Why Wozniak Is Now the Front Man for Solid-State Storage

The Apple co-founder tells Flash Memory Summit entertainingly about the state of NAND flash, how he became an innovator and other topics.

steve wozniak

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--An industry is helped measurably when it has a front man who's easily recognizable. It's even better when that person is universally liked.
For the NAND flash industry in 2014 and for the past few years, that man would be Steve Wozniak. The Woz brings his story as Apple co-founder, chief scientist for solid-state storage maker Fusion-io (now part of SanDisk), middle school teacher, lifelong device designer and builder--and former "Dancing with the Stars" contestant--wherever he goes.
With one of his Fusion-io colleagues, vice president Lee Caswell, lobbing him questions, Wozniak addressed a near-full house of about 1,500 attendees Aug. 6 at the ninth annual Flash Memory Summit here at the Convention Center.
For the record: Fusion-io ioDrive, introduced in 2008, was the first direct-attached, solid-state server-side storage array that uses PCI Express connectivity. The ioDrive is small--barely larger than a typical handheld device--that uses advanced NAND flash chip clustering to perform the same functions as a spinning desk storage array, only with much faster read/write performance and with much less power draw.
Fusion-io's PCIe drive is capable of 180,000 random read/write IOPS--more than 100 times faster than a typical SATA (serial ATA) drive. PCIe was introduced by Intel in 2004. It is a computer expansion card standard based on point-to-point serial links rather than a shared parallel bus architecture, and is designed to replace the older PCI, PCI-X and AGP standards.

The State of NAND Flash Today
Wozniak's topics on Aug. 6: The state of NAND flash today, how he became an innovator, why people are actually falling in love with personal devices and why he was a "Tom Swift" book fan, among others.
Wozniak, 63, joined Fusion-io in February 2009 as chief scientist because "NAND flash is the premier memory product of the day. People talk about a lot of competition to it: phase change memory, magneto resistance and all this, and that they'll all be cheaper and faster and denser. But you have to get that density factor down. They're not there yet.
"It's like the economies of scale. So many NAND chips are made for so many products now that they're just the cheapest memory going. It's so far along the curve, that for a low price you can make a chip with upteen gigabytes; you gotta equal that with other technologies before they'll take over," Wozniak said.
Flash represents a big shakeup in storage, and Fusion-io is innovating within the sector ("Plug the NAND flash straight into the server; that's a whole new category," he said). Yet flash is convincing Wozniak that "we might be near the end of Moore's law. We're getting down on flash to storing a 1 and 0 with eight electrons, so you're starting to get down to the point that you'll need to add more error correction bits then you'll save in the dimension shrinkages."
That technicalese for "we're simply running out of physical space on the media itself."

Woz Challenges Storage Developers
Wozniak put out a direct challenge to software developers during his 30-minute stage appearance: He'd like to see somebody come up with an operating system and programming language that treats storage a lot differently.
"Now that we have NAND flash, and it can be implemented in ways that are nearly as fast as DRAM (dynamic random access memory), do we need to write our software with both variables in memory and records in storage? Wouldn't it be neat if the operating system had no storage commands, and the programming language had no storage commands, and you just kept your arrays as big B-trees in the NAND flash memory? All structured that way, all the time," Wozniak said.
"I'm waiting to see someone do one example of that and show it to the world."
Asked how he came to be a product designer and subsequently an innovator, Wozniak said that he always used to like to build his own devices--mostly as a result of outside-of-school projects--and show them to people to get their reactions.
"I was always the geek, the outsider, so I just did my own stuff very privately. Whatever I wanted to do for myself was OK. My goal in life was to design things and show them to friends. Show them to people around me, show 'em to co-workers, so they would say, 'Wow, that is cool!' or 'That is a really great engineering job!' I wanted to be known as a good engineer," Wozniak said.

Woz Talks Innovation
Wozniak, who now is as talkative as they come, said he used to be so shy he wouldn't talk to people, except when he was showing off something he had built out of "little chips and all."
Explaining his thoughts on how innovation happens, Wozniak said: "Sometimes when you're doing it for yourself, you do it well. Look at the Tesla automobile. Elon Musk is designing that car for himself, his family, his needs and that's why it's so good and why the company is so good. iPhone: Steve Jobs was nit-picking to make sure products came out good by his own definition of a good final product.
"When you design something for other people--that's when they tell you, 'Here's what market research tells us'--then you're not designing it for yourself and you don't have as much motivation to make it beyond excellent," Woziak said.
Wozniak said he's a bit concerned that while personal IT devices are certainly helping people live more complete lives, people are getting way too attached to their phones and tablets.
"We speak to our phones, and they speak back to us--it's like it's another friend," he said. "I see all these people walking around, holding onto this thing. Scientists say that their brain waves and muscle patterns are reacting [to the device] like they do when you're in love with a person.

If Devices Knew Our Hearts and Souls ...
"If these devices had consciousness, and they knew me inside, they would know our hearts and souls better than any human being, and I wouldn't want to spend my time with humans as much. Kids now are getting away from people-to-people. Well, they have their own communities of people to people. Now the shy person has a way to make a lot more contact than ever before. If this became like a best friend, it could be a guide for education, for what I should do in life, decisions I have that are complicated, and so on.
"I hope we're on the good tracks of that. I hope we don't go too far to where the machines are smarter than us," Wozniak said.
During a break in his computer career after he resigned from his position as Apple's chief technologist, Wozniak taught school for eight years in the Los Gatos School District, showing children how to use computers to do their school work.
"I taught them the importance of computers. I always had a little question for them: I said, 'What do you do if your mother's in the hospital? The correct answer was: 'Back up your computer and get to the hospital.' "

On the Impact of the Internet of Things
About the Internet of things, Wozniak said that it's too early for us to know many of the implications about how this will change our lives. "When we first came out with personal computers, people said: 'What are you going to do, replace a $100 typewriter with a $2,000 computer and printer? Nobody really knew what the uses were. The Internet of things: How this will apply to our life and really help us--we have a few guesses, like sensors all around a room, to help the thermostat keep better temperatures, and so on.
"We're onto some weak ideas now, but the real killer ideas are going to come in the future."
Wozniak, for one, likes having his personal devices--like phones, thermostats and cars--connected. "If my wife were at home, I'd make my Tesla horn honk, just to let her know I'm thinking of her," he joked. "But she's not home at the moment."
In closing, Wozniak talked about some of his early influences. "I used to read Tom Swift Jr. books," he said. "Most guys read the Hardy Boys, and girls read Nancy Drew, but those of us on our block who were from engineering families read Tom Swift. He would go into a lab, and his dad had a company. He would invent something, build it and come out two weeks later with a contraption that could maybe trap an alien in a plasma force or something.
"I lived in an electronics community (San Jose, Calif.). When we did gardening for our neighbors, we would ask to not be paid in money, but in parts from their mayonnaise jars."

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...