The evening session kicked off promptly at 7.15pm. After the blaring Beatles music died down, several historical videos were shown, including a “software CEO dating game” from 1984 with Steve Jobs a mock contestant tossing questions to Lotus’ Mitch Kapor, Software Publishing’s Fred Gibbons, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. (All five are here at D.) That set up the mind-warping onstage meeting of Gates and Steve Jobs brokered by Swisher and Mossberg.
The interviewers took the two back to the beginnings of their companies, and from the nods in the crowd, it was clear that those of us who are older in the crowd reacted nostalgically to the walk down memory lane as Jobs and Gates recounted early stories of their collaboration.
Looking back, 1977 was a year of incredible innovation, with the release of three different early PCs: the Commodore PET, Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Apple IIe. (I used all three, at work, no less, but especially the “Trash 80” and the Apple.) Though many believe that the two companies were entrenched competitors from the start, it turns out that the Apple IIe actually shipped with Microsoft software. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak had created a version of the BASIC programming language that lacked the ability to do floating point calculations, essentially the calculating using scientific notation. Microsoft’s BASIC could do floating point, so Apple licensed it.
Jobs said that Apple was also responsible for Microsoft moving into the applications business. Microsoft’s early spreadsheet application, Multiplan, was first successful on Apple – until Lotus’ 1-2-3 dominated the market.
Fast forward to today’s market. Microsoft has, by and large, avoided hardware. What kind of company is Apple? “Apple views itself as a software company,” said Jobs. “And there aren’t many software companies left.”
Is there a chance the PC will go away? Not anytime soon, according to the two veterans. Both agreed that there’s still a strong need for a “rich client” environment, with local applications, memory and processing. “I’ll give you a concrete example,” Jobs said. Apple wanted to put maps on the iPhone. They called Google, and began development on a non-browser application for the phone. “And the map we were able to write blows away any [other] Google maps client,” he said. “You can’t do that stuff in a browser.”
Does that kind of functionality in a small portable device mean that the PC is going away? “The PC has proved to be very resilient,” said Jobs. Gates believes we’ll be carrying around at least two different devices: “The full screen device you can carry around” – which he believes will be a tablet PC – “and another device that fits in your pocket.” Voice recognition, presence detection, communications – perhaps both will support all of those functions.
What are the core functions of that pocket device? asked Mossberg. “Clearly, most things you carry with you are communications devices,” said Jobs. “And that’s what they’re going to be.” Gates generally agreed, though rollout screens “…might allow you to have a device that could do everything.”
So given a perspective of more than 30 years in the PC business, how do the two of them think about the current era? “This is a great time,” said Jobs. Gates agreed. “I think we’ll look back at this as one of the great periods of invention,” he said.
What are some of those new areas? ‘Touch. Ink. Speech. Vision,” Gates ticked off on his fingers. Communications between viewers during sports shows, or elections. 3D. “More choices. More navigation.” He continued, “Imagine where you can pick up your tennis racket and swing it,” with your PC game automatically recognizing it. “The camera will be ubiquitous. Software can do vision, and it can do it very, very inexpensively.”
“I guess the question is,” said Jobs, “how much of the really revolutionary things…are going to be done on PCs, or how much will be done on the post-PC devices? There’s a real impetus to do it on the post-PC devices. And the question is, how much do you do on the PC?” There’s a temptation, he said, to make substantial changes in the PC. “But some of it has to be tempered a little bit, because you have these… users who don’t want a car with six wheels. They want a car with four wheels.” As a result, he said, “I think the radical rethinking is going to happen in these post-PC devices.”
Swisher asked the two to talk about any potential misunderstandings that the public might have about their relationship. After a pause, Jobs turned to Gates and said, “I guess it can be summed up in a line from a Beatles song… ‘You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.’”
A cynic would call it schmaltz. But as the main part of the session came to a close, the audience broke out into applause, rising slowly into a standing ovation, an electric tribute by an industry to the contributions of the two pioneers.