Sometime last year Apple overtook Microsoft to be the most valuable technology company in the world. Yesterday, Google also overtook Microsoft in valuation. And once again I was part of a heated discussion that made the inevitable comparisons between Bill Gates, Sergey Brin/Larry Page and of course, Steve Jobs. Most of the discussions revolved around the genius of Steve Jobs Vs. the uncharismatic, boring Bill Gates (surprisingly nobody seems to know much about Sergey and Larry). Everyone around me was extolling the brilliance of the Genius Mad Scientist that was Steve Jobs. His statements like “Apple is the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts” were being bandied about and of course, Bill Gates was this guy who completely missed the shift to Mobile, who never designed great products or never had the magnetism of Steve Jobs and so on.
So now, this got me thinking – who really is better? And what are metrics for measuring ‘greatness’?
Here is what I think: Steve Jobs created beautifully designed paradigm shifting products which largely appeal to the rich consumers of the western economies (After all, an iPhone 4S still costs a good $600 in the US and even more in India). Bill Gates has so far given away close to $ 6 Billion to fight measles, hepatitis B, rotavirus and AIDS virus! Steve Jobs didn’t even want to return money to Apple shareholders.
I am not saying that giving away money is the metric for measuring greatness. But a really good metric is – how many people’s lives have you changed at fundamental, basic, life altering level? I am not denying the genius of Steve Jobs – I myself am a user of both iPhone and iPad and if I was in the US, I would probably be one of those people who stand in line to buy the latest Apple device. But an overall level – the level of impact on humanity – I don’t think there is any competition – Bill Gates will win hands down!
Steve Jobs convinced studio heads, record labels, TV companies, book publishers, and even individual bands (like U2) to hitch their wagon to iTunes – no mean feat – by the sheer force of his personality. Bill Gates convinced Unicef, World Bank, UN, various Pharma giants and aid groups to form Global Alliance for Vaccination & Immunization (GAVI): an organization that brought down the price of 5 germ vaccination by 40%, Hepatitis B shot by 68%, rotavirus from $102 to $2.5. All of this was possible by convincing countries to co-pay cost of vaccines, pharma companies to product at scale which brings down costs, subsidizing losses till scale is achieved, and so on. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been an important part of saving 3.4 million lives from Hepatitis B, 1.2 million lives from measles, 560,000 from hib bacteria, 474,000 from whooping cough, 140,000 from yellow fever, and 30,000 from yellow fever (source).
To me, these numbers are far more powerful that the 5 million iPhone 5s being sold over the opening weekend.
Again, I am not belittling Steve Job’s achievement and genius in any way – but I get very annoyed when people miss these facts when comparing him to Bill Gates.
Both of them have left their mark on the world – let’s just not confuse brilliant products with saving lives!