Pro File: Apple's Seeds

Mention the name "Woz," and most Mac users will know exactly who you're talking about. After all, they've been enjoying the fruits of Steve Wozniak's labors for years. Wozniak spends most of his time these days focusing on Wheels of Zeus, a company he helped form to develop wireless consumer electronic products, but he still pays attention to that other company he helped establish with Steve Jobs 26 years ago.

Former Macworld Editor-in-Chief Andrew Gore sat down with Wozniak to talk about Apple's early days, his thoughts on Apple's current direction, and what he's up to with his new start-up. The interview, taped for last spring's Mac Mania cruise, is reprinted below.

The Inspiration

There is absolutely no exact point that I can say, "How did I decide to go in that direction?" I had been going in a lot of directions in my life that all eventually converged on the Apple II. Little projects I had worked on for fun on the side, and the elements of them--video games, arcade machines, computer designs. There was a time in high school when I said, "I'm going to own a computer someday even if I can't afford to live in a house. I'll give that up. I'm going to have a computer." It was a decision I had made, that a lot of other people in their life knew that if they ever had a chance they'd get a computer.

Getting Started

I was working designing calculators for Hewlett-Packard. So for a few years, I didn't know microprocessors. I didn't know what they were, what they were like. I got tricked into my first meeting at the Homebrew Computer Club--not tricked, but got told to go to show off a terminal I had designed that worked with your home TV. I had no idea what microprocessors were, and that's what the club was really about. So I got there and I felt almost embarrassed. Everybody knew what was going on with this Altair computer, and I didn't know a thing. And I was like the last person. I said, "I wonder what these microprocessors are?" So I got a little data sheet and took it home and that was where I discovered they were like computers. And computers--I know that inside and out. That's what my whole life was. Back in high school and early college, that's all I did was spend my time designing computers that existed the way I would design them. And here it was. The processor's all on one chip now. I'm going to have that computer. I'm going to be able to afford it.

And that was a little challenge. Because if I have to buy a processor for $400, back in 1975, that's going to be tough to have to wait until I have $400 for it. Eventually, I found I could buy a processor for $40 as an HP employee, a Motorola one, and MOS Technologies introduced theirs for $20. So how did we get a great processor? Well, the latest one introduced is always great, the greatest anyway. But it was only $20 bucks was the answer.

And how fast was that first processor?

The first one was 1MHz. That means basically 1 million cycles to RAM, and they executed instructions in just very, very few of those cycles. It wasn't microprogrammed inside, so it wasn't like eight instructions to get a simple instruction of yours done. Many of its instructions were done in two cycles, three cycles.

About how much RAM was that?

It would work with a full 16-bit bus so 64K of RAM was the limitation of the processor.

The Apple I

The first thing I said was, "Now I'm going to have a computer. I'm going to build a computer" No idea I'd have a company or sell anything, just to have one that I always wanted all my life. What I wanted was a computer you could program FORTRAN. And if I could do that, I could run my calculations at work. We had one Hewlett-Packard computer at Hewlett-Packard that about 80 engineers shared. You signed up for time on it, and you shared this mini-computer with printers and stuff like that. Computers were that expensive, you had to share them. I thought, "God, I'll have my own. I can write some quick little programs and solve some logic design problems."

I sat down and said, "We've got to have a machine." I had designed a machine five years before that had little switches and lights. Like a typical front-panel of computer, you'd go up and see all these switches and lights and they're blinking away on TV, and it's like an airplane cockpit. That's how all computers had ever been designed--big, metal things that fit into a rack. And I had fortunately designed one of those things five years before. This time, I thought, if I'm going to design a real full-blown computer that means I've got to get metal plates and mount the switches like I've done in the past, I've got to get a ton of switches and pay for each one, I've got to do a whole bunch of wiring down to a board, I've got to put chips to receive those wires, and I've got to put in extra circuitry so that when you push buttons it knows how to take something into a register and then store something else in memory that the register points to. A whole ton of circuitry.

