It’s difficult to find two people who have had a greater influence on people’s lives than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Over the last quarter century they have shaped business and social interactions in profound ways. It’s unlikely that either will disappear from public consciousness anytime soon.
So, it came with a bit of shock when Malcolm Gladwell—author of bestsellers Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point—recently opined that Steve Jobs will likely be forgotten in half a century but Bill Gates will remain in the public’s collective memory. At a recent speaking engagement at the Toronto Public Library, Gladwell stated, “I firmly believe that 50 years from now [Bill Gates] will be remembered for his charitable work… and all the great entrepreneurs of his era will be forgotten, including Steve Jobs.”
Not surprisingly, the comments set the computing industry and the public abuzz. While the Microsoft vs. Apple debate is nothing new, Gladwell—no shrinking violet to controversy—managed to take the issue to a new and previously unimagined level. “There will be statues of Bill Gates across the Third World,” Gladwell exhorted. “There’s a reasonable shot that—because of his money—we will cure malaria.”
For many, the argument is a bit like comparing, well, apples and oranges. “It’s a silly comment,” asserts Don Norman, a former Apple Fellow who is cofounder and consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group and the author of The Design of Everyday Things. Apple and Microsoft have both had a huge impact on our lives. The companies and their founders will be remembered for a very long time.”
Walter Isaacson, author of the biography, Steve Jobs, agrees that both have made their mark. “Steve Jobs will be remembered 100 years from now the way we remember Henry Ford or Walt Disney. They produced products that completely changed our lives,” he says. “There’s no question that Bill Gates has done an enormous amount for philanthropy but it’s also arguable that Steve Jobs has transformed education…and the iPad will revolutionize textbooks.”
Norman points out that while Jobs wasn’t a computer scientist or a designer, and he didn’t actually invent or build anything on his own, “He was a master at understanding the public would embrace and delivering breakthrough products.” In fact, Jobs’ influence rippled through the music and movie industries. He radically reshaped the former through the iPod and iTunes and the latter through Pixar Animation Studios. As Norman puts it: “When you examine Steve Jobs it’s a complex legacy.”
Norman believes that Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak will almost certainly fade into history. So will Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen—along with numerous other computing industry luminaries from the 1970s to present. However, the people that founded and ran the world’s most influential companies—the Thomas Watsons and Henry Fords—will always be remembered on a certain level. “Gates and Jobs really did change the world,” he says.
Concludes Isaacson: “Society appreciates the role of philanthropists but also entrepreneurs and technologists. The computers, smartphones and tablets we’re using today have been shaped heavily by Steve Jobs. It’s not something that will be easily forgotten.”
Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR.
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