The strange love-hate relationship between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, left, and Bill Gates.
Steve Jobs, left, and Bill Gates.

Beck Diefenbach/Reuters; Mike Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times

  • Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and Apple cofounder Steve Jobs began building their companies right around the same time, and it was a natural catalyst for their rivalry. 

  • While the two founders had periods of civility, at other times, they were at each other’s throats. 

  • Jobs insulted Gates’ taste and imagination, while Gates once described Jobs as “weirdly flawed as a human being.”

  • But the two execs appeared to get along better later in life, and when Jobs died in 2011, Gates said that they “spurred each other on, even as competitors.”

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never quite got along.

Over the course of 30-plus years, the two went from cautious allies to bitter rivals to something almost approaching friends — sometimes, they were all three at the same time.

It seems unlikely that Apple would be where it is today without Microsoft, or Microsoft without Apple.

Here’s the history of the bizarre relationship between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs weren’t always enemies — Microsoft made software early on for the mega-popular Apple II PC, and Gates would routinely fly down to Cupertino to see what Apple was working on.

Steve Woz Apple II
Steve Woz Apple II

The Apple II computer.

Flickr/Robert Scoble

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

In the early ’80s, Jobs flew up to Washington to sell Gates on the possibility of making Microsoft software for the Apple Macintosh computer, with its revolutionary graphical user interface. Gates wasn’t particularly impressed with what he saw as a limited platform — or Jobs’ attitude.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

“It was kind of a weird seduction visit where Steve was saying we don’t really need you and we’re doing this great thing, and it’s under the cover. He’s in his Steve Jobs sales mode, but kind of the sales mode that also says, ‘I don’t need you, but I might let you be involved,'” Gates later said.

bill gates
bill gates

Reuters

Source: Fortune

Still, Gates appeared alongside Jobs in a 1983 video — a “Dating Game” riff — screened for Apple employees ahead of the Macintosh’s launch. In that video, Gates compliments the Mac, saying that it “really captures people’s imagination.”

bill gates 1983 mac launch event
bill gates 1983 mac launch event

YouTube/All Things D

Source: Business Insider

Microsoft and Apple worked hand-in-hand for the first few years of the Macintosh. At one point, Gates quipped that he had more people working on the Mac than Jobs did.

Mac computers 1984
Mac computers 1984

Paul Sakuma/AP

Source: Yahoo

Their relationship, already kind of rocky, fell apart when Microsoft announced the first version of Windows in 1985. A furious Jobs accused Gates and Microsoft of ripping off the Macintosh. But Gates didn’t care — he knew that graphical interfaces would be big, and didn’t think Apple had the exclusive rights to the idea.

Bill Gates Windows 98
Bill Gates Windows 98

Reuters/Jeff Christensen

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Besides, Gates knew full well that Apple took the idea for the graphical interface from the Xerox PARC labs, a research institution they both admired.

xerox
xerox

REUTERS/Chip East

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

When Jobs accused Gates of stealing the idea, he famously answered: “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

bill gates 1992
bill gates 1992

Jim Davidson/AP

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

From there, the gloves were off between the two founders. “They just ripped us off completely, because Gates has no shame,” Jobs once said. To which Gates replied: “If he believes that, he really has entered into one of his own reality distortion fields.”

steve jobs
steve jobs

Kristy MacDonald/AP

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Jobs thought that Gates was a stick in the mud, far too focused on business. “He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”

Bill Gates
Bill Gates

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Gates said Jobs was “fundamentally odd,” and “weirdly flawed as a human being.”

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs

Kimberly White / Reuters

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

But Gates respected Jobs’ knack for design: “He really never knew much about technology, but he had an amazing instinct for what works.”

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs

Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

In 1985, Steve Jobs resigned from Apple after a power shift to start his own computer company, NeXT. But just because Jobs was no longer working for Microsoft’s biggest competitor, it didn’t improve relations between the two.

steve jobs
steve jobs

AP Images

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Jobs thought that if NeXT lost and Microsoft Windows won, “we are going to enter a computer Dark Ages for about twenty years,” he told Playboy in 1985.

steve jobs neXT 1990
steve jobs neXT 1990

Ann E. Yow-Dyson/Getty Images

Source: The Telegraph

Still, Windows was winning. By the late ’80s, it became clear that Microsoft was just about unstoppable on the PC.

bill gates windows
bill gates windows

AP Photo

Fast-forward to 1996, when Jobs appeared in a PBS documentary called “Triumph of the Nerds” and ripped into Gates and Microsoft, saying that they make “third-rate products.”

steve jobs
steve jobs

Lou Dematteis/Reuters

Source: PBS

Jobs went on in that same documentary: “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.”

