I have been re-reading Hard Drive – the very old and rather rare biography of Bill Gates. the book was published in 1992, so it doesn’t cover most of ‘modern’ Microsoft products. Rather, it’s a story of the foundations, because by ’92, Microsoft had already become a little behemoth, and Gates was still a very young man then.
Nowadays it is very fashionable to like Steve Jobs. It’s almost as though just invoking his name makes you ‘cool’. I know a wannabe entrepreneur who told me, ‘I treat my employees like shit and I am impatient with my developers… I am like Steve Jobs.’ Yeah right.
I haven’t read Steve Jobs’ biography (yes, the famous one) and I intend to read it sometime in the near future, but I doubt that it will change my mind about Gates being the real hero of the computer revolution. In fifty years, both Jobs and Gates will probably be forgotten by the unwashed masses; but for computer scientists and computer historians, Gates will be the revolutionary, the visionary. Jobs will be one of the multitude of fads and trends that will go in and out of fashion between now and then.
I like Gates a lot more than Jobs (this is, I hasten to add, purely judged by entrepreneurship and engineering) because Gates focused on problems; Jobs focused on solutions. In other words, Gates seems to me to be the kind of guy who went out into the world and looked at what people wanted, and used that as a starting point. Jobs went into himself and tried to discover what he could do well, what would make him happy, and used that as a starting point.
I do not see anything wrong with Jobs’ approach and certainly he deserves a lot of adulation for his ‘internal courage’ and consistency of expression. But let’s face it. Jobs’ career was about making pretty white boxes and selling a lot of them. Did the iPod revolutionize the world? No, it didn’t. True, it opened up a new industry of digital music. But today, downloadable music exists, the iPod hardly does. Even the industry has faded out – who buys MP3 players any more? Jobs was possibly motivated by the fact that he knew that he could make an MP3 player better than everyone else out there. And he went ahead and did it.
On the other hand, Gates made his career by building permanent stuff: languages. compilers. operating systems. office applications. He did not do it because he knew how to make a perfect operating system – in fact, he didn’t. A lot of early Microsoft software was buggy, and it took till the 3rd or 4th iteration before it became world-class. But Gates deserves respect for identifying a problem and providing a solution – not just out of the need to scratch an intellectual itch, but out of a vision to make computing ‘fuller’, to solve all the unsolved problems, to create (however imperfectly) a brave new world, this world today, where computers and software are ubiquitous. When he made his billions, he started looking at bigger problems: water. disease. education. And there, too, he isn’t perfect — but he is the man in the arena, he isn’t afraid of trying, and he is driven not by the elegance of the solution but by the importance of the problem.
Real engineer, real entrepreneur.