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When Orbits Intersect

Jobs and Gates, 1991

The Macintosh Partnership

In astronomy, a binary system occurs when the orbits of two stars are linked because of their gravitational interaction. There have been analogous situations in history, when an era is shaped by the relationship and rivalry of two orbiting superstars: Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr in twentieth-century physics, for example, or Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in early American governance. For the first thirty years of the personal computer age, beginning in the late 1970s, the defining binary star system was composed of two high-energy college dropouts both born in 1955.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, despite their similar ambitions at the confluence of technology and business, had very different personalities and backgrounds. Gates’s father was a prominent Seattle lawyer, his mother a civic leader on a variety of prestigious boards. He became a tech geek at the area’s finest private school, Lakeside High, but he was never a rebel, hippie, spiritual seeker, or member of the counterculture. Instead of a Blue Box to rip off the phone company, Gates created for his school a program for scheduling classes, which helped him get into ones with the right girls, and a car-counting program for local traffic engineers. He went to Harvard, and when he decided to drop out it was not to find enlightenment with an Indian guru but to start a computer software company.

Gates was good at computer coding, unlike Jobs, and his mind was more practical, disciplined, and abundant in analytic processing power. Jobs was more intuitive and romantic and had a greater instinct for making technology usable, design delightful, and interfaces friendly. He had a passion for perfection, which made him fiercely demanding, and he managed by charisma and scattershot intensity. Gates was more methodical; he held tightly scheduled product review meetings where he would cut to the heart of issues with lapidary skill. Both could be rude, but with Gates—who early in his career seemed to have a typical geek’s flirtation with the fringes of the Asperger’s scale—the cutting behavior tended to be less personal, based more on intellectual incisiveness than emotional callousness. Jobs would stare at people with a burning, wounding intensity; Gates sometimes had trouble making eye contact, but he was fundamentally humane.

“Each one thought he was smarter than the other one, but Steve generally treated Bill as someone who was slightly inferior, especially in matters of taste and style,” said Andy Hertzfeld. “Bill looked down on Steve because he couldn’t actually program.” From the beginning of their relationship, Gates was fascinated by Jobs and slightly envious of his mesmerizing effect on people. But he also found him “fundamentally odd” and “weirdly flawed as a human being,” and he was put off by Jobs’s rudeness and his tendency to be “either in the mode of saying you were shit or trying to seduce you.” For his part, Jobs found Gates unnervingly narrow. “He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger,” Jobs once declared.

Their differences in personality and character would lead them to opposite sides of what would become the fundamental divide in the digital age. Jobs was a perfectionist who craved control and indulged in the uncompromising temperament of an artist; he and Apple became the exemplars of a digital strategy that tightly integrated hardware, software, and content into a seamless package. Gates was a smart, calculating, and pragmatic analyst of business and technology; he was open to licensing Microsoft’s operating system and software to a variety of manufacturers.

After thirty years Gates would develop a grudging respect for Jobs. “He really never knew much about technology, but he had an amazing instinct for what works,” he said. But Jobs never reciprocated by fully appreciating Gates’s real strengths. “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology,” Jobs said, unfairly. “He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”

When the Macintosh was first being developed, Jobs went up to visit Gates at his office near Seattle. Microsoft had written some applications for the Apple II, including a spreadsheet program called Multiplan, and Jobs wanted to excite Gates and Co. about doing even more for the forthcoming Macintosh. Sitting in Gates’s conference room, Jobs spun an enticing vision of a computer for the masses, with a friendly interface, which would be churned out by the millions in an automated California factory. His description of the dream factory sucking in the California silicon components and turning out finished Macintoshes caused the Microsoft team to code-name the project “Sand.” They even reverse-engineered it into an acronym, for “Steve’s amazing new device.”

Gates had launched Microsoft by writing a version of BASIC, a programming language, for the Altair. Jobs wanted Microsoft to write a version of BASIC for the Macintosh, because Wozniak—despite much prodding by Jobs—had never enhanced his version of the Apple II’s BASIC to handle floating-point numbers. In addition, Jobs wanted Microsoft to write application software—such as word processing and spreadsheet programs—for the Macintosh. At the time, Jobs was a king and Gates still a courtier: In 1982 Apple’s annual sales were $1 billion, while Microsoft’s were a mere $32 million. Gates signed on to do graphical versions of a new spreadsheet called Excel, a word-processing program called Word, and BASIC.

Gates frequently went to Cupertino for demonstrations of the Macintosh operating system, and he was not very impressed. “I remember the first time we went down, Steve had this app where it was just things bouncing around on the screen,” he said. “That was the only app that ran.” Gates was also put off by Jobs’s attitude. “It was kind of a weird seduction visit, where Steve was saying, ‘We don’t really need you and we’re doing this great thing, and it’s under the cover.’ He’s in his Steve Jobs sales mode, but kind of the sales mode that also says, ‘I don’t need you, but I might let you be involved.’”

The Macintosh pirates found Gates hard to take. “You could tell that Bill Gates was not a very good listener. He couldn’t bear to have anyone explain how something worked to him—he had to leap ahead instead and guess about how he thought it would work,” Hertzfeld recalled. They showed him how the Macintosh’s cursor moved smoothly across the screen without flickering. “What kind of hardware do you use to draw the cursor?” Gates asked. Hertzfeld, who took great pride that they could achieve their functionality solely using software, replied, “We don’t have any special hardware for it!” Gates insisted that it was necessary to have special hardware to move the cursor that way. “So what do you say to somebody like that?” Bruce Horn, one of the Macintosh engineers, later said. “It made it clear to me that Gates was not the kind of person that would understand or appreciate the elegance of a Macintosh.”

Despite their mutual wariness, both teams were excited by the prospect that Microsoft would create graphical software for the Macintosh that would take personal computing into a new realm, and they went to dinner at a fancy restaurant to celebrate. Microsoft soon dedicated a large team to the task. “We had more people working on the Mac than he did,” Gates said. “He had about fourteen or fifteen people. We had like twenty people. We really bet our life on it.” And even though Jobs thought that they didn’t exhibit much taste, the Microsoft programmers were persistent. “They came out with applications that were terrible,” Jobs recalled, “but they kept at it and they made them better.” Eventually Jobs became so enamored of Excel that he made a secret bargain with Gates: If Microsoft would make Excel exclusively for the Macintosh for two years, and not make a version for IBM PCs, then Jobs would shut down his team working on a version of BASIC for the Macintosh and instead indefinitely license Microsoft’s BASIC. Gates smartly took the deal, which infuriated the Apple team whose project got canceled and gave Microsoft a lever in future negotiations.

For the time being, Gates and Jobs forged a bond. That summer they went to a conference hosted by the industry analyst Ben Rosen at a Playboy Club retreat in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where nobody knew about the graphical interfaces that Apple was developing. “Everybody was acting like the IBM PC was everything, which was nice, but Steve and I were kind of smiling that, hey, we’ve got something,” Gates recalled. “And he’s kind of leaking, but nobody actually caught on.” Gates became a regular at Apple retreats. “I went to every luau,” said Gates. “I was part of the crew.”

Gates enjoyed his frequent visits to Cupertino, where he got to watch Jobs interact erratically with his employees and display his obsessions. “Steve was in his ultimate pied piper mode, proclaiming how the Mac will change the world and overworking people like mad, with incredible tensions and complex personal relationships.” Sometimes Jobs would begin on a high, then lapse into sharing his fears with Gates. “We’d go down Frida............
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