Jan 25, 2006

Interesting Take on Gates v. Jobs

I'm an avowed Apple fan, and have been for a long time. I don't think that it's just the "support the underdog" mentality - I really do like the feel of Macs more than the soulless Wintel boxes. But I've grown a little disillusioned over the years, because brand loyalty feels too capitalistic for me, and at the end of the day, all of these companies are just looking at their bottom lines. That said, there's an interesting, and provocative, article on Wired.com by Leander Kahney that I just read that compares the two men behind the icons.

Some excerpts:

Until recently, Bill Gates has been viewed as the villain of the tech world, while his archrival, Steve Jobs, enjoys an almost saintly reputation.

Gates is the cutthroat capitalist. A genius maybe, but one more interested in maximizing profits than perfecting technology. He's the ultimate vengeful nerd. Ostracized at school, he gets the last laugh by bleeding us all dry. On the other hand, Jobs has never seemed much concerned with business, though he's been very successful at it of late. Instead, Jobs has been portrayed as a man of art and culture. He's an aesthete, an artist; driven to make a dent in the universe.

But these perceptions are wrong. In fact, the reality is reversed. It's Gates who's making a dent in the universe, and Jobs who's taking on the role of single-minded capitalist, seemingly oblivious to the broader needs of society. Gates is giving away his fortune with the same gusto he spent acquiring it, throwing billions of dollars at solving global health problems. He has also spoken out on major policy issues, for example, by opposing proposals to cut back the inheritance tax. In contrast, Jobs does not appear on any charitable contribution lists of note. And Jobs has said nary a word on behalf of important social issues, reserving his talents of persuasion for selling Apple products.


To the best of my knowledge, in the last decade or more, Jobs has not spoken up on any social or political issue he believes in -- with the exception of admitting he's a big Bob Dylan fan. Rather, he uses social issues to support his own selfish business goals. In the Think Different campaign, Jobs used cultural figures he admired to sell computers -- figures who stuck their necks out to fight racism, poverty, inequality or war.

These are interesting points, and really worth thinking about, even though we're pondering two mega-capitalists. I guess I wonder about the Fords and the Rockefellers and the Carnegies of the early 20th Century - their names were attached to huge corporations that received all kinds of assistance from the government in their unfair business and labor practices. At the end of their days, though, they turned over their monies to charitable work and foundations in their names, and their legacies are sometimes baptized in the new work that they've supported since - would I have seen as much art if not for the monies donated by some of these ultra-industrialists? Why does my Mom always talk about them with a tone apporaching awe? Is this what will happen with Gates, the man who has already donated more than most individual philanthopists in history?

Is there really such a thing as "clean" money? Does the end, of philanthropy, justify the means of acquisition? I don't know how I feel about these absolutes anymore, but I haven't fully let go of my feeling that these things are still important, and that there's something shady about Microsoft. But maybe that's just true of all companies that have that kind of market share and power - Starbucks is another unfavorite of mine, but they are apparently very good about their giving. So where should that line be drawn?

For the rest of the article, go here.


someone else said...

I think it's helpful to keep distinct the ways companies treat consumers, workers, investors, the environment, the public at large, etc. It lends some clarity to how we see companies--for example, Starbucks is appalling for blighting every urban landscape in the country and overcharging their customers whereas it (apparently) offers really good benefits, including (I hear) for lgbt folks. Similarly, Wal-Mart does offer consumers extremely low prices--at a huge cost to everyone else (particularly their workers who have been kept from unionizing a single store in the United States despite a concerted campaign by a major labor union) and in some cases the consumers themselves (by indirect means like destroying their communities). Just the tip of the iceberg of corporate analysis, yes?

Rage said...

I don't know if I can draw such a bright line, though.

For example, Wal-Mart's prices aren't actually all that low (watch this for more), though it definitely has the buying power to force a price from suppliers/manufacturers which was unheard of in times of more robust retail heterogeneity in the marketplace. Not to mention the nasty things that they do to force record labels to release "clean" versions of artists' albums simply because they are the largest retailer of music in the nation. They have been far more effective at curbing free speech in music than the PMRC ever was. And it's happening under our noses.

So Wal-Mart's problems extend beyond the policy of shifting their corporate responsibility of taking care of their employees to the state by not offering health benefits to employees. Actually, it's scary - they are the giant anti-hero to concepts like fair trade retail stores or food co-ops, except far more dangerous, because rather than simply stock items that are in line with their political and philosophical leanings (like the so-called socially conscious stores) , Wal-Mart is also directly impacting the very products they sell through a moral agenda that seems separate from their bottom-line urge as a for-profit corporation.

But of course, that's not your point. Aside from the very obvious evil companies out there, there is a lot of gray. And it's hard to stay completely true to your principles when in a nation that values price over politics (and earning little or no money, so I don't have the luxury of seeking out only socially conscious products that are priced higher than the average ungreen, unblue product).

Still, for the original question - I have to separate Gates as an individual from Microsoft as a company. His philanthropy and vision for impacting change on global health issues is too great to ignore, and though the cynical will say that he's buying his legacy, if it truly impacts the lives of the poor and the underprivileged, I would have a hard time shooting him down for it. And meanwhile, what has Jobs done?

Regardless, Windoze still sucks. And Vista is redundant. :)

Rage said...

Interesting take on this story here.