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Steve Wozniak on Social Networks, Great Design

Steve Wozniak
Source: Al Luckow
SAN FRANCISCO -- Steve Wozniak may be one of the original computer geeks, but these days, his thoughts often toward the philosophical.

It's not surprising that one of the founders of Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.), known for its elegant design and interfaces, emphasizes the human factor in computer design. But what might not be so obvious is that he's now much less interested in dissecting the innards of technology than in examining the ways it lets the mind fly.

At last week's Social Networking Conference, Wozniak related today's social media to the earliest computers. He noted how after people networked their hardware and logged into bulletin boards, they got their first experience of socializing with people they had never seen.

Even after helping to kick off the consumer PC revolution, Wozniak said, "What drove me were the social benefits." For instance, when teaching kids to set up their computers as file servers, he realized "this whole experience of sharing to them, that their name was out there and they were something in the world, was so joyful to them," he said.

These days, Wozniak said he doesn't have time to browse the Internet looking for old classmates or participating in forums. "I barely have time to visit social networks, but I get 30 invitations a day. It's exploding: The more I said yes to, the more they try to get me to do," he said during his keynote.

He did find time to sit down with InternetNews.com, however, and had plenty to say about the current state of digital design and culture.

Q: You talked about the importance of perfectionism, making a social site just a bit better than the others. That seems to fly in the face of today's theories and strategies, where you throw something up and let users refine it, build on it or change it.

First, you have to have a good instinct, good common sense and trust yourself.

If you have a committee designing something, that's where it breaks down. Then, putting it out there will get the excellence. You have to give users the respect of listening to what they have to say. Maybe what you've done isn't the best way. You have to have openness and clear your mind out.

You might have someone who builds a chair in a different way, but you need to come up with overriding principles. What's a good chair concept? That can be hard to spot. Steve Jobs is very good at looking at specific things and putting a category around them.

[cob:Pull_Quote]Steve Jobs thinks, 'People don't want a music device, what they want is music in their ear." In the early days, Steve wanted to hide our technology, maybe because he wasn't a technologist himself. But it turns out to be the right answer.

Q: You said that what drove you in the early days were the social benefits, the idea that computers could teach kids to use 100 percent of their minds. Do you think computers have fulfilled that promise?

I was scared that once we had the computer out, my kids and the others would make us adults seem puny in the world. But it didn't happen. Kids aren't any smarter.

Q: In the world of Web 2.0, widgets and drag-and-drop application design, do kids need to know math and science?

To make the world work, a certain number of kids will have to grow up and use math and science in their occupations. They need to know how it works from the ground up. A lot of kids shouldn't be taught math, they can get answers other ways, for example, by using a calculator.

We only teach math because we can teach it. It's easy to teach, so we'll teach it. We won't ever question whether it's right or wrong. But it keeps kids from getting where they could. At some age, I think we should let kids go in different directions, maybe by third grade.

Q: Does social media, the ability to create, produce and publish, change our sense of being human?

Anything that inspires you -- a movie you watch, a book you read, or, best of all, something you create yourself -- makes you feel you've done something worthwhile. The benefits in self-esteem last throughout your life.

Even young kids understand that they have still done the work that created this Web version of them.

Q: To end with a Valley-type question, you mentioned that when you invest, you don't look so much at the financials and business plan as at the passion of the founder.

I look for people who have had a drive their whole life to achieve something and now have a way to do it, even if they're not educated in the techniques to do it. You can recognize people who are so smart they will find ways to do it themselves.

I also want people willing to work with little resources and money; that forces them to build better things and do more thinking. If they just are into it for a lot of money, it's hard to think they'll [achieve] greatness.

If they haven't done this before but are good at doing anything, if they have good common-sense thinking and answers, that's the person who will achieve better than the one who's done it his whole life.

Tech changes every year. If you did it in prior years, that doesn't mean you can do today's technology the best way.

Elements of business and management are very important and worth believing in, but VCs recognize that's the second state. The first state is to get the technologist to develop the technology from his ideas.

At Apple, we had a head start. We'd built the product already, without any money, and then got an angel investor. I don't see that too often any more. Now, people have a PowerPoint or a few drawings on paper. If they were somehow able to get something working, they'd have a lot better chance.