And I said, "You know what? Here we've got a microprossor, and we've got this little parallel chip that interfaces to a keyboard." And I had already built a terminal that had a keyboard and a display on my home TV because that was free. I could only do things that were free. And the keyboard, for $60, was the most expensive part of all the Apples ever bought. And I said, "This will be so quick. I'll just attach the microprocessor, some RAM, and my existing terminal for input and output." That terminal has to do what a front panel did. A front panel did three things. You'd toggle in a number in binary, you'd push a button, and it becomes an address. You'd toggle a number, and it stores the data into that address... Toggle another bit of data, punch it in, another 12 bits or 16 bits or 8 bits depending on the computer. You could fill up memory slowly but surely with a program. The other thing you could do is put an address in and then look on the lights and see what was in that location or memory. Step to the next location, see what was in it. Very slow, very hard. But this was what my life was about, how computers work.

So I thought, "Our calculators, the way they work, they really do have a little processor inside." It starts up and runs a program. You punch a 5 key... it goes off and runs some programs, puts things in the right places, and does what a 5 key would have done. So why don't I just take my keyboard and type in hexadecimal, kind of like base-2--what I would have done on switches and lights and what I had done five years before on the Cream Soda Computer in 1970. Since I'm going to have a keyboard anyway to run any programming language, why don't I just hook that up? Now, I have a keyboard, a little eight-wire cable that goes to the parallel chip, which connects to the microprocessor. It's, like, no chips. You lost all these switches and wires and soldering and extra chips to read them and circuitry to figure out how buttons work--it just works automatically.

The key was, you needed a program. This, I couldn't have thought of five years before. You needed a small, little program that sits there like a calculator saying, "Is a key pressed? What key is it? Go do what that key wants done." So I had to write that little program. We didn't have 256 byte PROMs even back then. So in our lab at HP, we had 256-by-four PROMs. Take two of them, you've got 256 bytes. For another little project, a Pong game I built, I learned how to go across the street to another division, put them into a machine and get them burned with my code. So I basically wrote a program that would read the keyboard. Two programs--I wrote one that was interrupt-driven, one that wasn't. I went over one night, got those programmed, wired up my machine, and I turned it on. The interrupt one was having troubles, and I'm sitting there with a scope trying to figure it out. Then I went and tried the pulling one, and that worked. So I really went from that point on.

That was the genesis of the operating system.

That was the genesis of what became eventually the Apple I.

Dynamic RAM

The key element was, you need RAM. Now remember, I had never designed a product in my life with a microprocessor. So I studied the data sheets to figure out what the pins had for voltages and how you connect them, what the timing is. I had never designed a product with RAM. I had never written a programming language either. I had never taken classes in these things so every one of them was a whole new problem to solve. So what I did was, for RAM, I just attached the microprocessor, address, and data bus to the address and data pins of some RAMs, and I'll hook up power to them. I bought some RAMs at our computer club, or I might have bought them through a magazine. Because they were around, they were cheap. And that worked to bring it up--4K of RAM, the machine came up and it was working. I could type data into memory, and I could look at the memory and see it was there. Wow--that was probably the big start.

Right after that, a RAM decision got made that was very, very important for Apple It turns out the world had static RAMs that remember what they are--as long as they get power, they remember--and there's dynamic RAMs. Dynamic RAMs forget everything in a 2,000th of a second, but you go through a process where you're reading every bit in them and writing it back. You're making sure continually it's getting refreshed and it doesn't lose its memory. The dynamic RAMs are smaller and denser on silicon. They had 1K static RAMs, 4K bit dynamic RAMs. That meant the dynamic RAMs were going to be the first RAM ever that was cheaper than core memory that every computer, every mini-computer had used. Everything I had grown up with was going to be replaced now by dynamic RAMs. They were finally cheaper. The trouble is, you have to design this refresh circuitry. You have to pop in some funny addresses here and a few microseconds later pop in a different one... and keep working it to keep in refreshed. That's a little difficult, and it turns out that all the people jumping in and doing what I was doing, building early computers, didn't want to do that. They just wanted to run a wire from a microprocessor to a RAM, wire from one to the other and it works. They didn't want to think about how do you design circuitry that does weird things like refreshing.

