The reality show that clearly needs to be made of Steve Wozniak’s fabulous life ought to begin with the Apple co-founder descending from Silicon Valley onto Los Angeles in June for the blessing of a child. Not just any child, mind you, but one Baby North West, firstborn daughter to the First Couple of America’s celebrity-industrial complex, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
The visit came out of a cold call from an eight-months-pregnant Kardashian, hoping to concoct a birthday surprise for Kanye, a longtime Apple fan boy. Not that Woz—Silicon Valley’s sunniest emeritus figure, a genial geek godfather man-child who rides around Los Gatos, California, waving and grinning on his Segway and makes a point of dining with fans and reading every Facebook message he gets—knew who the tabloid-fixture couple was. “Oh my gosh, I don’t watch TV. I’d never seen her,” says Woz, who, indeed, rode up to meet me on a Segway (and then continued riding past me, grinning and waving, somewhat obliviously). “I just admired the fact that she was doing this for somebody she loved—true love, you know?” As for that somebody, “I’ve never heard his music, to tell you the truth. I don’t know if I like it or not.”
Now we’re settled in at the gorgeous ranch-style Hotel Los Gatos, and as Woz narrates his visit with Kimye, he insists on sitting outside at metal café tables, sipping free hotel coffee while someone mows the lawn behind us. Clipped to his polo shirt collar is one of several laser pointers he has on his person at all times. (He’ll often pretend to shoot a laser through his head.)
Kardashian went into labor early, he says, just after Woz and his fourth wife, Janet, drove down to L.A. But she insisted her visitors come to Cedars-Sinai anyway, telling them, “ ‘Let’s leave Kanye and Steve alone, because he’s real shy.’ And he doesn’t look at me for the first twenty minutes or so; he had an aversion,” says Woz, who’s not too great on eye contact himself. Kanye perked up when Woz told him about a device to foil paparazzi photos, and soon they were talking about Kanye’s octopus-armed org-chart business plan. (He’s been describing himself lately as the heir to Jobs.) “My advice would probably be pick one narrow category to start with, do it so well you own that category, and then one bowling pin knocks over other bowling pins,” says Woz. “What is the path to get there? Thank God I’m not a businessman—I can’t really be expected to have the answers.”
Unfortunately for all of us, the Woz won’t get that reality show, this year, anyway. But his youth, and his computer-world-changing partnership with Steve Jobs, will be immortalized in a movie. Actually, three. In April, there was Funny or Die’s 80-minute iSteve, starring former Mac spokesman Justin Long as Jobs and Lost’s Jorge Garcia as Woz; Aaron Sorkin’s writing an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs for Sony Pictures; and, this week, Jobs will hit theaters, starring Ashton Kutcher as the company’s Übermensch front man and Josh Gad as Apple’s engineer-in-chief. “It’s the new Star Wars franchise!” Gad has proclaimed.
Woz has only seen clips of Jobs, like the one in which an excited Jobs tries to impart to a disbelieving Woz his vision of the social impact of computers—which Woz says is exactly backward. “It was like, I told you. I was the one who told Steve what this was going to lead to,” says Woz. When I tell him that he comes off pretty well in the movie—the moral compass who stays true to his engineering roots as Jobs falls deeper into the hole of corporate megalomania—Woz asks, “How am I going to come off bad? Because that is actually true.”
In one horrifying scene, when Apple goes public, Jobs denies stock shares to a number of old friends who’d been building computers with them since they were in high school. “Does it have me saving them, giving them my shares?” asks Woz, who did start a “Woz Plan,” wherein he gave millions of dollars in stock to several key people, and sold more low-priced shares to about 80 other employees who’d been shut out. “They all made a house off my stock.”
He does still worry about how his onetime partner will be portrayed—though he says Jobs’s company did “some evil, evil things,” Woz remains almost obscenely good-natured and gracious toward the man who used Woz’s technology to make himself a global icon and his company one of the richest in the world. “Steve’s always shown me the most respect. He never once said nasty things to me. He always treated me with respect, because I did give a good machine.”
Woz tells me that in the last year of his life, Jobs “called maybe about four times, because he was really going back to try to recall the old days every time we’d talk. ‘Do you remember when we started? Did you ever think we’d get this far?’ You know, by then the company was like the biggest company in the world, so he was reminiscing very fondly about the early times, where basically I would develop one thing after another after another for myself for fun, and he’d find a way to get some money for it.” Not that Woz holds a grudge. “I just wanted to be one of the fun-loving people. Steve instantly wanted to be a big, successful businessman and all that. I didn’t want the press to ever talk to me. I didn’t want people to ever ask for an autograph. I couldn’t understand why they did. I don’t even want any notoriety for bringing the world personal computers and all that. I just wanted to be known as a great engineer that connected chips with wires better than anybody else.” Though he does admit to one great ambition: “I want to get 750,000 on the original Game Boy Tetris,” he says. “The best I ever got was 702,000.”
