Sunday, June 05, 2005

A chat with Woz

I had a little chat with Steve Wozniak today. He's coming out for the iX 2005 conference, and I wanted to spend some time with him, explaining what content would work for our audience. But man, it's always erie speaking to Steve because it's like communicating with Thomas Edison in these sense of being in awe of the guy and his innovation capability. And we've known one another since college, so I'm not a groupee.

The conference will focus on Innovation: To Lead or to Follow. That's a huge issue for Asian IT companies. From the Japanese camera and watch companies after the war (WWII), to the Korean chaebols like Samsung today (chaebols are like Japanese keiretsu or zaibatsu), they always succeed first as fast followers. By the way if you are interested in Asian fast follower case studies, be sure to read the Wired article Seoul Machine. It's a fact that Asian companies are good followers, but Asian managers don't like to talk about reverse engineering or any of their follow fast strategies. Makes it kind of hard to organize a conference on the topic.

Steve had a great insight: ultimately technology products depend on math and science, and that Asians are great in math and science, so IT product development should be a natural. But that's not the same as innovation (of course we agree on this). It takes something unique to move from passion about a problem or technical challenge, to finding an innovative solution and then on to making it into a flourishing business. Asian companies do often start with an MBA and an IT graduate working together, but they don't usually start in garages... they're not wired for that.

It is said that in Singapore a lot of IT companies have their first experience with innovation when they go for a government grant. The folks giving the grant ask "what's the innovation" or "what IPR to you own". The so-called entrepreneurs come up with an innovation strategy as a result of needing to draft a grant application. It doesn't work, of course. Real innovation is inspired not cultivated.

There is a genuine debate in Singapore on the nature of creativity, in particular whether entrepreneurs are born or bred. This reflects the mentality of government agencies believing perhaps naively that creativity and innovation can be stimulated by grants or other incentives. Here's one quote from a recent lecture by our Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew (referring to an innovator he has known):

"Do we need more of him? Yes, I think we do. Will we have more of him? Yes, I
think we can. How? We change our mindsets, we change our educational approach,
we make venture capital available to fund such people with bright ideas. When
your venture capital, investing in California, out of 10, eight may fail, two
will succeed, then you make up for all your other failures, and that's
entrepreneurship. But it's not the same as services and industry. You have to
invent, innovate and do something which other people find useful and want and
pay for it."
He's certainly right about the formative role of the education system. As Guy Kawasaki pointed out on a visit to Singapore:

"The educational system has encouraged the society to learn and pick up
knowledge and facts but not necessarily to be creative, which is a key
factor in entrepreneurship."

I'd expect Steve to pick up on similar themes in his talk, since he shares my own interest in learning and the use of educational technology. This really comes across in his interview with Slashdot (posted first week of the millenium).

My discussion today with Steve turned to other matters. He said that Asian companies are not excellent in providing useable manuals or 'having the buttons in the right places', particularly in first generation products. Obviously, useability is something that Apple excels at, and always has. Steve bemoaned the lack of useability in Japanese cars and he compared them to their better-designed European counterparts (though if I recall correctly he once did a TV commercial for Toyota).

I asked him to speak about his recent inventions and his recent companies like Wheels of Zeus. Steve is truly a serial innovator, and it's this ability to apply his engineering passion to one problem after another that reminds me of Thomas Edison. It's a truth in the valley and indeed here in Singapore that the companies may come and go, but the people are the same bunch of folks.