Now I can’t verify the biographical facts as they are written in the book quoted below – and I don’t expect Steve Jobs to come back to confirm or deny – but here are some choice bits anyway.
Steve Jobs called long-time rival and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates “unimaginative” and not really a product person, according to a biography of the deceased Apple chief executive.
Let’s not forget that these guys – Gates, Jobs, Wozniak et al – grew out of the home-brew or kit computer “craze” of the early ’70s and were busy trying to firstly make sense of it all, then make something of it and lastly to make a buck. A lot of bright people were in on it and there were ideas aplenty about where microcomputers would go next. Most people could see that there was hobbyist potential and a few – not just Jobs and Gates – saw a broader market. There was luck as well as skill involved in picking the right processor and operating system and betting on what applications would sell best. I would say that almost all of these guys (and they were mostly guys, sadly) were “imaginative”. And most of them knew something was going to happen. That Jobs and Gates had ideas and luck is unquestionable. They also ended up with some pretty good products. But for many years it was Bill Gates who tussled with IBM for the lion’s share of the software market. Whereas Jobs spent many years fighting for scraps in niche markets – until he had better luck with a late but highly successful run at the MP3 and smartphone markets.
“Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology,” Jobs told author Walter Isaacson.
“He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.“
Sounds like a bit of guilt showing in that comment. Picking on a guy because he’s giving stuff away to help others? Hmmm. Now let’s get this comment in perspective. Jobs – if quoted correctly – is partly right. Gates had a lot of luck fall his way when IBM basically gifted him what became MS-DOS. He can thank his lucky stars – or perhaps Digital Research’s lawyers – that IBM didn’t wait around a bit longer for Gary Kildall to talk with them about CP/M. But Gates also made the most of that luck and leveraged it into a mammoth software enterprise that in many ways dwarfs Apple’s efforts by scale and reach – even now. Although MS Windows possibly drew at least some inspiration from Apple’s mouse-and-GUI-based operating system, and certainly became embroiled in a legal wrangle with Apple over the design, it can’t be said that Apple invented that interface either. Surely we have Xerox to thank for that. So it’s hard not to imagine the pot calling the kettle black here in some ways.
It’s clear also that whilst Microsoft and Gates prospered Jobs and Apple stumbled. There were product successes as well as failures but big hits were few and far between. Instead Apple wedged itself – with the Mac – tightly into the graphic design and audio niches and hoped for the best. There was even talk of IBM buying the Apple computer business at one stage but – possibly – it was too far gone and a bad fit in a market that was already well matured and likely to decline. Where Jobs finally found his luck – or best design – was with a mass-market MP3 player that used a slick interface and easy-access online content. The iTunes methodology in particular has been a spectacular success at locking in customers. Coupled with great marketing Apple has made a spectacular turnaround on all fronts, Mac included. But Jobs wasn’t first with MP3 players, either. Nor even smartphones. Or maybe even Tablets (it’s certainly disputable). He even ran into difficulties over the very name of the company, given that the Beatles had already put the name “Apple” out into market place Jobs had to fight a legal battle to share it.
Pot calling kettle back, again?
Whilst there are some genuinely nice ideas incorporated into Apple’s products they are rarely, truly, cutting-edge. In many ways Apple has – at least recently, with the shift in emphasis away from their mainstay personal computers into smaller but broader mobile consumer devices – made a late move into each market and simply offered a better, perhaps more charismatic package at a higher price and – get this – sometimes fewer features than the competition. And consequently taken that market over as their own. Wow.
Now that’s great marketing, fantastic product leadership and stellar business strategy – but I don’t see it as particularly wholesome and wonderful either. But others may not agree!