“I wasn’t attached to just making my money grow into more money and reading the financial papers. That stress. Money isn’t a factor in my life,” he says, though his estimated wealth is $100 million. “The tech-giant people—it’s a big power, money, wealth crowd that I never wanted to be a part of in my life. I want to be around interesting people. Engineers thinking of new product ideas do inspire me.”
Engineering-wise, he’s been mostly retired since he left Apple in 1985 to complete his undergraduate degree at UC-Berkeley, develop the first universal remote control, become a fifth-grade teacher, and write his memoir, iWoz. There were also guest appearances on, yes, two reality shows: fake-dating comedian Kathy Griffin for My Life on the D-List, and a stint on season eight of Dancing With the Stars, where he received the lowest score in six seasons and was compared by one judge to “a Teletubby going mad at a gay-pride parade.” He was kept alive by fan support for four weeks, and after his departure, wrote 27 handwritten letters to his fellow stars and dancers about why they were so good. And he’s been super-busy staying in touch with his fans on a seemingly never-ending speaking tour, which intensified after Jobs’s death and is really how he spends his days now. “I’m just flying all the time. I’ll be in South Korea one day and Cancún a couple days later. You’re like a rock star, except rock stars get to pick their own cities.”
Woz even met Janet on a MacMania cruise, when he took a class she was teaching, and he later wooed her with a math trick, which he also demonstrated to me. “Before, it was just like, ‘Oh, he’s a super-nice guy.’ But there are a million nice people,” says Janet. “Then he did the math trick on me. I kept that piece of paper.”
Woz says he doesn’t “do years,” but they’ve been married for five; they tied the knot on 8/8/08, which Woz chose so he’d remember their anniversary (he still forgets). That day, they happened to be at an international Segway-polo tournament in Indiana called the Woz Challenge Cup—he basically invented the sport—and their rings were from a gumball machine, made out of rubber.
It’s amazing to see the man who gave us the personal-computer revolution so wide-eyed and devoted to a technology as straightforward as a Segway. (He was the first person to buy one, and he even gives me a lesson, but cuts it short because my reckless driving makes him nervous.) Then again, Woz doesn’t consider himself a qualified engineer anymore; he’s out of practice, and the machines are so much more complicated. “You see, the world’s changed,” he says. “Someday, these machines are going to get conscious. I think there’s a good chance they’re going to think better than humans, and they’re going to run companies better than humans, and getting rid of the slow humans to make more money for the companies.”
As he descends into this techno-dystopia, he still sounds upbeat. “The trouble is we can’t turn these machines off. Maybe at first we’ll be pet dogs well taken care of. The only problem is, if they somehow decide that they don’t need clean air, they don’t need the things humans do, because they didn’t live a human life.” He goes on. “I think that if they really have consciousness, some of them will have religion, and they’ll really look at us as their creators and gods, at least until our species no longer exists. So that’s a good side. We won’t have to do anything. We’ll just lay back and get all the goods in the world.”
Shockingly for a connoisseur of new technology, Woz doesn’t have broadband at his house. He managed to wire the local schools and even installed a radio tower in town to provide Internet back in the early days before Wi-Fi, but for some reason the hills where he lives are out of range. “We can order an iTunes movie; we cannot watch it,” he says. What would Woz watch? He only TiVos two TV shows: DWTS and The Big Bang Theory, which he also appeared on, as himself. He’s gone through all six seasons from start to finish twice and wants to do it again, taking notes this time. “I really, totally empathize with all the people that are in it that have relationship problems, because I was there at a part in my life, and I still don’t really know how to talk to people. When I hear them talking normal small talk in parties, I don’t know what to say,” he says. “There are parts where I cry—all that relationship stuff. I can’t wait to see season seven.
“I cry at movies real easy, real easy,” he admits. “I cry at almost every movie we go to. I cry over the fact that somebody could make something so beautiful.” It’s a lot like what he seems to love about Apple products. “We get the same sort of feeling, even about an iPhone 5. Somebody made something so beautiful,” he says. “All they had to do was make a phone, but they did it a lot better.”
*This article originally appeared in the August 19, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.