Will Steve Jobs Stand the Test of Time?


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 (NAS: MSFT) founder Bill Gates half a century down the road, but Apple (NAS: 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 (NYS: 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.

Warren Buffett still has time between charity events to hand out sage advice to investors. Dividends play a surprisingly large role in his investing success, and they can help your portfolio, too. Check out our brand-new report on The 3 Dow Stocks Dividend Investors Need. It's yours for the asking, but only for a limited time so get your copy right now.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorAnders Bylundholds no position in any of the companies mentioned. Check outAnders' holdings and bio, or follow him onTwitterandGoogle+. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, and Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave 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 adisclosure 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 servicesfree for 30 days.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Originally published