The Objective

Always in my life, I grew up competing with myself for the lowest chip count in my designs. You can have 4K RAMs, and you've got a lot fewer chips than if you've got 1K RAMs. If you want 4Kbytes, it's eight chips. It would have taken 32 chips of the statics if that's what I used. 32 chips. My gosh, I'm going to save 24 chips. Well, heck, I'll put in another five chips or whatever to do refreshing, whatever clever circuit I can come up with. So it was obvious I'm going to be much more impressive if I use these clever, little dynamic RAMs. Because you need 4K at least for a programming language. I'll have eight RAMs, a few chips to do the refreshing, I'll have my microprocessor and then my keyboard circuit, my terminal. And boy, it'll be so few chips, everybody will be really amazed. That's a complete solution. I can sit down, type in programs right away.

Apple I and BASIC

Now, I didn't have a language, either, but it was really obvious in the Homebrew Computer Club that the language everyone was talking about was BASIC. Books of 101 BASIC games. You'd go to computer shows and they would talk about BASIC, all these programs in BASIC you could run. That was the only thing we knew we could actually run on our microprocessors for the time being. And I had never programmed in BASIC. I didn't know BASIC. So I opened up a Hewlett-Packard manual at work, and I studied the language and the syntax and read it. It was pretty close to equivalent one-to-one to FORTRAN, just differences in how variables are named and what the commands are. I sat down and wrote out my own syntax table that I would use for my BASIC, my subset of it. And it was whether I'd keep floating point or not. I made the decision not to keep floating point in mine because of only one thing--I sniffed the air, and nobody had done a BASIC for the 6502. I would be the first at something. That's a really good thing, to be first at something. I said, "Man, I'll cut a month of my development time, maybe, or a few weeks if I just don't have the floating point in my BASIC."

So I wrote the syntax table without it, came up with a really clever, structured way to implement an interpreter. I don't know if I did anything that's taught in school. I don't know if I did anything by normal rules, but it was very, very structured. It got down to the point that for every parenthesis, I would write a routine for that parenthesis, and it has a token number. And an asterisk has a certain token number when it's used as multiply. And I would write a little routine for that one. So it was a real easy development system. I got it done in weeks, just a couple of months, two or three months. And the BASIC was the longest hours I did of the entire Apple I project.

When you were working on this, it sounds like the driving force behind this was you just wanted to make a computer that you wanted to play with.

Exactly. As a matter of fact, I called my BASIC, Game BASIC, because it would do two things: it would play games, and it would solve problems, logic design problems. I had a series of programs I could run to simulate logic, and I only needed integers. That was how I defined this as an integer language. I actually wound up using it. They came up with an example at work really early on when I had the Apple I, before we had a company or I sold it or anything.

Meeting Steve Jobs

I believe it was when I did the Cream Soda Computer with a friend down the street who was building it in his garage. And he said, "You should meet Steve Jobs who goes to our high school also. Because you both are interested in electronics, and you both kind of do pranks." So he introduced us, the way I remember it. And we knew each other and did all sorts of just talking and being friends and music stuff. And the year I was in college, we did Blue Boxes.

[Jobs] got a job at Atari part time. In Atari, I would go down. I was just amazed to go in the lobby. I had designed a short little Pong game of my own, just of my own design because I saw it in a bowling alley. And [Atari founder] Nolan Bushnell said, "Hey, we'd like to hire you." And I said, "No, Hewlett-Packard is such a good company, I'm going to work there my whole life. They're good to engineers, they believe in engineers." There was an incredible aura to being a worker at HP back then, and it was just so positive in my mind, I'd never leave it.

Jobs, Woz, and Breakout

Steve also got us a job where we designed Breakout. And I got to go into Atari four days and nights, all night long. That was a quick design, four days and nights. We both got mononucleosis. I was the designer, and [Jobs] would wire-wrap it. And I'd be out playing the very first video game that was about to come out with driving. It was called Gran Trak 10. Hey man, I got so good at that in four nights that a couple years later, they had a pizza parlor in Scotts Valley and if you got more than 36 points, you got a free pizza. So after my second free pizza, they took it out.

