In the book Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, authors Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli draw on extensive interviews--conducted over the course of their journalistic careers--to depict the life of the Apple co-founder. In the following excerpts, they recount the first of just two formal joint interviews with Steve Jobs, then running the ill-fated NeXT, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, which took place at Jobs’s home in July 1991.
In public, the two men had attacked each other regularly, even gleefully, and they would continue to do so for years. Steve cast Bill as a philistine with zero aesthetic sense and little originality. It was a view he'd hold throughout his life. Bill, he told me repeatedly, knew no other solution than throwing money and people at a problem, which was why Microsoft's software was so convoluted and mediocre. (Steve conveniently ignored his own spendthrift ways at NeXT.)
Bill bluntly painted Steve as a loser who had fallen from importance because of his own stupid decisions. He was relentless about NeXT's insignificance. Later in the 1990s, when Jobs supported the Department of Justice's effort to rein in the Microsoft monopoly, Gates repeatedly threw Steve in with the vast set of "losers" who "whined" about what he saw as his company's deserved success.
Face-to-face on this Sunday afternoon, the slights--and there were a few--were couched. After Bill attacked John Sculley for wanting to license Apple's operating system so other manufacturers could create Apple clones, Steve got a shot in at both Sculley and Gates. "I'm not interested in building a PC," Steve said, criticizing the standardization that Bill had promulgated. "Tens of millions of people needlessly use a computer that is far less good than it should be."
That eventually led to the only outright insult, which they both found funny. Making the case that Microsoft's dominance hindered innovation in the industry, Steve said, "In the MS-DOS world, there are hundreds of people making PCs."
"Right," said Bill.
"And there are hundreds of people making applications for those PCs."
"But they all have to pass through this very small orifice called Microsoft to get to one another."
"It's a very large orifice," Bill replied, leaning way back in his chair as he laughed. "I keep telling you it's being extended. . . . It's not even an orifice. We shouldn't have used that term."
"It's been used before," said Steve, grinning like a little kid.
"Which orifice?" Bill asked, grinning right back at Steve, before catching himself and leaning forward again. "Anyway . . .”
Bill was the steadier and more consistent of the two. His vision of the history of the industry was as assured as his sense of where it would go. "I wrote down in 1975, when I started the company," he explained, casting his extraordinary foresight as nothing more than a simple vocalization of what should have been obvious to everyone, "that there were two focuses of technology in terms of building computers. One was chips, the other was software."
He went on to add, "My approach to the PC market has been the same from the beginning. The goals of Microsoft to create the standards for that machine have been the same from day one."
He didn't apologize for any aspect of Microsoft's success. He wouldn't outright acknowledge its near monopoly, but he argued forcefully that standardization around his operating system and Intel's chips benefited everyone. "Now the latest chip technology passes through to the consumer so fast and so efficiently," he said.
Steve became most engaged when we started discussing whether the PC industry would ever again produce a breakthrough machine like the Mac. That was the kind of product that most interested Steve, of course. At every stage of his life, he always wanted to create devices that would completely reset the industry.
"Fundamentally," he explained, "the PC industry is taking the existing and repackaging it or making it run faster. I think that's much more valuable than I used to. But I also think that what's the real trick, and the real necessity to keep our industry healthy, is to balance that incremental improvement with some big steps. I worry about the big steps, and where they're going to come from."
Later he added, "The standard bearer needs a kick in the ass every once in a while. [Besides,] it's great for the creator of the deviant innovation. If they're right, there's a big pot of gold there, and the ability to make a contribution to the world."
Bill wasn't obsessed with the revolutionary. He knew that there was a place for breakthrough technologies, and that the nature of the tech business--indeed, human nature itself--guaranteed that such milestones would arise. But over the course of the interview he made clear that what was closer to his heart was the pain that such disruptions caused the corporate customers of his software. "All I want is a car that will run on the current streets," he explained. "I'm on this evolutionary path."
Very few people writing about this new industry in the mainstream press truly understood how personal computers had already begun to revert to institutional machines. This was mainly because it was easier for most journalists of the early 1990s to envision and get personally excited about the potential of educational software, or of managing their personal finances, or organizing their recipes in the "digital" kitchen, or imagining how amateur architects could design funky homes right on their home computers. Who wouldn't be excited about more power in the hands of people, the computer as an extension of the brain, a "bicycle for the mind," as Steve put it? This was the story of computing that got all the ink, and it was a story no one unfurled as well as Steve.
Bill Gates wasn't swayed by that romance. He saw it as a naïve fantasy that missed the point of the much more sophisticated things PCs could do for people in the enterprise. A consumer market can be an enormously profitable one--put simply, there are so many more people than businesses that if you sell them the right product you can mint money. But the personal computers of that time still didn't have enough power at a low enough price to excite the vast majority of consumers, or to change their lives in any meaningful way.
The business market, however, was a different beast. The potential volume of sales represented by all those corporate desktops, in all those thousands of companies big and small, became the target of Bill Gates's strategic brilliance and focus. Those companies paid good prices for the reliability and consistency that Windows PCs could deliver. They welcomed incremental improvement, and Bill knew how to give it to them. Steve paid lip service to it, but his heart wasn't in it. He thrilled only to the concept of how a dramatically better computer could unlock even more potential for its user.
This fundamental difference between the two co-parents of the PC was made utterly clear by the interview. What wasn't made clear, and what Bill didn't even come close to revealing, was how his deep understanding of the computing needs of businesses would transform the computer business itself over the next several years, further sidelining anyone who, like Steve, chose to focus on the aesthetics and thrills of personal computers. Even though nobody recognized it at the time, Bill was about to take the personal right out of personal computing. Ironically, in so doing, he would leave an opening for Steve to fill--eventually.
Reprinted from Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader Copyright © 2015 by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.