Bill Gates
Bill Gates

Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Source: PBS

By the late ’90s, Apple was in serious danger of going under. When then-Apple CEO Gil Amelio moved to buy NeXT in 1996 and bring Jobs back to Apple, Gates tried to talk him out of it.

amelio jobs
amelio jobs

AP

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Gates said this to Amelio: “I know his technology, it’s nothing but a warmed-over UNIX, and you’ll never be able to make it work on your machines. Don’t you understand that Steve doesn’t know anything about technology? He’s just a super salesman. I can’t believe you’re making such a stupid decision.”

Bill Gates
Bill Gates

Gus Ruelas/Reuters

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

But by 1997, Jobs was Apple CEO. At his first Macworld keynote, he announced that he had accepted an investment from Microsoft to keep Apple afloat. Bill Gates appeared on a huge screen via satellite link. The audience booed.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates

AP

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Gates clearly admired Jobs, even if they didn’t always see eye-to-eye. When Apple introduced iTunes, Gates sent an internal email to Microsoft that said “Steve Jobs’ ability to focus in on a few things that count, get people who get user interface right, and market things as revolutionary are amazing things.”

steve jobs imac 1998
steve jobs imac 1998

Mousse Mousse/Reuters

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

When Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, Gates sent another email: “I think we need some plan to prove that, even though Jobs has us a bit flat footed again, we can move quick and both match and do stuff better.”

steve jobs
steve jobs

Justin Sullivan / Getty

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

But Jobs was still pretty down on Microsoft, especially after Steve Ballmer took over from Bill Gates as CEO in 2000. “They’ve clearly fallen from their dominance. They’ve become mostly irrelevant,” Jobs once said. “I don’t think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it.”

Steve Ballmer Bill Gates
Steve Ballmer Bill Gates

AP

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Conversely, Gates thought much of Apple’s post-iPhone success came from Jobs himself, and not from Apple’s “closed” philosophy. “The integrated approach works well when Steve is at the helm. But it doesn’t mean it will win many rounds in the future,” Gates said.

bill gates microsoft 2001
bill gates microsoft 2001

Getty Images/Tim Matsui

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

And Gates didn’t think too much of the iPad. “[I]t’s not like I sit there and feel the same way I did with iPhone where I say, ‘Oh my God, Microsoft didn’t aim high enough.'”

Steve Jobs using an iPad
Steve Jobs using an iPad

Getty Images News

Source: CBS MoneyWatch

But Jobs didn’t think much of the Windows ecosystem either: “Of course, his fragmented model worked, but it didn’t make really great products. It produced crappy products.”

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Jobs didn’t even have any mercy when Gates decided to quit Microsoft in 2006 to focus more on his foundation. “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology,” Jobs said.

bill gates melinda gates
bill gates melinda gates

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Still, in a weird way, the two men clearly respected each other. Appearing on stage together at the 2007 AllThingsD conference, Gates said, “I’d give a lot to have Steve’s taste.”

Steve Jobs Bill Gates
Steve Jobs Bill Gates

The Wall Street Journal

Source: The Wall Street Journal

And Jobs once said, “I admire him for the company he built — it’s impressive — and I enjoyed working with him. He’s bright and actually has a good sense of humor.”

steve jobs
steve jobs

Seth Wenig / Reuters

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

After Jobs died, Gates said, “I respect Steve, we got to work together. We spurred each other on, even as competitors. None of [what he said] bothers me at all.”

bill gates
bill gates

Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Source: Yahoo

Ultimately, both men claim quite a legacy: Jobs built Apple into what is now one of the most valuable companies in the world, while Gates is one of the richest men in the world.

steve jobs
steve jobs

Mario Tama / Getty

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