It’s late evening in Carlsbad, Calif., site of the Wall Street Journal‘s fifth annual D conference, an expensive and exclusive meeting of technology and media bigwigs. It has been a day full of acquisition announcements (News Corp. picked up Photobucket, CBS bought last.fm) and the extremely high level of self-regard you expect from technology and media bosses. The new-product announcements were all interesting. Microsoft’s Surface Computing initiative seems like a promising implementation of a multitouch interface, Palm’s new Foleo, priced at $499 after rebate, is the first intermediate device (bigger than a smartphone, smaller than a laptop) that could be a hit, and Mahalo, a search service vetted by humans, seems like an unintentional ad for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
But it wasn’t any of the new deals or products that everyone was talking about at the end of the evening, though. What riveted the crowd was the joint interview of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs, conducted by D producers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. I’m only going to report a bit on what the participants said. That’s being covered on pretty much every other tech blog tonight and I direct you to the conference website, which should have posted a transcript and video by the time you read this. Instead, I’d like to make an attempt at teasing out the subtext beneath what they said.
Do visit the video on the D site. If you’re lucky, the video will include a clip shown immediately prior to the interview of a “Macintosh Software Dating Game” promotional video from 1983, in which Jobs looks like a teenager and Gates doesn’t look like he’s a teenager yet. (Mitch Kapor, also in the clip, is the relative old-timer. He looks just about ready to ask his parents to drive him to freshman orientation.)
For a conference that is all about looking forward — what’s the next big thing and all that — it was remarkable how backward-looking much of the talk was. Gates and Jobs both made the occasional provocative comment about what the future might bring, but they seemed most comfortable talking about their work, together and apart, 25-30 years ago. There were some amusing tidbits — I didn’t know that Apple paid Microsoft $31,000 to fix the version of BASIC for the Apple II –and despite their many differences, it was fascinating to consider how much the two had and have in common. At one point, Mossberg tossed Gates and Jobs a question about future products, and the two old pros looked at each other in silence, similarly wise about letting the question pass them by. (Later, though, Gates did crack that Jobs was here tonight “to announce his transporter.”) They have more in common, of course. In particular, they’re successful PC-era entrepreneurs going in different directions to find the right path as we all stumble into a post-PC era. As they spoke, I thought of them as not unlike two wealthy, aging rock’n’rollers remembering the early triumphs that made them zillionaires.
There was tension in the talk, but not between the two. Indeed, the nastiest moments came when Jobs recalled his sacking at Apple and the decisions made before his return. When he said in-between CEO Gil Amelio thought Apple was a ship with a hole in the bottom and sought to fix it by turning the ship in a different direction, the unhappiness of decades ago seemed raw and very present-tense.
Late in the talk, Jobs noted that he and Gates, only six months apart in age, started their careers as the youngest guys in the room and are now often the oldest in the room. The two went on to say more and more nice things about each other. I’m normally extremely skeptical when longtime competitors sit on public stages and say nice things about each other, but the mutual admiration society seemed both real and hard-fought. They do have so much in common. When Gates said, “Neither of us have anything to complain about” and “We’re two of the luckiest guys on the planet,” and Jobs quoted The Beatles’ “Two Of Us” to express his affection for Gates, it didn’t seem like a put-on. Indeed, one can think of Gates and Jobs (as opposed to Gates and Allen, or Jobs and Wozniak) as the Lennon and McCartney of the PC era. They worked together for a long time and they fought for a long time, but the two of them experienced extremes that no one else in their business ever faced. For all their differences, they’re two of a kind, unlike anyone else anywhere.