The Jobs-Gates onstage duet lasted nearly 90 minutes and was mostly sweetness and light. But then, at the end, a question from the audience elicited an outpouring of sublimated rage: What had each man learned from the other?
Gates stroked his chin for a long moment, then smiled a mischievous smile. “Oh,” he said, “I’d give a lot to have Steve’s taste.”
Jobs stared down, shooting daggers at the floor. Then, when it came his time to answer, he said wanly, “Because Woz and I started the company based on doing the whole banana, we weren’t so good at partnering with people … Bill and Microsoft were really good at it.”
The joint interview was revealing on other levels, too. Whereas Gates came across as entirely at ease, almost avuncular, Jobs was coiled as tight as a spring. Whereas Gates spoke happily about the marks, technological and philanthropic, he would leave on the world, Jobs squirmed at the notion of bequeathal, with its intimations of mortality. “I don’t think about legacy much,” he said. “I just think about being able to get up every day, and go in and hang around these great people, and hopefully create something other people will love as much as we do.”
Maybe Jobs’s queasiness with thinking about legacy comes from the pancreatic-cancer scare he received, and eluded, a few years ago. Or perhaps it comes from another sort of brush with death—the Apple stock-option backdating scandal that embroiled him recently—which he also has managed to survive. Some of his friends say these close calls have mellowed him. “I see him around the neighborhood,” says one. “He looks different than he did a few years ago. I think he may want to do something else.”
Say what? “I think that Google is going to buy Apple,” this person says. “It would be a victory for Apple; they’d get major-league partners, money, and engineers. And it would be a victory for Steve—a huge win that lets him leave the stage.”
The speculation about Google has a ring of plausibility. Google CEO Eric Schmidt is now on the Apple board; engineers at the two companies are collaborating on Google Maps for the iPhone; and then there’s the YouTube deal for Apple TV. But is there any reason to think that in such a merger Jobs wouldn’t wind up as CEO—or, at least, chairman of the board?
No, there isn’t. If anything, it seems to me, Jobs’s vaulting ambition, his sense of omnipotence, have only been enhanced by his recent triumphs—and traumas. He has beaten back death, literally and metaphorically. He has returned to his first love, repaired the broken marriage, and made the bond more intimate than ever: Jobs and Apple are one, indivisible. Now, with Gates soon retiring from Microsoft, and with Grove and so many other Valley potentates of his generation having left the scene, Jobs stands alone atop the high-tech heap. This is the position he has longed for all his life. The likelihood of his surrendering it voluntarily is vanishingly close to nil.
Of course, if the iPhone is a runaway success, Jobs won’t have to surrender anything—and it very well may be. Less than two weeks from now, when the phone hits the streets, the consumerist pandemonium will likely be hysterical. Once again, Jobs may have fashioned a totemic object that will capture the culture—and cause rival CEOs to have coronary events. No one else in history has pulled of this kind of coup, as Jobs has, with four different products. The Apple II. The Mac. The iPod. The computer-animated feature film. Betting against a track record like that would be a dangerous wager. Especially when you know, deep down, that you want an iPhone. Bad.
But Jobs has been wrong before. And if the iPhone proves a disappointment, his reputation will take a precipitous tumble: from unerring visionary to just another overreaching mogul. What’s at stake for Jobs, then, isn’t money or power—for no matter how the iPhone fares, he’ll still have both in abundance. What’s at stake is the thing that now must matter to him above all: the ending of his story.