It was the meeting that everyone had been waiting for two greats on the same stage Gates, from Microsoft and Jobs from Apple. Both men who have brutally at times driven the IT market to the next great thing. But in the end it all came down to what is now being described as an appearance that was “nostalgic,” “sentimental” and “soft.”
These are not words that come to mind when trying to describe tech titans Bill Gates and Steve Jobs .
Yet in a historic joint appearance at the D: All Things Digital Conference in the US, the two were at times overcome about their history together. Indeed, by the end, both men seemed choked up by the emotion of the moment.
Gates in particular took special pride in his role as co-founder and chairman of Microsoft. Even after being praised for his recent philanthropic efforts, Gates talked more about what he did in the technology industry than what his charitable foundation is doing now.
“The most important work I got a chance to be involved in – no matter what I do – is the personal computer,” Gates said. “That’s my life’s work.”
It’s been quite a life for the two of them, and they have been at the center of the action for most of their careers. Jobs, co-founder and chief executive of Apple, noted that when they started working together in the mid-1970s, he and Gates were often the youngest people in the room. Now, he said, he’s often the oldest.
Paraphrasing a Beatles song, he added, “You and I have memories that are longer than the road that stretches out ahead.”
To be sure, the appearance wasn’t a love fest. Jobs at times, as he’s wont to do, seemed to get under Gates’ skin.
At one point he tried to convince Gates that Apple isn’t trying to be mean by poking fun at
the “PC guy,” the lovable loser who stands in sharp contrast to Apple’s cool “Mac guy” in a popular series of commercials.
“The art of those commercials … is for those guys to like each other,” Jobs said. “The PC guy is what makes it all work, actually. It’s worth thinking about.”
Needless to say, Gates didn’t appear to be convinced. In an interview with Newsweek earlier this year, he’d even questioned the ads’ veracity.
Still, the two did show their mutual respect for each other. Gates, for instance, praised Jobs’ aesthetic sense, noting that it sharply differed from his own sensibility, which is to approach problems from an engineering perspective.
“I’d give a lot to have Steve’s taste – in terms of intuitive taste for people and products,” he said. “The way he does things, it’s just different. It’s magical.”
Similarly, Jobs said that Apple could have learned a lot from Microsoft’s penchant for partnering with other companies in the industry. Partnering simply wasn’t in Apple’s DNA, and the company didn’t learn how to do it until decades after its founding, he said. “The funny thing is Microsoft’s one of the few companies we were able to partner with (where) that actually worked for both companies,” he said.
The conversation was moderated by longtime technology journalists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, who organized the event, and took place in front of such luminaries as movie director George Lucas, domestic diva Martha Stewart and former AOL Chairman Steve Case.
The event marked the first time Jobs and Gates have made a joint public appearance since the 1997 Boston Macworld event, when Gates joined Jobs via teleconference to announce a landmark deal between their two companies. The previous time the two appeared together at a public event was in the early 1980s.
Jobs’ participation in the event capped a long day for him and the company. Earlier, the iconic CEO participated in a separate conversation with Mossberg. During that event, he announced that the company’s Apple TV set-top box would soon allow users to watch YouTube videos from the Internet.
Meanwhile, Apple announced early Wednesday morning that it has added unprotected digital songs from music label EMI to its iTunes music store as part of an agreement the companies announced in April. The company also announced that it was adding course lectures and other education materials for download from the iTunes store.
The two tech titans have long been known for their rivalry. What isn’t as well understood is that they and their companies also have a history of cooperation. Microsoft has been one of the most important software developers for the Macintosh, and the company arguably helped save Apple in 1997 with a $150 million investment and a commitment to continue developing its Office suite for the Mac.
On a personal level, Jobs and Gates were good enough friends in the 1980s to double date occasionally and for Gates to leave friendly prank calls on Jobs’ answering machine.
That said, Jobs is well known for taking pot-shots at his company’s bigger rival. And he didn’t disappoint on Wednesday. The company’s iTunes software is one of the most popular programs on computers running Microsoft’s Windows operating system, Jobs noted in his conversation earlier in the day with Mossberg. Indeed, he said, some users have written to tell Apple that it’s their favorite Windows application, he said.
“It’s like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell,” he said.
Photo of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on stage at the D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad. ZDNet photo by Dan Farber