The Apple II

When I got going in the Homebrew Computer Club, I started telling Steve about these microprocessors. And he kept asking, "Can it do a disk operating system?" Yes, you could add a floppy disk. You can add a disk or something. "Can it do time-sharing system?" Well, theoretically, you can do anything because it's a computer, but it was hard to tell him what the limits of this starting little machine were. All I wanted in my heart was a machine that could run a programming language, and I knew it needed 4K of RAM based on my mini-computer experience... He was always thinking way out there, to machines that were closer to the ones he had seen in companies that actually had marketability and dollars associated with them. Now at the Homebrew Club, when I actually started building a machine, everything was free. There was no computer business. It was just a whole bunch of people talking about this coming thing. So I would go and never raise my hand or talk because I was too shy. But I would set up a demonstration. People would come up and ask questions that I could explain. My mouth could open. Somehow, I could open up. And I started passing out schematics. So everybody in the world got a schematic of the Apple I. It was just like public domain.

No intellectual property there.

I guess not. I wouldn't have known what a copyright was... I have no idea. To this day, I hardly know. So I passed out examples of the code for certain routines I had written. Now when I was down at Atari, the idea popped in my head [that] there's no math behind it, there's no science behind it, it's not discussed in books, but if you spun a shift register at a certain rate, what comes out of it is kind of like color data that comes to a TV set for color. I remembered that idea. Well, the Apple I, I designed in a way that I could add that on by designing the computer at the right frequency. As I started thinking about how to add colors--could I get it down to seven chips, is it going to be nine chips, how am I going to do this--I started getting other ideas that popped into my head of condensing things. Why don't I have the video memory and the computer memory the same? It was a big idea. Why don't I change the timing to a little state machine and register and some circuitry to figure out what the next state is for all the RAM timing signals? And I said, "Maybe there's a chip that will do it for me."

I searched the manual of chips, every single TTL chip, and I found one that if I hooked it up with a couple of gates circled around itself, it put out the signals I needed. Saved me, like, five chips there. I mean, I was just saving chips right and left, every way I could think of because that was my thing in life--it's more impressive when you show off, if you've done fewer chips. So here comes the Apple II. Over the Apple I, it had color, sound, graphics, paddles for games. It had huge amounts of dynamic memory and pre-decoded eight slots and BASIC and ROM and everything. And it was still half the chips of the Apple I. So that was a really incredible design.

Founding Apple

About this time, the personal computer market--it was called hobby computers then--they were kits, for the most part. Stores were springing up to sell these kits all over the country... Along with these kits, here came the Processor Technology Sol computer from Berkeley. The Apple I was one of the very first one of these computer kits. The Apple I wasn't quite complete enough. It was completely soldered on a board. You didn't have to solder anything. But you had to come up, or the dealer had to give you some transformers that plugged into a plug and a TV outlet. You had to get to a TV. Remember, TVs did not have video in back then. So you had to get a monitor, and you had to get a keyboard and wire the wires from the keyboard according to our schematics.

So the Apple I was still sort of a kit, not pull-it-out-of-the-box-and-use-it like a hi-fi that you turn on and it works. The Apple I was the very first one, though, that came out and said a human keyboard, a QWERTY keyboard is how a personal computer should be built and there's none of these front-panel binary lights and all that crap. You could do a lot better once you display hexadecimal numbers and once you can type them in, you got a better system to replace that. And you're halfway the way to BASIC anyway. You have to type in English by the time you get to BASIC. Why buy a teletype? People would plug-in teletype boards into these computers and running big cables over and big clunky machines that were slow and big and technical and awful. So we set that tone.

Well, the Processor Technology Sol computer came out, and it also had a keyboard built in. There was a little blue case as I recall, and it had its own monitor, monochrome. It was the popular computer of the Intel chip variety, and it was selling up to 1,000 a month, we heard. A thousand a month is a lot of computers. The Apple II got developed probably just a couple of months after we started shipping Apple Is. We started selling Apple Is, just a little partnership out of our homes. And we sold about 100 of them, didn't make any money. A couple months later, here comes the Apple II, and it's so much better. It's so much better than the Sol, it's 10 times better. And they're selling 1,000 a month? That means we could sell 1,000 a month.

