“I firmly believe that 50 years from now he’ll be remembered for his charitable work. No one will even remember what Microsoft is, and all the great entrepreneurs of this era, people will have forgotten Steve Jobs. There will be statues of Gates across the third world and … there’s a reasonable shot … because of his money, we will cure malaria.”
Malcolm Gladwell made the remark above at a recent appearance and it triggered a number of tweets across my feed. The question of Gates’ and Jobs’ relative level of accomplishment and how those accomplishments will manifest in the annals of history are spectacularly interesting ones, so I decided a blog post was in order. As Gladwell points out, the magnitude of Gates’ charitable work is compelling. I am neither a historian nor a sociologist, so my estimate of how history will view Gates’ charitable work (and Jobs’ near total lack of it) is of little value. For this reason, I’m going to keep it out of scope and instead assess the long-term value of each man’s work.
I tend to be of the school of thought that technological evolution is, for the most part, fixed. I have explained this in blog posts before, but will attempt to summarize. Essentially, I believe there are several laws of technical evolution (technical devices are getting smaller, technology makes global communication increasingly easier, etc.). In general, the laws don’t change, we just make progress down the path. There are exceptions; the micro-chip started the law of smaller and smaller devices, the telephone/telegraph started the law of global communication, the assembly line started a law of standardization, etc…. Neither Gates nor Jobs had this level of impact. Neither they (nor their companies) invented a technology that changed the laws of technical evolution. Instead, both men accelerated our journey down one or more of these paths.
Gates primary achievement was in accelerating the development of personal computing at least 5 or 10 years. The idea that the operating system was separate from both the hardware and the software allowed companies to make innovations on the hardware and software independently. One doesn’t have to look any further than the drubbing that Microsoft gave Apple to know that it was the superior model. Gates deserves credit for helping computers go from novelty to necessity much faster than anyone could have dreamed. The MS Office line of products also introduced the corporate world to standardization and cross company communication. Even though Hotmail was an acquisition rather than an in-house project, I think Microsoft deserves some credit for shepparding in the era where an email address would identify you as often (more often?) than a phone number. The rest of Gates’ successful business career is a result not of fruitful innovation but cunning business. It’s hard to give points for knock offs of Netscape (Internet Explorer), iPhone (windows phone), or AOL (Live Messenger).
I have said it before, but I’ll say it again in this context, Jobs’ significant achievements come mostly in popularizing forms of technology that would have taken many more years to reach the masses if he hadn’t been there. The Macintosh made us comfortable with a computer in our homes. The iPod made us comfortable with music in our pockets. The iPhone (probably his greatest achievement) made us comfortable with being tethered to the internet constantly. The App Store made cell phones the domain of anyone who knew how to code. Without the iPhone, Twitter (and instant broadcast messaging in general), Foursquare (along with all location based features), face-to-face chat (along with many other communications vehicles that require the internet), and hundreds of other things we take for granted today would still be years from being plausible. Jobs has more minor achievements in film making too, but I believe those to be mostly out of scope for this conversation. The iPad is also something that I think is just a phase in evolution.
Comparing the two is easy. Jobs (with the help of his team at Apple) moved the laws of technology forward further than anyone I can think of. I can not underscore how much further behind we would be right now if smartphone development had been left to Android and RIM. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to guess that smartphone adoption would be 50% lower in this country. We may not all have smartphones in 50 years, but we will have something that connects us in a very similar way to how smartphones connect us today (a skin implant, a pair of glasses or contacts, etc.). So 50 years from now, if history was a technologist, Jobs would have the upperhand. Gladwell is probably right though, niether man changed technology the way Alexander Graham Bell or Johann Gutenberg did. If it weren’t for Gates’ billions and the enormous good he is doing with them, both would probably fade from history’s memory. Maybe someone will Google (or whatever they’ll do then) this post and remember just for a second what Jobs’ did.