An Internet era ends as technology icons exit
Gates and Jobs both dropped out of college to pursue dreams of building computers for people.
SAN FRANCISCO - Steve Jobs exiting the Apple stage, perhaps not to return, signals a close to an Internet Age era with roots stretching back to the radical hippie movement of the 1960s. His departure for health reasons comes some seven months after his renowned rival Bill Gates retired from Microsoft to devote himself to philanthropic work.
The two culture-changing men were seen as leaders of rival camps: personal computer lovers versus the cult of Macintosh computers. Vying technology allegiances were the stuff of fierce debates in coffee houses and other Silicon Valley social settings, with vitriol spewed by all sides.
Macintosh devotees were passionate underdogs standing up to PC faithful whose confidence was cemented by the fact more than 90 percent of the computers in the world are PCs running on Microsoft operating systems.
The dueling technologies had faces at which people aimed praise of scorn. Gates was the PC. Jobs is the Macintosh. Jerry Yang, the very public face of Internet pioneer Yahoo!, was replaced as chief executive this week by Carol Bartz and it seems he has already faded into the purple and gold woodwork at the firm's California headquarters.
"In many ways we are stepping out of the age where the people are defining the company," said analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group in Silicon Valley. "We talk about the Google kids, but are the founders truly icons. I argue not. We seem to be moving away from the age where there is a face behind the company; a larger than life human component."
Ironically, while Google and other modern Internet superstars use private data about their millions of users to target ads, their founders tend to vigilantly protect their privacy. "In many ways, Internet companies are losing their personalities," Enderle said. "Ever changing brands in a constant sea of surging names."
Jobs and Gates, both born in 1955, grew up during the socially rebellious 1960s and bear its mark, according to Peter Friess, a historian who is president of The Tech Museum of Innovation in the heart of Silicon Valley. Gates and Jobs both dropped out of college to pursue dreams of building computers for people. Before Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak made the first Apple computer, they crafted a "blue box" to get around paying for long distance telephone calls.
"They came out of a time when culture meant a lot to all of us," Friess said. "It was a revolutionary time. It is always a time that creates people. Now, Google, Facebook and others align much more with the system. Social networks don't change the world like Jobs and Gates did."
Bringing personal computers to the masses fulfilled a hippie mantra of "Power to the people," according to Friess. While the first PCs and "Macs" were sold by Gates and Jobs before there was a Web to surf, the men led their respective companies to glory in the Internet Age.
"In time, I suppose we might look back at the leaders of big search companies in a similar way, but it really feels like a thin comparison," said University of California, Berkeley, information school assistant professor Coye Cheshire.
"If only because all these fantastic information services only became practical and truly useful once we had the PCs, Macs, iPods, Xboxes, Zunes, iPhones, etc in our lives." Crises with climate change and wars fought for control of oil have set the stage for new iconic visionaries in the molds of Gates or Jobs to rise in the area of renewable energy, says Friess.
"Putting personal computers in the hands was really giving power to the people," Friess said. "I'm waiting for someone in the renewable energy world with the same vision Jobs had in the computer world."
In a rare joint appearance, Jobs and Gates reminisced on stage at an All Things Digital conference in California two years ago. The men joked that their rivalry was misunderstood. "We've kept our marriage secret for over a decade now," Jobs quipped, eliciting raucous laughter from the audience.
While Jobs and Gates "personified the dispute" between Apple and Microsoft, the two companies are unlikely to change their ways without their iconic founders, according to analyst Michael Cherry of Directions On Microsoft.
"No one wants to die ... and yet death is the destination we all share," Jobs told a stadium packed with students during a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. "Death is possibly the single best invention in life. It clears out the old to make way for the new."