You start getting into some big numbers really quick. It would cost us $250,000 just to make 1,000 of them. How do we do that? We had some clever techniques of getting paid cash for our Apple Is, so we didn't have to finance anything because we had no money. I didn't own a car. I couldn't have gotten a loan. I didn't have a house. None of us had any money. The one guy who had money did the smart thing and he sold out his part of Apple, his 10 percent, to Steve and I because he was afraid it was going to catch up to him. So how do you build that money? That was when we had to start thinking more in terms of getting money from the outside. And that was really Steve who was the honcho. To me, I just liked designing computers. The better computer I design, the better step I've made. Steve's thinking business and business opportunities you've got to take advantage of, so he basically went out and started talking to interested parties.

We'd go in and talk to companies like Cromemco, who had the PET computer, and we talked to Atari. They had good reasons for not quite going with us, but that's how we got linked up with Mike Markkula. He put in the real seed money, but more than that, he had experience in running some high-level departments at a successful company, Intel, and making money off of stock options. So he knew how to run a company sort of in a controlled way. He joined us. He was a working person. He was running marketing. That became his full-time job. He helped us hire the right sort of people, arranged the early distribution channels, the agreements with the dealers.

New Challenges

It came to a point that we needed some more serious steps. VisiCalc hadn't come along yet, the disk operating system hadn't come along, we didn't have a floppy disk. And number one and number two at a staff meeting on [Markkula's] lists of things we needed...was a floppy disk and floating point BASIC. So I took on both those projects right away and could have done the floating point basic fine, but I think Steve got anxiety and we hired another company. We were working on ours, defining it, it was a good BASIC, too. But Microsoft just basically came, and they already had a 6502 BASIC ready to sell us. God knows who they bought it from. Probably some little guy somewhere. And it handled strings differently than my integer BASIC. The reason is, I copied Hewlett-Packard's string method. They had copied the Digital Equipment method, and they were handled differently. I liked mine better, but we sacrificed. We worked a deal to buy the Microsoft BASIC to be our floating point BASIC. We gave them a few little routines we needed added to it for things like drawing color and drawing shapes and making sounds.

As far as the floppy disk, an idea had occurred to me before I even left Hewlett-Packard about a new chip that had been introduced. It was just an idea of how you could write data onto a floppy disk. I had never designed a floppy disk in my life. I had never seen one or been close to one. I had no idea what they did. I had never designed a tape interface, but I sat down and said well, "I'll put out some bits at certain timing onto a cassette tape and we'll read it back in." If you remember the Apple II first shipped with a cassette tape reader. So you write it out at a rate, you read it in, you could tell what it is. I thought of a floppy disk as the same thing. You put the data out in some pattern. It goes around in a circle, so you have to find out where do I start, where are the starting and stopping points, what's the method to use that's efficient. I had to come up with all this.

I had these ideas in my head already, and when Mike Markkula put it up, I said, "If we can get a floppy done by CES," which was going to be in two weeks in January. And I had never been to Las Vegas, which is one of those places in the world that is a place you want to get to some time in your life. Mike Markkula's marketing group was going to go, so I said, "Could I go if I get the floppy disk done and ready for the show?" He says, "Yeah." So I kind of felt that I sort of had the company on a hook. They'll need me to show this floppy disk, and I'll get to go. I guess I could have gone on my own if I just said, "I would like to go, anyway."

I went in and started working out a design and techniques and could I write some data and I'll worry about how I stepped the tracks later. I studied the schematics of the Shuggard floppy drive. I started finding out they want your signals coming in in a certain order of timing to get things done. But then these chips take it and they figure out what signals to actually apply to a read-and-write hit and a stepping motor sequencer. Why don't I just output all those signals directly to them? Why do I put them out in their format and let it get changed into what the motor really wants. I'll just put it out straight to the motor. I cut out about 20 of their chips on their board.

