With Apple and the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) dominating the news today, I thought I’d pay tribute to a great technologist and a great human being. And I don’t mean Steve Jobs.
I mean (gasp!) Bill Gates.
That’s right, Bill Gates, the nerdy, cutthroat entrepreneur who invented the operating system we all love to hate. The man who led the most successful, and one of the least loved, companies in all of techdom. In my opinion, Gates, who is dedicating the second half of his life to ending malaria, is the real hero, and to paraphrase futurist Malcolm Gladwell, in 50 years Gates will be remembered and people will ask “Steve Jobs? Who was he?”
Gladwell, the author of many popular and thought-provoking books, including “The Tipping Point,” spoke recently at The Toronto Public Library (check out the video below–and thanks to the folks at Fortune who did the editing), and said:
“Gates is the most ruthless capitalist and he wakes up one morning and says ‘Enough.’ And he steps down, takes his money and takes his money off the table. I firmly believe that 50 years from now he will be remembered for his charitable work and no one will even remember what Microsoft is … and people will have forgotten Steve Jobs. There will be statues of Gates across the Third World.There’s a reasonable shot that because of his money we will cure malaria.”
Of Jobs Gladwell said:
“Every single idea he had came from somebody else and he’d be the first to say this. He was shameless [in taking credit for other people’s ideas] — he was also a brilliant businessman and entrepreneur [But] he was a self-promoter on a level we have rarely seen.”
Strong stuff. Like Gladwell, I believe that ultimately Gates’s contributions as the head of a charitable foundation are much more significant than what Jobs did. But unlike Gladwell, I don’t feel the need to criticize Jobs.
I’ve often argued that business is not war and it’s not a zero-sum game. If a business makes money for its shareholders, it is succeeding. It doesn’t need to kill the competition, it merely needs do well enough to thrive. And so it is with remarkable individuals. Somehow it seems that if one man is great, the other has to be lesser. That’s not true. I think Jobs will be remembered in much the same way Henry Ford is remembered for pioneering mass production of the automobile.
Like Jobs, Ford did not invent the car. I don’t know who did. But Ford took someone else’s idea, developed it, refined it and changed the world. So did Jobs.
That said, I would add that ultimately, Apple and its products are really just “stuff,” or more formally, commodities. Sure, Apple products are beautiful, fun commodities that enhance our lives in much the same way Walt Disney brought joy to millions. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as they used to say on Seinfeld.
But commodities are, in the end, simply things, and the overwhelming focus in the media on Jobs’s death last year, and the WWDC event this week, are rather stunning examples of what Karl Marx termed the “fetishism of commodities.” We all know that Apple and all technology companies exist to sell products or services to make money. The more they convince us that we absolutely must own those products, the more they sell and the richer they get.
I’m not saying that’s wrong. It’s simply how a market economy works. But what is wrong is the pernicious belief that we are what we own. Apple’s products have become must-have fashion accessories, in some ways not so different than the Rolex watches sported by the wealthy. Check out the guy at the next table in the café. He has a MacBook Air and you don’t. Bummer. You still have an iPhone 3G S and not the iPhone 4s? What’s wrong with you?
After leaving Microsoft, Gates and his wife Melinda made their foundation into one of the world’s premier charities. Since 1994, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation amassed an endowment of more than $31 billion in funds to fight the world’s most difficult issues and have, so far, given away more than $25 billion.
No disrespect to Steve Jobs, but who is the real hero?
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.