Ben Woodhead Deputy editor - digital

Ben Woodhead is deputy editor - digital at the Financial Review Group. He writes on business, technology, politics and the economy and can be found on BRW, The Australian Financial Review and Smart Investor.

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Why world may remember Bill Gates and forget Steve Jobs

Published 08 June 2012 13:11, Updated 12 June 2012 05:06

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Why world may remember Bill Gates and forget Steve Jobs

Legacy issues ... In 50 years there will be statues of Microsoft founder Bill Gates (pictured) throughout Africa and no one will remember Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell says.

In the battle of the billionaires Apple founder Steve Jobs long represented the good guys while Microsoft’s Bill Gates was cast as the villain. But Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that in 50 years only Gates will be remembered – and it won’t be because of his record in business.

In a recent appearance at the Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon, Gladwell suggests the very attributes that make entrepreneurs such as Jobs a success are almost the opposite of those that make failures in business, such as Oskar Schindler, the people whose legacy stands the test of time.

“We venerate entrepreneurs in our culture. They are our new prophets. Literally we worship them. If you read the literature about the great entrepreneurs it is iconography ... hagiography,” Gladwell says.

But he suggests entrepreneurs – who he recognises as both brilliant and valuable – aren’t worthy of that level of idolisation.

“The greatest entrepreneurs are amoral. It’s not that they’re immoral – they’re amoral ... That’s the way great entrepreneurs are. They’re are completely single-minded and obsessively focused on the health of their enterprise. That’s what makes them good at building businesses but that’s what also makes them people who are not worthy of this level of hagiography.”

Gladwell cites a deathbed scene from Walter Isaacson’s biography Jobs to illustrate the intensity of the Apple founder’s focus.

“To me the most extraordinary moment in biography of Jobs ... he’s on his deathbed and he’s undergoing one last medical procedure. He’s shrunken, it’s over and he knows it and they’re trying to put an oxygen mask over him and on three, four occasions he refuses the mask because he isn’t happy with the design, it’s not elegant enough,” he says.

“It was like making him send his final emails using Windows.”

The interview, which was first picked up by Business Insider and CNet, is likely to spark lengthy debates on the internet, not least because Gladwell suggests long-time bad guy Gates’ legacy will outlast the more heroically cast Jobs.

“[Gates] is the most ruthless capitalist, then he wakes up one morning and says enough and steps down and he takes his money, he takes it off the table, says Gladwell.

“I firmly believe that 50 years from now he’ll be remembered for his charitable work. No one will even remember what Microsoft is, and all the great entrepreneurs of this era, people will have forgotten Steve Jobs.”

“There will be statues of Gates across the third world and ... there’s a reasonable shot, because of his money, we will cure malaria.”

Gladwell also talks at length about the attributes of entrepreneurs and how they’re rarely first with an ideas and rarely take great financial or material risks, citing Google and Facebook of examples where later entrants went on to dominate their markets.

Instead, the author of Outliers: The Story of Success and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference says the greatest risks the most successful entrepreneurs take are social ones.

“What makes them brilliant entrepreneurs is they understand a business that’s not risky. Everyone else thinks it’s risky, but it’s not. Their genius is understanding that something is a far surer bet than the rest of the world thinks,” he says.

“Jobs was never first. He was late to every single party ... The risks that entrepreneurs take, I think, are social risks ... At the moment they started their new business everyone around them said ‘You’re an idiot’ and they had to endure years and years of essentially being a pariah. That is insanely difficult. That is way harder than gambling with someone else’s money.”

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