This was all in this one two-week period. I worked every day, including Christmas and Christmas Eve, every single day over vacation. Randy Wigginton would come in every day except one of them. He came in, and I would hook up my little hardware, and he would write some test software and try to get the first data reading or writing. Finally, we were actually able to read stuff back. It was pretty amazing.... Eventually, I got the data on the bytes where it was supposed to be. So we just created everything out of nothing. No knowledge of how it's done or anything.

By the time of that show, I only could press a button and make it manually step to a certain track. The software [didn't have any] file structure. It could just read and write data. That was all, and that was pretty impressive. We almost had it working by the night of the show, so I went to Las Vegas and finished it up that night. You get a little groggy at four in the morning. You just wish you'd done that last little change, will it work or won't it--the programmer dilemma. At the very end, we had this idea: better make a copy of this one good floppy. We only had two floppies with us. The way I wrote my thing, you would put [a floppy] in and read one full track into RAM, take it out--we only had one drive--put the other one in and write that track back. So we went through 34 tracks, or 36, whatever was one those floppies, and when I got done, it turned out I had copied the bad onto the good. But it was in my head, so I was able to recover it. Go to sleep for a while and recover it about 10 the next morning. We actually showed the floppy. People were talking. "Apple has a floppy!" It was big times for us, really. It did a lot for the company.

The Personal Computer Revolution

We did think that computers were going to come to everybody and our computer was so great, it was going to start the lead and maybe we'd be the leader. But never did I think... it didn't hit me, what is that size? What is it like when it's that number? To me, it was just The Next Project. Make it good enough so that it's clever and nobody else could have done it and it gets us something we need.

As we started, our first step was just a raw computer. You can type in hexadecimal on it, and see hexadecimal, and it's a computer. And if you're a person that's wanted a computer your whole life, you've got it. You can even write a little program in machine language and run it. The next step was BASIC. You can type in some games or some short BASIC programs and see them work. Print "My name is Steve" all over the page. As a matter of fact, when we introduced the Apple II, I put a little joke program on that told all these jokes I had gotten out of a Polish joke book. The first thing it did was it asked you your name and guessed your nationality, and you could confirm it or not or type one in. So it changed the nationality of the joke to be whatever you were.... So now you could do BASIC on this machine, and you could store some data like checkbook data on a cassette tape. Programs could be distributed.

We shipped a few cassette tapes with our Apple IIs, a bunch of people started up their own companies mostly writing games, and you could go down to a store and buy all these different games on cassette tape, load it into your Apple II, run it and have fun. So really, games were the easiest thing to start up with. And then Barney Stone came up with his database DB Master program, and you could learn what databases were about.

VisiCalc came out of, like, nowhere, a hair before the floppy disk did. They came up with this idea to do this calculator where every cell calculates by itself. What a clever idea. There were three computers that were being sold pre-built--the Commodore PET, the Radio Shack TRS80, and the Apple II. The TRS80, you couldn't add a floppy disk drive ever, and the PET you couldn't add it. Neither one of those, you could expand the RAM. If you bought it with 8K of RAM, you had 8K of RAM for life. No expandability. The Apple II came with 4K or 16K or all the way up to 48K of RAM by this time. So VisiCalc got written for a 12K or 16K Apple II typical environment. And we were the only machine that they could have written that for.

So in a very short period of time, we got VisiCalc, and then we got the floppy disk running it so it's fast enough. Now you've got a computer, floppy disk and VisiCalc, and that combination solved problems for small business people that they had no other way to do. In those days, that changed the world and how the world of small business works more than anything else. Even large businesspeople instantly figured out, "I can buy this Apple II package with a floppy disk and VisiCalc, and I can do calculations that on my company's computer, I can never get on or get done or get time on it or they don't do what I want to do." So it even started going into big business as a much better alternative to the big computer that the company had. That's really where things went sky high for us. When we that combination, in every store, Apple was number one in the world. And it lasted for a lot of years, until about 1983.

Wheels of Zeus

Wheels of Zeus is a start-up. When you've had such a great time as Apple and you used to build your own little inventions, you kind of want this new "let's build something new. Let's invent something and build it." I did a start-up once before to make a remote control, and it was just such a wonderful, wonderful time in my life. And I kind of got hung up with a life that had a whole bunch of things in it, including teaching in schools, good things. But I kind of missed... I [wasn't] anywhere near technology.

