Conventional wisdom holds that Bill Gates is a heads-down, grind-it-out geek, while the true visionary of the tech era was Steve Jobs. In fact, though, there's an argument that the opposite is the case: Gates was the true visionary, while Jobs was a follower. So argues the afterword of the re-issued book Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America and there's a good deal of truth in it.
The book, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, was first published twenty years ago, and has just been re-issued in a Kindle edition. I've read a number of biographies of Gates, and this is the best one. In fact, for me it's the definitive one, except for the last 20 years, of course. Anyone who wants an understanding not just of the facts of Gates' life and rise, but also insight into his personality and motivations should read it.
The afterword briefly summarizes what's happened to Gates and Microsoft over the last 20 years, and makes a compelling point that Gates and Microsoft, not Jobs and Apple, should be considered as technology's most innovative, driving force. The authors write:
"You name it, Microsoft was there first. Web browser? Pocket-sized computing device? Smartphone? Tablet computer? E-book software? Digital maps? Web-purveyed content? Software that made all those cute all-in-one Macintoshes viable as serious machines for actually getting work done? Every one of those things came out of Microsoft long before Apple got on the case. In a world where Steve Jobs is celebrated for his 'vision,' the truth is that the vision Steve Jobs implemented looks suspiciously as if it originally belonged to one William Henry Gates."
The afterword details a number of those Microsoft innovations. But it also clearly notes that Microsoft has been singularly unable to benefit from them. The authors say:
"Alas, Microsoft's constant prattle about 'innovation' never masked its remarkable inability to deliver innovation in ways customers might actually want. Again and again, Microsoft failed to execute on anything but its core operating systems and office productivity software..."
In that, they're absolutely right. There are plenty of reasons for it, including a protect-your-own-turf culture, and the mistaken belief that every product must lead back to Windows.
As for who is the true innovator, Gates and Microsoft or Job and Apple, that's a tough call. There's no doubt that Microsoft had the ideas first, time and time again. But innovation is more than just broad vision, it's also execution and timing. And there, Jobs and Apple were clearly superior. So flip a coin about who is the greater innovator. No matter which side comes up, you'll be right.