Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Microsoft. It’s complicated.


Looking back at Steve Jobs’ tenure at Apple, it’s impossible to separate the role Microsoft and Bill Gates played. The companies helped pioneer the industry and define an era. The two CEOs partnered at various times, competed all the time, and challenged one another in ways that helped shape the landscape of technology. It’s a complex relationship – which you can witness in this amusing video compilation of Steve Jobs best quotes about Microsoft.

Below you can watch Bill Gates getting emotional when talking about Steve Jobs on 60 minutes (May 2013)

Lets look a little deeper into the history of these two great men.

Friends (1981 to 1983)

Bill Gates at Apple Event 1983
Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor and Fred Gibbons at the Macintosh Software Dating Game (1983)

During the development of the Macintosh in the early 80s, Microsoft was an important ally. Apple needed groundbreaking softwares for it’s upcoming platform and Microsoft was one of the few companies developing for it. It was a crucial phase for Apple.

The strength of their relationship could be witnessed at an Internal Apple Event in Hawai where Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh to a few Apple VIPs. Bill Gates sugarcoated the Mac and Steve Jobs loved every moment of it.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were so close at the time that according to a Guardian article, they even double-dated occasionally.

But all good things must end.

Rivals (1983 to 1996)

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates photographed in NY in 1985
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in NY (1985)

Steve Jobs had this dream where Apple would dominate the computer business and Microsoft would own the application-side of that business. The OS would naturally also by controlled by Apple.

But Bill Gates wasn’t blind. He understood that the Graphical User Interface was the future of computing. He also knew that it would quickly make its DOS operating system irrelevant and threatens Microsoft to become (just) a software company dependent of Apple. Bill Gates had bigger plans.

For years, Microsoft had engineers secretly copying the Macintosh OS and working on its own version of a Graphical OS: Windows. Not long after the Internal Event in Hawaii, Steve Jobs learned the crushing news. Microsoft wanted to compete with Apple; Bill Gates deceived him.

For the next 15 years, Apple would engage in a strange relationship with Microsoft. On one end, Microsoft was prying marketshare away from Apple, on the other, it was one of its biggest partner. Steve Jobs would soon leave Apple and create NeXT but would not succeed to make a dent in Microsoft’s dominance.

Along the way, Jobs often sparred with Microsoft, criticizing the company’s lack of creativity.

“The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste,” Jobs said in the 1996 public television documentary “Triumph of the Nerds.” “They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.”

In a New York Times article that ran after the documentary aired, Jobs disclosed that he called Gates afterward to apologize. But only to a degree.

”I told him I believed every word of what I’d said but that I never should have said it in public,” Jobs told the Times. ”I wish him the best, I really do. I just think he and Microsoft are a bit narrow. He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”

Truce (1997 to 2002)

Steve Jobs and the Microsoft Deal (1997)
Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the Microsoft Deal (1997)

Things changed when Steve Jobs came back at Apple in 1997. On the brink of bankruptcy, Jobs turned to his ‘old acquaintance’ Bill Gates for help.

The Microsoft Deal is considered a low point in Apple’s history by many.

When Steve Jobs announced that Microsoft was not the enemy anymore, few could believe their ears. He went as far as praising the quality of their Mac apps like Office and Internet Explorer… that was outrageous!

Things were weird for a few years – 5 years to be exact. Which corresponds to the 5 years of the ‘Microsoft Deal’. During that period Steve Jobs only had good things to say about Redmond. But it was an illusion. If Bill Gates was a great liar, Steve Jobs was his equal.

Frenemies (2003 to 2011)

The Get a Mac campaign ran from 2003 to 2008. Guess who PC is based on?
The Get a Mac campaign ran from 2003 to 2008. Guess who PC is based on?

It’s now 2003 and iPods are selling like hotcakes. The Apple brand is cool again.

Apple understood it could not compete with Microsoft on the desktop so it brought the battle to another field: mobile. Here, Microsoft is a minor player. Apple doesn’t need Microsoft like it did at the turn of the millenium. So Steve doesn’t have to play nice anymore.

Apple’s tone of voice about Redmond suddenly changes.

The Get a Mac campaign hits the airwaves and pokes fun of the PC industry and Microsoft (watch this All Things D interview with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were Bill is compared to the PC guy!).

The praising days are over.

Was Steve Jobs still bitter at Bill Gates and Microsoft after all these years?

Steve’s sudden change of attitude towards Microsoft in the mid-00s seems to indicate that.

There’s however an event that is even more striking. During All Things D5 in 2007, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were ‘finally’ reunited on a stage. Steve was given the opportunity to praise Bill Gates when asked what Bill’s contribution to the PC industry was. Steve’s answer was rather generic: “Bill was the first to truly see the value of software.” That’s all… You can watch Steve’s answers here.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at All Things D5 (2007
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at All Things D5 (2007)

But if Steve was still bitter about Bill, why would he keep a letter of Bill next to his bed during his last moments?

Though to say…

What both men really thought of each others or what really happened behind the curtain will probably never be known. You have to hope that these titans truly shared mutual respects and eventually found grounds to appreciate each others. Bill Gates seems to have:

Bill Gates statement at the passing of Steve Jobs

I’m truly saddened to learn of Steve Jobs’ death. Melinda and I extend our sincere condolences to his family and friends, and to everyone Steve has touched through his work.

Steve and I first met nearly 30 years ago, and have been colleagues, competitors and friends over the course of more than half our lives.

The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come.

For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it’s been an insanely great honor. I will miss Steve immensely.

Bill Gates, 2011.

Steve jobs and Bill Gates (1991)
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in Fortune Magazine (1991)

More good reads on the two tech titans

 What do you think, Friends or Foes?

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