So I always thought, "Boy, it would be neat to be involved with a start-up again, but heck, it's been 20 years. My engineering skills, I'm not young anymore. I'm not ready for that." Well, friends come over all the time. And they talk about what they're doing and the companies they're working on and the projects and cool ideas. I've got some creative friends. And one of them was over describing a little product that would be better than a radar detector for detecting where the cops are... It got my interest. "Would you be willing to work on it?" was actually asked. Yeah, I would. I don't know what that means yet. And over a period of days, it came out that if a certain person I respected from the Apple days, which was Mike Connor, was the CEO, yes, I would work full time and head up the engineering. And Mike was kind of interested in possibly being involved if I would do that.

We got a group of people together, talking about ideas. Ideas based upon GPS, little low-cost things you could mark and then you can find them on the Web or locate where they are. Lost items, lost dogs, lost children. The list gets so much larger than that, and a lot of them are commercial, tracking shipments and cargo and stuff like that. So there's a ton of ideas.

Well, it turns out this whole area wasn't as new as we thought. It's really old, and for about 10 years, company after company after company has gone into those businesses. We're basically talking about marrying GPS into wireless, and I don't want to do just something that somebody else is. So we looked at where people are now that are not in markets we could really go into and offer a lot of our own thinking. We narrowed it down to certain categories of devices. And I always like to think of normal people, so thinking of personal consumer-oriented applications for this. And then I always think, you've got to make it super low cost. You don't just go out there and buy whatever chips you happen to find and you make it and say, "I've made it." Because then it winds up being really costly. So the whole idea was how can we make these little GPS finders that you connect to via cell phone networks, pager networks, whatever--and we have a lot of other ideas besides that--how do you make that work for a tenth of the cost of somebody else?

We have so many different areas, I think we have a list of 77 really understandable areas where this type of technology applies. The question is, which ones are you going to pinpoint and do an exceptional, exceptional job on? Even like in Apple, you build one computer that's closed, you can make it exactly exceptional for what it does and be safe that way. I would rather pick a couple of target markets and do such an incredibly good job exactly for those markets that nobody else trying to do a general job could come close, mainly in price.

At this point, what do you think the killer app is going to be for GPS?

I won't say because we haven't concluded our marketing research. I know of some apps I would use in my own life, but I don't think they're the killer apps. I would use it to restrain my dogs around my house instead of this expensive wire system I use now, where I have to bury a wire, trench driveways to put it in. Expensive system. Batteries run out once a month. I could do it much better, a much better job [using] this technology. But we're not going to sell a product because we're a new company, and I don't believe you want to see gadgets from brand new companies you've never heard the name of. You really want to see products from names that you know and respect like Sony and Casio, Epson, Target, Disney. Well-known people that are in these areas, and we just want to come up and say, we have a technology that is so lean and clean, put this into your existing products or make new products to sell it and we'll set you up with manufacturers.

Our approach is not to say we're going to come out and be the supplier of the whole solution and sell it. Because that has the problems... you have to develop a market, which is very expensive and risky. I don't want to lose a company just because we don't have enough money to get people to hear us and know us, really respect us. And I also don't want to start up manufacturing and have to pay so many millions of dollars for inventory, and I'm stuck with it. Somehow, I'm the one who's taking the risk, not all the sellers making money with me.

So you see yourself more in the line of developing an enabling technology that other people will actually apply in a device, a la a FireWire chip?

Pretty much, we are engineering. We're going to be engineering, designers. It's kind of like what they call fabless ICs. We'll do the design, but we're going to set it up so that you can take our design and get it built by other parties. They may even target other companies they already build products for to build this in as a complement...

I wouldn't mind having a GPS locator in my PowerBook.

I wouldn't, either. There's a certain level of products, certain products that fit into that need.

