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Will Steve Jobs Stand the Test of Time?

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Malcolm Gladwell started his best-selling authorial career with a deep dive into who decides what's cool. So when this cool cat speaks up about business leaders the world will remember in 50 years, he's probably done his homework.

In Gladwell's view, history will look kindly on Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) founder Bill Gates half a century down the road, but Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) leader Steve Jobs will be forgotten.

"People will remember him as the man who ... you know, there's a reasonable shot, because of his money, we will cure malaria," he said at a recent speaking engagement. So Gates, the man, will live on, but: "No one will even remember what Microsoft is."

That's an overstatement for dramatic effect, of course. You do know a thing or two about Standard Oil and its founder, John D Rockefeller, even a century after the company's demise, right?

That verdict has nothing to do with the businesses the two men started. By any measure, the Apple we see today is worthy of inclusion in any MBA curriculum for the next couple of centuries. It's an unparalleled rise from the edge of the grave to record-breaking riches, and a master class in marketing strategy. For this, Jobs will be remembered in business circles.

But the rest of the world should build statues to honor Gates instead. Gladwell argues that the charitable work he's pumping his Microsoft billions into is making the world better in a real and measurable way.

Though Gladwell didn't mention him, I'm sure that Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) guru Warren Buffett will outlive his company in public memory for much the same reasons. In fact, his charitable efforts are joined at the hip with Bill Gates'. He famously gave $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates charitable trust in 2006, has proposed higher taxes on the ultra-rich, and aims to shuffle most of his Berkshire billions into the Gates foundations when he's gone. Oh, and the Rockefeller Foundation made significant contributions to fields like medicine, arts, and international relations. The early oil riches are still making a difference.

Should we hold billionaire business leaders to a higher standard of sharing than the rest of us? Gladwell would argue that these billions and trillions of hard-won dollars would be better spent on global improvements and on fundamental research than passed on as inheritance to a select handful of very rich families. Call it liberal idealism or blue-eyed naivete if you want, but I would agree. Would you rather be remembered just for being successful and fabulously wealthy, like Steve Jobs, or also for putting an incredible pile of gold to work in the real world, like Gates and Buffett? Discuss in the comments section below.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies mentioned. Check out Anders' holdings and bio, or follow him on Twitter and Google+. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Microsoft, and Berkshire Hathaway, as well as  creating a bull call spread position in Apple and another bull call spread position in Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2012, at 9:31 PM, matthewluke wrote:

    Gladwell forgets the likes of Henry Ford. Children learn about Henry Ford in elementary school. History remembers him. Not just remembers him, but remembers him positively and largely ignores some of his personal views that most people would find reprehensible today.

    Predicting what history will remember is a fool's (small f) game. History often remembers what it wants to remember and seemingly forgets what it wants to forget. History is funny that way.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2012, at 12:58 AM, Kdub1970 wrote:

    Can we please end the cult of personality around Malcolm Gladwell? The man was a failed grad student and mediocre journalist until he hit pay dirt with his talent for reinventing cliches as novel observations and then packaging them slickly and entertainingly with a bunch of anecdotes disguised as data. I too fell under his sway when I first read "Tipping Point," but upon further reflection, you realize his theses are not terribly insightful or original (small things can lead to big changes! people react intuitively to certain situations!) and his supporting "data" are cherry picked to tell his side of the story. His whole shtick - the snide interviews, the knowing condescension, the crazy-scientist hair - seems to me now to be part of his elaborate, successful con, one which has CEOs and middle managers trampling to read his latest work, just so than can crow to their colleagues about how they "get it."

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2012, at 1:13 AM, Kdub1970 wrote:

    Which is not to say that I don't respect Gates for his philanthropy, or even that I disagree w/ Gladwell on this particular point. It is just that others (Leander Kahney comes to mind) have been saying this exact same thing vis a vis Gates and Jobs for YEARS. Gladwell waits until Jobs has died, and then acts like this is some profound, original lightening bolt of thought, directly from his hyper-intelligent cranium; a gift bestowed on the ignorant masses yearning for Gladwellian enlightenment.

    While I respect the underlying motivation and the resource dedication immensely, it remains to be seen if the Gates foundation will be successful at anything other than wealth redistribution. I certainly hope it is, although malaria has bested herculean efforts before. Time will tell, as it will about Jobs' legacy. But Time is unlikely to care what Malcolm Gladwell thinks on this or any other matter.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2012, at 2:53 PM, Puntificator wrote:

    Steve Jobs may be remembered for his business acumen, but his products? Probably not. They are transitory, ephemeral, and exist in the present, not the future. Twenty years from now no one will still be using iPads or iPhones, and certainly not Macs.

    As for Gates, he will be forgotten too, once the billions are spent. Jonas Salk is barely remembered for curing Polio and he was a far greater man, in substance and in effect, than Gates who made his riches like the robber barons of old through monopoly and business intimidation. Salk gave the cure for Polio to humankind. Gave it. And, as he'd spent much of his life creating it, that was a gift of far greater importance than tech war success.

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