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Apple co-founder Wozniak still has the inventing bug

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak speaks to reporters on the red carpet before delivering the keynote address at an Audi speakers forum at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto on Thursday.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

'My value was my ability to make things with fewer parts," said Steve Wozniak, the man who made all of our lives easier, speaking on the topic of innovation. "The most for the least."

And that is true. Before inventing the Apple II home computer and co-founding that company, Wozniak, the code-monkey maestro, Silicon Valley icon and self-described "engineer for life," worked for Atari in the early 1970s. One of his first modernizations was to radically reduce the number of computer chips required for arcade video games.

And yet, some 44 years later, participating in the inaugural event of the Audi Speakers Forum in Toronto this past Wednesday evening, Wozniak was the opposite of economical. In a "fireside chat" held in a conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel, the CBC's Dwight Drummond was more bystander than moderator as Wozniak spoke indefatigably – about his love of nerdy pranks, his relationship with Siri, his childhood ambitions and his golden days of invention.

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Was he being paid by the word?

"I had magic pouring out of me for 10 years," Wozniak said to a group of 150 or so professionals, not geeks. He also had tales and nuggets of wisdom pouring out of him for about 60 minutes, his audience feeding on his every utterance as if they were the smoked salmon snacks served earlier at the reception. At the end of what could only be described as a performance, Wozniak and Drummond and the Audi Canada president (and spiffy German import) Daniel Weissland all roughly said the same thing, that "we could talk all night." And nobody doubted that the Woz could do that and then some.

All to say Audi got its money's worth with the agreeably verbose Wozniak. The company's speaker series is to feature "thought leaders" in the fields of art, fashion, design and literature. The chatty visionary Wozniak, portrayed by Seth Rogen in the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, set the bar high.

Before his onstage discussion (and an earlier red-carpet situation), Wozniak spoke with The Globe and Mail. Portly and gregarious, the 66-year-old Segway enthusiast was accompanied by various handlers and protected by Secret Service types who spoke into their cufflinks. Clad in black slacks and blazer, the white-bearded Wozniak explained to the photographer that he was wearing dress shoes instead of tennis shoes for the third time in five years.

In conversation, Wozniak does not disappoint. Questions are met with exactly no hesitation before his answers are given – his next hem or haw will be his first of those. The man's enthusiasm seems boundless; it is impossible to imagine him as discouraged.

"I wanted to fight the system," says Wozniak, who was firmly asked to leave the University of Colorado in 1969 after a prank hacking of the school's fledgling computer system. Asked about his favourite accomplishment, he talks about starting up a dial-a-joke service in the San Francisco Bay area. "It was very expensive to do. You had to lease an answering machine from AT&T, which was a monopoly, that cost half as much as the rent on my apartment."

Was it a success?

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"I had the most-called single phone number in the United States," Wozniak says. "I told Polish jokes. This was in the days before political correctness."

That was in the days before everything. In the past, Wozniak has said the groundbreaking late-sixties sci-fi series Star Trek was one of the inspirations behind Apple Inc. One of the themes of the show was the wariness of technology – that computers would run roughshod over humanity.

"I had those fears myself for a while," admits Wozniak, who boldly went where no man has gone before himself. "A lot of people did back then. But now I know we're only going to build machines that are going to help us."

Asked about the next frontier, Wozniak doesn't talk in terms of microchips and thingamajiggers, but about making things more human. "When I have a thought, I don't want to go through structures and procedures to get an answer. There's still a long ways to go as far as making devices easier, in a right-brained way, to communicate with."

Communication. The man wants to talk, is all. None of it small, though.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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