourite USB stick.

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"I actually kind of like windows phone"

17:00 I’m ushered into the room to meet Steve, but he’s talking animatedly to some people about the roads near his house. He has some ideas about how the turnings could be made safer. It will become apparent that Steve has a lot of ideas about everything.

15:00 Steve finishes explaining how to improve roads in the Los Gatos area. Everyone else troops out, and I introduce myself. On stage at Apps World half an hour earlier, he said he’d like to see an iPhone with a bigger screen, and that it was “a little disappointing” to see Apple sticking to small screens. Is the original Apple fan converting to Android?

“No. The Galaxy Note 3, the S4 and S3 were all very good phones. I like the way they feel in your hand and the style and the bright screen, but they’re not the best for me. It’s still the iPhone - I’m in the iPhone camp, for one thing - but it’s still the best. I love that [Android phone manufacturers] try a lot of things, it’s called innovation, but playing with those features doesn’t change the market much nowadays.”

13:00 Steve’s dalliance with other smartphones doesn’t stop at Android: “Some people love to disdain it, but I actually kind of like Windows Phone 8, appearance-wise. What it’s missing is good voice control, though - I found the commands that you could speak into a Windows phone very limited, and you had to speak them very precisely and in a certain way. It didn’t let me just speak my text messages in, or ask questions like ‘what’s the tallest building in the UK?’ If you were a brilliant person on sharks, I’d say “how much do sharks sleep?” and I’d get an answer. I want a machine that can do that near me, all the time.”

I’d never considered how important it is that shark information be universally accessible, but I see Steve’s point.

12:00 I notice that Steve is wearing a watch on each wrist - a very cool nixie tube watch, which looks like something out of Bioshock, and what appears to be a normal watch on the other. No prototype iWatch, though. Has he seen a smartwatch that impresses him yet?

“I’d have to see them really close up to tell you what I think of them. I like to carry things around - with a smartphone, I like to buy it myself, test it, make it my main number, and use it for a couple of weeks before I’m willing to go out and say “here’s what I like, here’s what I don’t.” I haven’t done that with a smartwatch yet. I do have a Martian Watch - it doesn’t have a flat panel display like all the others, it has a little tiny strip where you can see if you have a text message or who’s calling you. And it has normal hands and dials, but what’s great is, I press a button, and I can speak any Siri command to it. I can also take phone calls by pressing the same button, and it has a good speaker. So I actually like my Martian Watch.”

10:00 Is that the kind of smartwatch he’d make, if he was designing one?

“Well, for the last couple of years I’ve thought about designing something pretty similar to all the other smart watches - about the same size, with abilities to connect to your phone with Bluetooth, just making the phone less visible, more wearable.

But recently I’ve been thinking about something different. When the first smartwatches came out, I thought that little tiny display works for an iPod, just about, but I want a bigger screen, like I have on my iPhone. And for at least five years we’ve seen foldable displays being developed, with organic LEDs printed on a foldable piece of plastic. They’re finally coming to fruition, these displays that you can bend and they don’t break, so I’m thinking that could wrap around your wrist and give you a better size.”

The screen size issue may well explain why it’s taking Apple such a long time to announce it’s rumoured wristputer, but Steve’s idea doesn’t stop at a larger display. “What if it’s on the inside of your wrist, and when you flick your wrist, it flips open into your hand? And then when you flick your hand down it flips back onto your wrist, and grabs it a little. You have to have the right materials, it takes a lot of different types of engineers to design something like that, and it takes a lot of time to do it right... but it would shock the world.”

You’ve got to get De Niro for the advert, I tell him. He could flip it open and say: “you talkin’ to me?”

Steve looks at me for a moment, unsure exactly what to do with this suggestion, then laughs. Sadly, though, this flippy, snatchy wrist-clam isn’t something he actually plans to make.

"I don’t really have a business position or a company, so all I can do is speak and try to inspire people to think ‘maybe that’s a good idea’, or maybe it would inspire somebody else to think weirdly and differently so that they come up with something better. I mean maybe it’s on the front of your wrist, and you there’s a sliding motion, or you just pull it, and it slides out. That’s another idea.”

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