Gates & Jobs, Together Again

For the first time since 1983, Microsoft co-founder and Apple co-founder Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were together on the same stage at the same time.

Some people expected fireworks at this historic meeting which took place Wednesday night at the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital Conference in Carlsbad, California, but it was more of a love fest.

Responding to questions from conference co-hosts Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher, the two tech pioneers showed that they have more in common than many people might have thought. And, like the Mac and PC characters in those ubiquitous Apple commercials, there was a certain amount of affection between the two of them.

One thing many people don't realize is that in addition to being competitors, Gates and Jobs have collaborated since the early days of both their companies and continue to collaborate on making Microsoft Office one of the most popular applications for the Macintosh.

Microsoft was involved in the early development of the Mac, making the first graphical word processing program and spreadsheet to run on any computer and even before that, Microsoft provided a version of its BASIC programming language for the Apple II.

Both men acknowledged working together on the Mac was a big risk. Gates: "We really bet our future on the Macintosh being successful. So we were working together." It was the Mac where Microsoft first introduced software that took advantage of a graphical user interface. Later Microsoft introduced Office for Windows - after it had proved itself on the Macintosh platform.

Much later, the two men had the opportunity to work together again. In 1985 Steve Jobs was fired from Apple by then-president John Scully, who Jobs had recruited. Apple fell into disarray during the 1990s with uninspired products and no apparent direction.

Gates recalled that in 1997 he was in discussions with then Apple President Gil Amelio "to get things moving." But "then one day, Steve called me and said, 'Don't worry about those Amelio negotiations anymore.'"

That was when Jobs re-took control of Apple¸returning as CEO after Apple bought NeXT, a company that Jobs founded shortly after leaving Apple. Later that year, it was announced that Microsoft would make a financial investment in Apple and beef up its Macintosh Office products. Jobs reiterated that "the developer relationship between Microsoft and Apple is one of the best we have."

Both leaders acknowledged that they are both in the software business. For Microsoft that's obvious, but Jobs also considers Apple to be a software company, even though it's best known for hardware products. He characterized both the Mac and the iPod are "beautiful software wrapped in a beautiful box."

Both men acknowledged one difference between the companies in that Apple makes both the operating system and software for its computers while Microsoft licenses its operating system to PC hardware vendors.

"In the consumer market," Jobs observed, "one can make a pretty strong case that outside of Windows on the PC, it's hard to see examples of hardware and software being uncoupled working well."

For his part, Gates acknowledged that "in some product categories, such as music players, it makes more sense to integrate hardware and software." Perhaps copying Apple's success with the iPod, Microsoft makes its own Zune music players and makes both the software and hardware for the popular Xbox game consol.

Both Jobs and Gates believe that personal computers will continue to play an important role, as more and more services migrate to the Internet. As Jobs put it: "The PC has proved to be very resilient" and will continue to be the "hub of your digital life."

Gates predicted that the PC will continue to evolve, especially in terms of how we interact with computers, pointing out that touch screens, speech input and "vision input" will become important over the next few years. Earlier in the day, Microsoft introduced a new "Surface" PC with a 30-inch touch screen about the size of a coffee table that the company will release later this year for use in hotels, casinos and other businesses.

There were no arguments between the two men, but there was an awkward moment - when Jobs was asked about those Apple's ubiquitous and amusing "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials. Jobs said that the "PC Guy is great and that "those commercial is not to be mean. It's for the guys to like each other. The PC guy is what makes it all work." Gates just scratched his head with an incredulous look on his face.

Personally, having covered both Apple and Microsoft for the past 25 years, the evening felt like a family reunion. I felt as if I were watching two senior relatives reminisce about the good times they had in their youth.

At one point each man was asked about any qualities in the other that they wished they had. Gates said "I'd give a lot to have Steve's taste for both for people and products. I'd see Steve make decisions based on a sense or people and product. The way he does thing is different. It's magic."

Jobs said that he admired Gates' ability to create and maintain partnerships. "Because Woz (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak) and I started the company doing the whole banana, we weren't so good at partnering with people. In fact, Microsoft was one of the few companies that we could partner with."

"Microsoft was very good at partnering. If Apple had that in its DNA, it would have worked really well but Apple didn't have that until a few decades later," said Jobs, who also gave Gates a great deal of credit for having "building the first software company" and being able "to stay with it all these years."

In a rather poignant comment that drew "ah"s from the crowd, Jobs summed up his relationship with Gates, quoting a line from a Beatles song: "You and I have memories, longer than the road that stretches out ahead."

Surely, they do.

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid