Like the rest of the world, it seems, I was not just saddened but actually moved this week to learn of the death of Steve Jobs.
There can be no doubt that he was one of the world’s great innovators. The products emanating from his company are unparalleled in their design, and in their appeal to people beyond those who would normally take any interest in IT, or even technology more generally. Beyond the world of IT, his influence in the fields of music, cinema, business, design, publishing – the list seems endless – had no equal.
Now I’m not a huge customer of Apple’s – I have an iPhone, but that’s about it. And I’ve spent years telling anyone who would listen – with tongue largely in cheek – that Apple’s computers are simply PCs for babies. PCs for those who can’t handle such complexity as a second button on their mouse.
But there’s a big part of me that’s as much in love with their products as anyone else. It’s hard to walk past an Apple Store without admiring the aesthetic appeal of virtually every one of their products, and I can’t remember the last time I had the same reaction to a PC.
So yes, the loss of Steve Jobs is a real loss to the world. He is undoubtedly irreplaceable. A genius? Possibly. Unique? Almost certainly.
His products are, as I said above, unparalleled. But is he? I think not.
He may be unique, but there is one obvious parallel. And that parallel is Bill Gates.
Yet – and I may be wrong here – I can’t imagine that, had it been Bill Gates who’d passed away this week, there would have been anything like the same reaction. Of course, there would have been massive news coverage, obituaries, tributes from all and sundry. But would there have been members of the public in tears? Would people have gone to the nearest store selling Microsoft products and left – what’s the equivalent? – coloured windows on the pavement in loving memory? I think not.
And yet, despite the massive popularity of Apple’s products, and their undoubted move in recent years toward a more mainstream position in the computing world, it surely can’t be doubted that the products from Bill Gates’ company touch more people’s lives on a daily basis than those coming from Apple. Someone told me this week that 20% of all computers being bought these days are made by Apple. But that still leaves probably something close to 80% running Windows in some form.
Running Windows, but not, of course, made by Microsoft. So is this it? Is it that Apple actually make the products we love, whereas Microsoft just make the rather more intangible software products that run on our computers?
I doubt it. Most people appreciate that Apple don’t actually make their own products. My phone says on the rear cover “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” And to bring this back to the personal, I think most people appreciate that it’s not actually Steve Jobs that designs these oh-so-desirable modern-day jewels. Yes, he hired the design team that does, and yes, he inspires them to give of their best. But isn’t that what any competent leader would do?
And if it’s this corporate leadership that the world loves Steve Jobs for, then once again, Bill Gates hasn’t done so badly. It’s probably a few years (even before he took a back-seat role) since he wrote much programming code himself (maybe not – perhaps I’m doing him an injustice) but he’s still credited with much of Microsoft’s output. He’s provided the drive, the passion, the vision. It’s been enough to get him admired perhaps, reviled in some quarters, but never loved.
But perhaps the fact that Apple computers (and other devices) run Apple operating systems, and offer Apple software has been the key. For the legions of fans who love their Apple products, there’s no third-party sharing the credit – the perfection of the silicon on the desk is all thanks to Apple, and Apple is all thanks to Steve.
I can’t help feeling, though, that had Microsoft tried the same trick, they would have been crucified for it. Imagine – in order to run Windows, you have to buy a Microsoft-made PC. From a Microsoft store. And having done that, you’re not allowed to change the operating system, or buy any piece of software that’s not been explicitly approved by Microsoft. And when they do approve a piece of software, you have to buy that from a Microsoft store too, meaning that Bill Gates takes a cut.
There would be an outcry, and rightly so, yet that’s the way that Apple run large parts of their business, without anyone batting an eyelid. So yes, a great leader for Apple, but one could certainly argue that Bill Gates’ business model is much more open and friendly to the consumer – yet the consumer has never loved him the way that Steve Jobs was evidently loved.
Was it the breadth of Steve Jobs’ influence that made him special? The very fact that he’s had an impact on areas outside of traditional computing? The scope is well-known – music, film… I’ve already rehearsed the list above.
Or to put it another way, is Bill Gates less admired because he’s stuck to PCs. He’s a geek, not someone to stray beyond the bounds of a technophile?
That might be the case, but for one hole in the argument. Bill Gates has given somewhere in the region of $30 billion to charity. His charitable foundation gives around $1.5 billion per year. It spends almost as much to improve world health as does the UN World Health Organisation.
He’s used his influence to persuade others to make good use of their wealth too – Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg are among those joining Bill Gates in pledging to give at least half their wealth to good causes. Compare that with Steve Jobs, whose reputation for personal philanthropy is non-existent, and the love for Mr Jobs versus the widespread antipathy towards Mr Gates becomes harder to understand.
One leaves their company to set up the world’s most generous charitable foundation, the other stops all his company’s corporate social responsibility programmes when the company is in trouble – fair enough – but then fails to reinstate a single one of them when the company becomes officially the world’s richest, leading Stanford Social Innovation Review to call Apple one of “America’s Least Philanthropic Companies.”
So yes, admiration for Steve – absolutely, and shared wholeheartedly. But where’s the love for Bill?