Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs
I’m in technology transition. I had to hand back my MacBook when I left HBR last week and I haven’t gotten around to ordering a new one yet, so after a few days of trying to use the iPad as a comfortable input device (stop laughing) I’m using a circa-2007 IBM ThinkPad that until recently was sitting under several inches of file folders. When I switched to the Mac after more than 20 years as a DOS/Windows user, it was like escaping a long-term abusive relationship. Suddenly everything was easier, more pleasant. So moving back to Windows software and Windows-inspired hardware, even for just a short time, has been unsettling and frustrating. I can’t wait for it to end. (My pal Ania Wieckowski has a tweet this morning on the matter, sort-of.)
It’s taken as self-evident that working on a Mac is superior to working on a PC. We’ve personalized that, in everything ranging from the “I’m a Mac” commercials to the relative merits of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Apple founder Steve Jobs. (Some of the comparisons are absurd.) I’m partway through Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs, in which nearly every quote from Jobs about Gates exudes condescension and envy. Everything from the experience of using Gates’s Microsoft products to the business tactics Microsoft deployed to maintain its monopoly offended Jobs’s inextricable design and moral sensibilities.
But what is Gates’s mission on the planet? For decades, he must have thought it was a computer on every desk, and he made great progress in that endeavor, even if in both his DOS and Windows products he delivered experiences that only software architects who aspire to the complicated, idiosyncratic, and confusing could admire. But I suspect that over the long-term, the value for society created by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will more than compensate for any first-world unhappiness we feel in having to click a “Start” button to make something stop. Bad memory management is no match for working to eradicate malaria.
Jobs was a firm believer in his own immortality; the authorized Isaacson biography and the publication of his sister Mona Simpson’s eulogy for him are merely opening salvos in that campaign. Jobs still competed with Gates even after Gates went on to other endeavors (you could see it in their last joint public appearance, as I reported here). I am willing to bet the value of the MacBook I will soon order that Jobs has some sort of insanely elegant posthumous philanthropic venture that we’ll hear about shortly. It will be beautiful, no doubt. It may even be effective.
I know Jobs was a genius. I know his contributions to technology outstrip Gates’s. We know what Jobs will be remembered for hundreds of years on. I suspect our great-grandchildren will remember Bill Gates as an inspired philanthropist who brought tremendous resources and imagination to a handful of the 21st century’s most apparently intractable problems. How did he make his fortune in the first place? I suspect our great-grandchildren won’t know. That won’t be the thing about him that will be worth remembering.