Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the ‘rising billion’

Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who’s the greatest tech entrepreneur of all time? With the new Steve Jobs film set to hit movie screens on August 16, this is a debate that many within the tech world will likely be having soon.


On the left, Apple CEO Steve Jobs smiles during the Apple news conference in San Francisco, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010. On the right, philanthropist Bill Gates participates in a talk with former President Bill Clinton about debt at the 2013 Fiscal Summit in Washington, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (Left: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, Right: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Fair or not, people will argue the relative merits of Apple versus Microsoft and the strengths and weaknesses of the tech geniuses who built them. They will point out that both men were visionaries and captains of industry who led companies that became icons and created unprecedented wealth for their stakeholders.

But here’s one factor they may not consider: the way we remember Bill Gates and Steve Jobs generations from now may have nothing to do with the coolness of their gadgets, the market dominance of their products or the market capitalization of their companies. Instead, we may remember them more for the impact they made on global society.

And that’s where the “rising billion” – the world’s poorest in the highly populated areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America – may have the final say in the debate over who is the greatest tech entrepreneur ever, Jobs or Gates. This group, also referred to as the people at the “bottom of the pyramid“) are just now entering the digital age and encountering the transformational advantages of technology — not just the latest and greatest smart phone or the most powerful computer or tablet, but also a toilet that flushes and a refrigerator that keeps vaccines cold for long periods of time. In the developing world, toilets and refrigerators are more important than smart phones — at least for now.

And here’s where Bill Gates may have an undeniable advantage over Steve Jobs in terms of establishing a lasting global tech legacy. Though it should be noted that it’s impossible to say what Jobs would have done had he lived longer. He may very well have gone on to become a renowned philanthropist in his own right. We’ll never know.

But, in a “60 Minutes” segment on Bill Gates that ran over the weekend (“Bill Gates 2.0″), Charlie Rose couldn’t hide his amazement when discussing with Gates the reach of the tech entrepreneur-gone-philanthropist’s innovative thinking in re the developing world. Even something as simple as fertilizer, Gates suggested to Rose, can lop years off of a country’s mortality rate. As one user noted on Reddit after watching the segment on Gates, “50 years from now, there will be monuments dedicated to Gates throughout the third world. Steve Jobs will be forgotten like the founders of Xerox.” Maybe that’s overstating things (this is Reddit, after all), but it does get at a core idea: we don’t necessarily build monuments to people for creating popular, high-end consumer products.

Gates has become one of the most influential people – not just tech entrepreneurs – of the 21st century. He now sits at the helm of one of the world’s most influential nonprofit institutions and has become a vocal champion for eradicating disease in the developing world. He has put his own money to work and given away the rest.

As a result, Rose now mentions Bill Gates in the same breath as Leonardo da Vinci. Gates has moved from software and hardware into areas that are far removed from Silicon Valley high tech: nuclear reactors that run for generations on depleted uranium, anti-malarial lasers that kill infectious mosquitoes, refrigerated thermoses that keep vaccines cold for weeks at a time without the need for batteries, and, yes, toilets that extract water from waste.

So what does all this mean for today’s tech entrepreneurs?

It simply means this: it doesn’t matter just how much money you make or how many companies you launch, but also how much of a difference you’ve made to society. It matters where your products are sourced from, how they are made, and how much you pay the people that make them. It matters that your innovations are used not just for entertainment or consumption, but also to change the world. Techno-philanthropists like Bill Gates are at the forefront of something very special, inspiring the current crop of Internet multi-millionaires also to become techno-philanthropists. Together, they have an opportunity to harness their enormous wealth to their innovative tech ideas to truly change things for the rising billion.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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