OPINION

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Freedom

In the United States, the 4th of July is celebrated as Independence Day, recalling the time when Americans stepped away from a government they viewed as repressive and forged a new future. Over the years, I’ve worked for a number of harsh managers and companies. Some were actually good for me — others not so much. I wonder if we all shouldn’t take a moment to consider whether we wouldn’t be better off in another career, department, company — or retired.

There is a lot to be admired about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but in one respect in particular, Bill stands out above Jobs and that is in his willingness to let go of a job that had begun to destroy him. This week after July 4th seems like a good time to pause for a moment, look at both men, and consider this: If you are more like Jobs, perhaps you should become more like Gates.

I’ll close with my product of the week — an offering that frees you from picking up your cellphone in the car and might even help save your life.

Steve Jobs and Apple: Maybe Not Good for Each Other

It is easy to get trapped in a job and believe that it defines you and that you are irreplaceable. When Steve was fired from Apple, he fell into a deep depression, according to several of the books that documented this. Reading between the lines, he may have been at some risk of not surviving as a result. Eventually, he found a life after Apple, but for much of that time, he wasn’t very successful. His choice of NeXT seemed more about getting back at Apple then getting on with his life.

When Jobs returned to Apple, he restructured the firm around his unique needs and made himself nearly irreplaceable — as irreplaceable as it appears possible for a CEO to become, and that apparently is pretty damned irreplaceable. He helps craft products at their inception; he negotiates major contracts and personally enforces many of those he thinks are critical; he drives the development groups personally; and he presents the products to the public once they have been created.

Jon Rubenstein was trained to be Steve’s replacement, and Jon’s performance at Palm is evidence that training took — even though Palm is clearly not yet in Apple’s league. It appears likely that Jon was forced out of Apple by Steve so he didn’t threaten Steve’s job.

I don’t think there is another company anywhere near Apple’s size that is this dependent on one person, regardless of title or authority. Now, the result is very powerful. I can’t think of another firm that has the loyalty that Apple enjoys with consumers or has brought out the number of hit products that Apple has debuted over the last decade.

However, the cost to Steve has been high. Cancer does have a relation to stress, and the job that Steve has created puts him in constant conflict, suggesting a stress level that likely exceeds significantly what anyone should be constantly under — let alone someone with Steve’s recent health history.

Yet Steve’s own identity is tied to Apple, and he likely believes his mortality is as well. That is not an uncommon problem in our society. What is uncommon is that Apple’s current structure may be just as critically tied to Steve.

What Apple should likely be doing is more aggressively seeking a way to survive without Steve; and Steve should be finding a way to ensure he can be around to enjoy his grandchildren. He really doesn’t need any more money, and he has already proven he can survive without Apple.

Bill Gates: Finding Life After Microsoft

There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from Bill’s time at Microsoft. It was clear that through most of the 90s, as Microsoft became more and more complex and faced an increasing number of internal and external threats, that the job Bill wanted to do wasn’t there for him anymore. The breaking point for him was during the Department of Justice trial when he tried unsuccessfully to outsmart the DoJ attorneys and ended up looking stupid in his own eyes.

Bill is one of those folks who can be highly self-critical. When faced with his own foolishness, he suddenly seemed to realize the job wasn’t what he envisioned. With clarity of purpose, he then started a process that ended about a year ago to separate himself from Microsoft and discover a life that would help ensure he would be around to enjoy his grandchildren.

In Gates’ case, his life isn’t without drama, because he and his wife administer an impressively large charity designed to bootstrap emerging countries experiencing massive financial and health problems. As I write this, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for Americans and his family if he were to focus a bit on the massive financial and health problems that exist in the U.S. at the moment. Be that as it may — it’s largely his money — his mortality isn’t tied to Microsoft, and Microsoft’s isn’t tied to Bill Gates — and Bill’s health appears to have improved since he left the company. He certainly seems much happier than when I would meet with him in the 90s. For most of that time, he seemed driven and angry.

I do worry about Steve Ballmer, though, who has gone the other way. In the 90s, he generally seemed like he was enjoying the job. This decade, not so much — and I wonder if Bill, in passing the CEO role to Steve, didn’t give his friend the equivalent of a death sentence. I hope not.

Seeking Freedom

It is hard not to let a job define you — I’ve been there myself. At some point, we all will be faced with a voluntary or involuntary separation from our jobs and companies. There was one manager I had whom I’ll always recall fondly. When I took the job under him, his advice was to always find a way to have fun — and at the point where I couldn’t, find someplace else to be.

That’s my advice and hope for all of you. If you aren’t having fun in your job, find someplace else where you can be that is fun, where a long life is a pleasure and not a curse, and where you don’t live for the weekends, and where your family doesn’t think of you as the angry relative they seldom see. Take a moment to think about freeing yourself from tyranny, even if you are the source of it.

Product of the Week: Blueant S1 Sun Visor Car Kit

Blueant is a company that seems to get that products need to be both functional and just a little bit cool. It has the only Bluetooth headset that has decent voice command capability in the nicely designed Q1. However, my favorite product from them is the S1 Sun Visor Bluetooth Car Kit with Multipoint. For a lot of folks, a headset is a hassle — mine is glued to the side of my head and I’ve even had folks send me caricatures with the damned thing in them. Those that are built into a car are expensive, generally hard to set up, and often don’t work particularly well.

The S1 goes in any car, is a dream to set up, works with two cellphones at the same time, streams music (so you can use your high-end phone to put music into your car), and has limited voice control. All this for about US$65 on Amazon. Given there’s a crackdown on folks in my state (California) at the moment, and tickets are really expensive, this could not only let you keep your hands on the wheel, but also free you from expensive tickets. The Blueant S1 Visor Mount Bluetooth Car Kit Speakerphone is a natural for product of the week.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


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