Apple's Success

I'm not really an expert on this, but I see two things that make Apple successful now where others aren't. They are really a tight monopoly. They're a hardware monopoly, and there's no hardware monopoly on the other side. So that gives them some advantages in control and in pricing to have profits. A company isn't going to be a good company and really develop better and better things if it can barely squeak by and doesn't have good profits. Apple can have the profits that it needs to make these great, exciting products that are steps forward, instead of just kind of sitting in the competitive consumer throwaway product category everyone else is. I also think Apple has a direction of looking at the world not that it's a computer but that it's an element of your life and a beauty in your home, that whole feeling of the product and you. It's that relationship that makes it not so much technology. It's pretty much like back to the early starting ideas of Apple of the computer as just a tool a person uses to do something.

It's a means to an end.

Yeah, and if you look at the Apple II and the computers before it, it was the first computer that kind of looked beautiful, like it belonged in the home, and that's what all the Apple products have now.

Apple's New Products

I love the new iMac. I love it. And I'm not sure at first. Because in my head, I also love the Cube. I love it even more. The best office in my new building is my assistant's. She has a Cube in hers, and it's just the most beautiful thing. Every time I see it... and I have a few Cubes that I'm keeping. You go back to the 20th Anniversary Mac. Whoa. It's like Apple's the company that's got all these incredible things, the iPod, for how they look. I can put three music devices down here that are all very good. I've got my Diamond Rio 500, and it uses the Smart media of my cameras, and it's so easy and convenient to use and so lightweight. And then I've got my MiniDisc LP, which stores eight albums on one minidisc and it's very cheap and the battery goes 20 hours. And I've got my bigger, heavier, bulkier iPod... But as soon as I use it, it's like somehow it has a relationship. The way you spin that wheel, something that simple, ever since I got the iPod that's the only thing I use.

The one thing I like about all the Apple products is not just their looks, but there are tradeoffs. You trade off how many PCMCIA slots there are, what connectors there are, how much RAM it comes with. And the tradeoffs in Apple are such a good balance... I spend a lot of time with a lot of the markets Apple's in, photography and especially video. I had Avids when they were brand new. They cost a fortune, but I used them in my classes. The trouble is, for something like video editing, I get to this point where I don't want to be the professional that knows how to do it perfectly. I just want to be the average person at home who just has a nice, easy life and can do it easily. One of the problems I have, a lot of kids were doing videos at my house for some time now, high school kids for school projects. And I'm telling them, "Use iMovie. You can basically do what you want to do with iMovie." They've all got to use some expert one that their friend uses. OK, if you know how to use it and want to, that's fine, too.

Always in my classes, I took this approach of saying, "What software do you get for free for the simple, little average user, and how do you learn to stretch it to do all the things, to do a very good level of the complete computer world, without having to go buy professional programs that are designed to do everything you can do and more?" I try to stick with the less-resources-doing-more. That's the definition of efficiency. I try to design with fewer chips that do more, so I try to use simpler software and get it to do more. I think in the past you would have said, "Apple makes computers easy to use." And I'm not 100 percent sure they're always going in that direction.

It almost seems like Apple is moving away from making computers that are just computers.

I think that's a good direction. That's a good part of Apple. The computer is a solution for things in your life. That was the way Steve always thought. That basically, people don't want a computer, they don't care what processor is in it. They just want a machine and the software and the printer or whatever it does that makes the solution they need possible.

The whole digital hub and all that--I love that concept... Hard disks got up to a size that you tend to store everything on your hard disk. You store a bunch of music, you store a bunch of jokes, you store a bunch of videos. That's more of a storage place than anyplace in my house. My hard disk is much more important to me than anything else. And if you're storing your entertainment materials there, and that's your favorite place, it really is a center of that part of your life. I sure don't use it to write programs very often. I don't even use it for that much word processing. A whole bunch of things that computers were, small computers were, it's not what they are now.

OS X

What operating system are you running on your PowerBook?

9.2.2. I have another PowerBook with 10.1.3 on it, and the trouble is, I didn't install one program. The mail's crashing right now because I have too much e-mail on my server. I'm going to use Eudora on it.

Do you like OS X?

I love OS X from a feeling point of view. But from capability and readiness, I still don't rate it ready for me, I'm sorry to say. The experimental side of me is losing out because I don't have as much time with my startup company.

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