Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs, is the real hero

Steve Jobs was a great CEO, but Bill Gates has moved beyond technology and is trying to save the world. Why isn't he getting more recognition?

I've often argued that business is not war and it's not a zero-sum game. If a business makes money for its shareholders, it is succeeding. It doesn't need to kill the competition; it merely needs do well enough to thrive. And so it is with remarkable individuals. Somehow it seems that if one man is great, the other has to be lesser. That's not true. With all the justified celebration of Steve Jobs and his life, his chief rival, Bill Gates appears to be forgotten.

What brings that to mind is an intriguing essay that appeared Tuesday in the Harvard Business Review by Maxwell Wessel, a researcher for the Forum for Growth and Innovation, a Harvard Business School think tank focused on innovation. It's titled "Idolize Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs."

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I'm not sure about the "idolize" part. But it certainly is time to acknowledge that devoting billions of dollars of his own money in an attempt to cure malaria and other diseases that plague the developing world is at least as important as inventing the iPad. OK. I'll stop being coy. It's more important. That doesn't make Jobs any the lesser. It's simply a matter of values and perspective.

Also forgotten has been a simple yet critical bit of history: Jobs, in his second and more successful period as Apple's CEO, stood on the shoulders of Bill Gates. Had Microsoft not made computing ubiquitous, there wouldn't be any reason to have an iPod, or an iPhone, or an iPod. In fact, they simply wouldn't exist.

We're not just about our stuff
Ultimately, Apple and its products are really just stuff, or, more formally, commodities. Sure, they're beautiful, fun commodities that enhance our lives, in much the same way that Walt Disney brought joy to millions (as my colleague Galen Gruman noted a while back). And there's nothing wrong with that, as they used to say on "Seinfeld."

But commodities are, in the end, simply things, and the overwhelming focus in the media on Jobs's death was a rather stunning example of what Karl Marx termed the "fetishism of commodities." We all know that Apple and every other technology company exist to sell products or services to make money. The more they can convince us that we absolutely must own those products, the more they sell and the richer they get.

I'm not saying that's wrong. It's simply how a market economy works. But what is wrong is the pernicious belief that we are what we own. Apple's products have become must-have fashion accessories, in some ways not so different than the Rolex watches sported by the wealthy. Check out the guy at the next table in the café. He has a MacBook Air and you don't. Bummer. You still have an iPhone 3G S? What's wrong with you?

The iPhone and the like have spurred innovation throughout the technology industry and sparked advances in communication that have helped change the world -- witness the use of smartphones and their video capabilities during the Arab Spring. However, because we are so focused on our own commodities, many of us make the mistake of believing that the revolutions wouldn't have happened without the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android. Steve Jobs was not the father of the Egyptian revolution.

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