The Mythic Wars of Competition Between Bill and Steve

Over dinner the other night, Federico Faggin was talking about the development history of the microprocessor. He put up an old Bill Gates and Paul Allen photo, with Bill around 19. I followed by finding an old Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs photo, with Jobs around 19 or 20. I guess we all looked like that at one time! It was an age of innocence and idealism. The battle cries were “Don’t trust a computer you can’t lift” and “We’ll put a computer on every desktop.” There was swaggering, jousting and boasting.

From up close in the early years, the relationship between Steve and Bill never seemed adversarial, of the “we will bury you” kind, but rather a battle over the new order in the computer world. (The two will appear together next Wednesday at the fifth D: All Things Digital conference, which you can read about here and in a post by Kara Swisher here). Steve was the philosopher king out to change the world, with Bill representing a new hero, the “techno geek” complete with duct-tape eyeglasses that required perpetual repositioning on the bridge of his nose. I think Bill still sets a fashion trend today in geek glasses.

The IBM introduction of the PC in 1981 really clarified which side Bill and Steve were on. It was easily characterized as the equivalent of “Star Wars,” with Bill as Darth Vader and Steve as “the Force,” but some people thought of Steve as the quirky Yoda. There was even a Princess Leia in the form of Esther Dyson, whose support in the industry press was considered the ultimate prize.

The brave new world being built by Bill and Steve lost its innocence with the introduction of the IBM PC. Apple launched an ad whose headline said “Welcome” and noted that it looked forward to “responsible competition.” And check out the Apple hammer being thrown through the image of Big Brother, who symbolized IBM. The lines were drawn, with Microsoft DOS and Goliath IBM leading the creation of a phalanx of clones supported by Intel. The movement survives to this day and is known as Wintel.

Steve’s strategy was to fight IBM and Microsoft by building an Apple brand that symbolized tech chic and established a personal relationship between Apple and its users. Symbolic of this mass personal appeal, Bill, Mitch Kapor and I were all invited to Hawaii for the introduction of the Mac in 1984. After appearing onstage for a “Dating Game” between software developers wooing the Mac’s attention, Mitch, Bill and I were marched off to a photography studio. We were handed red, blue and yellow Mac-logoed polo shirts and told to smile while the image was taken that soon would be made and distributed to thousands of computer stores worldwide.

Within days of the poster boys appearing in public, I received a call from a very senior IBM executive expressing in no uncertain terms his anger over my support for Apple. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet Bill and Mitch got a similar call. And from this point on, we software developers had to walk the line of nodding when Steve pounded on us to develop new versions of our products first for the Mac, utilizing all of its features. Bill soon followed, proselytizing about the first version of Windows.

I wonder now if these old mythic wars are over, with the Internet as the common platform, Apple taking “computer” out of its name, and Bill Gates stepping away from Microsoft.

Fred Gibbons founded Software Publishing Corporation, one of the first companies to establish a vision of the packaged software industry for PCs. He is a consulting professor at the School of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University.

(Correction: An earlier version of this commentary referred erroneously to the content of the ad Apple ran when IBM introduced its PC. That ad, which can be seen here, did not include the phrase “the bastards say welcome.”)