Apple - Google: Do CEOs Take Rivalry Personally?

Last Updated Mar 30, 2010 1:17 PM EDT

Last week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Google CEO Eric Schmidt were seen having coffee outside a Palo Alto café. Photos, theories, even an amusing body language analysis, were all over the geekier regions of the Web. So, why would a harmless cappuccino between two Silicon Valley executives get folks so excited?

Well, it wasn't so long ago that the two leaders and their respective companies were actually friendly with each other. They reportedly dined together at Jobs' home and Schmidt joined Apple's board in 2006. Then the tech giants went head-to-head over smartphones and everything went to hell. Or did it?

Here's the thing: There are loads of notorious corporate rivalries: Coke and Pepsi, AT&T and Verizon, UPS and FedEx, Hertz and Avis, it's a long list. But only in the tech industry do competitors become allies and allies become competitors faster than you can say antitrust. Some famous examples:
The relationship between Microsoft and Apple has seen drastic twists and turns, most notably when Microsoft came to the aid of its bitter rival in 1997 by investing $150 million in Apple and committing to provide new versions of Office for the Mac. It's ironic that, in a NY Times story about the event, Novell's CEO at the time was quoted saying, "Apple is important, and this is good for the computer industry." That, of course, was Eric Schmidt.

It certainly appeared as if Sun's CEO Scott McNealy and Netscape's chief Mark Andreessen were truly fighting for their company's lives during testimony at Microsoft's antitrust trial back in the day, but how much of that was for effect, for the jury?

That's the big question. Is the rivalry between CEOs of competitive companies ever personal? Does it even make sense to take it to that level when what goes around might come around and you may find yourself getting bailed out by your worst enemy?

Hard to say. Steve Jobs was recently quoted railing against Google at an internal Apple employee meeting:

"We did not enter the search business, they [Google] entered the phone business. Make no mistake they want to kill the iPhone. We won't let them. This don't be evil mantra: It's b***s***."
So was it personal, or was Jobs just rallying the troops? He's very good at that, as you can tell. Do you think he even remembers having to get bailed out by Bill Gates in 1997? Didn't sound like it to me.

As chronicled in famed venture capitalist and former Intel exec Bill Davidow's legendary book, Marketing High Technology, Intel had a "Crush" campaign against Motorola, and while some Intel execs got a little carried away with it, I'm not aware that Intel chief Andy Grove saw it as anything other than a competitive battle.

Texas-based microprocessor upstart Cyrix had a tombstone in its lobby that read: 'Intel Inside RIP'. Cyrix CEO Jerry Rogers knew that his company's market share would likely come at the expense of Intel, although killing the chip giant was perhaps a bit over the top. In any case, I never heard Rogers say anything bad about Andy Grove, and I worked for the guy.

To sum it all up, bitter rivalries are natural in business, if not a bit incestuous in the tech industry. And although it sometimes appears to be personal, that's likely for effect, for the troops, for the media, for the jury, for whoever. Of course they're human, but in my experience, good leaders know better than to cloud their vision with misplaced emotion against competitors.