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Why No One Will Replace Bill & Steve

As noted author Nick Carr said in a video recorded for our Structure 08 conference, the retirement of Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates marks the end of an era for a certain style of computing and the start of a new era of cloud-delivered services.

To that I would add that it’s the end of an era of a certain kind of technology entrepreneur, one with the patience, guile and technology chops to survive multiple cycles, but also the business acumen to amass a vast fortune and carve out a monopoly.

Such individuals are few and far between. If David Packard and William Hewlett of HP and Intel Corp.’s Gordon Moore represented the early days of Silicon Valley and version 1.0 of the technology entrepreneur, then Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (and to some extent Larry Ellison) came to represent Silicon Valley’s youth — the PC boom years and version 2.0 of the archetypal tech entrepreneur. (Watch Steve Jobs & Bill Gates together on stage at All Things D.)

What made them so special? They started their companies, built them one piece of code (or one computer) at a time, stuck around (or left and came back) and played the game late into their working lives. Jobs continues to play and win, but even he can’t defy the merciless nature of time.

More importantly, Gates and his peers had an insatiable desire to win, at any cost. Gates took on the entire U.S. government — the ultimate alpha male nerd. And Jobs has ruled his Apple kingdom with an iron fist and a relentless focus on user experience and simplicity.

But it’s the singularity of their missions — their obsessions, if you will — that truly makes them special. So special, in fact, that no one currently on the horizon will even come close to replacing them. Erick Schoenfeld, a former colleague of mine at Business 2.0 and now at TechCrunch, came up with a list of names of candidates he thinks can replace Bill.

His picks: Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Google), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Marc Benioff (, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Max Levchin (Slide) and Evan Williams. These are all great names but compared to Bill and Steve, they’re all playing (with one exception) in the little leagues.

Larry and Sergey have had a honeymoon of a ride so far, one largely devoid of adversity. Benioff would sell for the right price. Zuckerberg, who has yet to build a profitable enterprise, has his own challenges including proving that he can build a sustainable franchise and a platform that continues to attract developers. Furthermore, he has yet to prove his longevity. Same goes for Evan.

Max is a close one – for with Paypal he had helped build a new kind of money distribution network but instead decided to sell out. He is scary smart but Slide isn’t the company that is going to be around when I kick the bucket. Maybe he will come up with a scary big idea soon. (Watch him on The GigaOM Show.)

That leaves Jeff Bezos, my pick for the guy who could be the next Bill. I think has has a bit of both Steve and Bill in him, which makes him even more interesting. He is relentless in his focus on customers and giving them the best deal. And yet he sees the future of technology before everyone else. Amazon is almost a proxy for future trends of technology; cloud computing is only the most recent example. That said, he has been at it for almost 12 years and Amazon is not a money-making monster, like Apple and Microsoft.

Beyond personalities, I think there are some fundamental changes that have taken place in the technology industry itself that make the odds of another Bill or Steve emerging very low.

The first is a shift toward commoditization — open-source software and the global distribution of intelligence makes is hard for any one person or company to build a monopoly, be it real or perceived. (Apple has a perceived monopoly of quality, class and user experience.) Market forces no longer allow for monopolies unless governments prop them up.

The companies in the Internet age — with the exception of Cisco Systems — have had a hard time lassoing the wild mustang-like changes in the technology landscape. Those changes are becoming even more rapid; a pioneer today is a footnote tomorrow. Which is one of the main reasons why we have founders and entrepreneurs ready to cash their checks as soon as opportunity knocks.

Skype co-founders Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, who first made their name with Kazaa would have made my short list as well, but even they sold out to eBay.

So I bid adieu to the man who, like his peer Steve Jobs, will always be — even more than just one of a kind — irreplaceable.

18 Responses to “Why No One Will Replace Bill & Steve”

  1. This was may answer to the referred article in TC:

    I think these people are all very capable and I have a great deal of respect – if not some healthy envy – for all of them; but the only one that from an influence point of view can come close if not surpass Gates in some respects is Jobs. Am I a fan of Jobs? not. Not a fan, but I have respect for him as much as I do for Gates.

