People have written books and made movies about their rivalry.
And while Jobs is gone and Gates has embarked on one of the most incredible second acts in human history, it's still hard to think of another personal competition, certainly in tech, that compares to it.
I think that's why I was so enthralled--moved, even--by the answer Gates shared recently when he was asked about Jobs, and whether he thinks Jobs deserves the "deity status" that some modern people have ascribed to him.
Here's part of what Gates had to say when he was interviewed on the Armchair Expert podcast:
Jobs was a genius. What he did, particularly when he came back to Apple... His ability to pick people, his taste in people, even for skill sets that he didn't have himself...it's truly phenomenal.
And there's no chance in hell it happens without him....
So that period between when he goes back to Apple and when he sadly dies quite young, no one else can do what he did there.
I couldn't have done that. I don't know anyone who could have.
I suppose what I find most moving and even surprising about Gates's answer here is that five-word sentence toward the end: "I couldn't have done that."
At the height of their rivalry, of course, it was about each of them insisting they could do more than the other. They annoyed the heck out of each other with their pronouncements, too. And they both seemed to believe what they were saying.
After hearing the podcast, I've spent a bit of time scouring Gates's comments about Jobs over the last few years.
I'm sure I've missed some, because Gates spends a lot of time talking with people now, and it's not as though Jobs doesn't come up often.
But I think there are three areas in particular where Gates has expressed respect, and perhaps even some jealousy, for Jobs's abilities as a visionary leader.
- The first is what Gates talks about here: the ability to identify the right people to recruit.
- The second is the sheer force of Jobs's personality, which wasn't always fun to be around, but includes his ability to motivate those "right people" to work with him to achieve his objectives--what was often referred to as his "reality distortion field."
- And the third is Jobs's "magical" abilities as a public speaker.
"Steve Jobs was always more of a natural at that," Gates told the Wall Street Journal last year. "I wish I could be as magical because I have causes that are in some ways more impactful and I need to make sure they don't get ignored."
Maybe this resonates for you, too. I know that many of the good things I've accomplished, especially in business, were helped at least in part by competition with rivals I respected.
But it takes a big person to acknowledge that your rival accomplished something you couldn't have--and that he or she honed skills that you haven't been as successful at.
If I had to add a caveat to Gates's praise, it's that he focuses it largely on the things that Jobs accomplished after he returned to Apple--and therefore, toward the end of the men's active rivalry.
And I suspect it has to be affected by the wistful knowledge that while Gates continues to add to his legacy, Jobs is now an historical figure--and even by even the sheer joy of living long enough to develop the wisdom of age.
Still, if these kinds of reflections wind up forming the coda on the relationship between these two remarkable entrepreneurs, it's fitting and maybe even inspiring.
For better or worse, there's nothing like a deeply felt rivalry to drive people forward. And there's also probably nothing healthier than stepping back later to recognize why it worked.