    We are yet to see an influencer such as Gates, Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee , Jerry Young, and a handful more. None of the guys you listed above come close to any of these guys I just listed; and I mean no disrespect to any of them either. But really, put things in perspective.

  2. You said “the global distribution of intelligence makes is hard for any one person or company to build a monopoly” — Om, let’s hope that you’re right, and restraint-of-trade as a business strategy isn’t continually rewarded by wealth and power.

    Perhaps the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice will come out of hibernation with a new president in the Whitehouse. One can only hope.

  3. Jeff M

    Oh, why no mention of Elon Musk? I think Elon has what it takes. Look what he’s doing with SpaceX. If his next rocket actually places something into orbit he will be playing in the big leagues with boeing and lockheed. Tesla motors will most certainly be a huge IPO, he bought SolarCity at just the right time, and he doesn’t appear to have any intention of stopping.

  4. The key of MS was and is marketing, marketing and selling PCs with a preinstalled Windows.

    What would be, if Bill and Steve had not sell QDOS for IBM and later there software got no success?

    Would we all be mac users now? :-) Or with OS/2?

  5. Great commentary Om, and very true…the others are in the minor leagues. The other aspect missing from the current generation is truly a rivalry that helps push the companies to new heights. Some arguments can be made the neither Steve nor Bill would have really achieved their greatness without the other…

  6. no more spore

    Apple will certainly take a stock hit with Mr Jobs decides to call it a day, but to say Apple will be in big trouble is just wrong. Microsoft has suffered from a lack of focus (critical thinking). Since his return, Jobs has laid out a long term plan, executed very well and modified the plan as needed as the market changed. Apple always applies critical thinking to problems, a skill that is likely burned into all senior management and will serve Apple well in the long term.

  7. Tribute to Bill Gates !! Yeah he made lots money selling and still is Crappy Software and exploiting market with his monopolistic and taking no prisoner attitude and doing all these things which any software company should be ashamed of !! This blog is going to dogs !! I really liked reading you , now i think i will remove it from rss reader , who knows whats next, tribute to hitler !!

  8. No one can replace Steve Jobs. That’s why when Steve does eventually leave Apple will be in big trouble because no one can take his place. Who can have the presence of a Steve Jobs?

  9. OM – good commentary – a nice tribute the man called Bill Gates.

    BUT, by bringing in the reference to the moronic commentary by Erick Schoenfeld you took away some of the “class” that is normally attributed to your writings. You are a blogger in your own right – please keep it that way – and don’t pollute the GigaOM genre with the ones that do not deserve a mention in your category.

  10. RoyRodgers

    These guys were good. The organizations they established have grown large and gone public. These organizations now have a life of their own and don’t necessarily need a figurehead/spokesman.

    Bill is moving on with his life – like everyone else he still has a lot to learn about his next adventure, that is probably why he’s moving on; an even greater challenge.

  11. OM, you are way off the mark with Bezos here. I used to work for Amazon for 5 years, and I watched the top down management style push out nearly every great engineer. The question you should ask anyone who works for Amazon is: so, what’s your excuse for not leaving?

    Even in the webservices arm of Amazon, where attrition hasn’t decimated an entire generation of technological leaders, you are adrift in a company that doesn’t have a very strong engineering culture. It has a “get it done now” culture. I would never go back to that place for any amount of RSUs (I left behind over 1500).

    And this is the next bill gates? This developer says not. Bezos is a business guy, not technology.

  12. He almost singlehandedly built an era, almost. The one thing he is missing, (and you can sometimes see this in his face) is he never built that beloved brand.

    Oh, how he would have wanted that! Even when GM was making total crap (was?), there were folks that would stand next to their trucks or Caddies and and lovingly proclaim, “I’m a GM man!”. Apple built that. Even Intel and AMD have their pride of ownership club.

    But no one ever throws their arm around a Microsoft product and declares fealty. Xbox maybe. Maybe….

    He came, he dominated, he prospered, he gave. Maybe that’s enough?