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IT greats who changed the world

Last updated on: February 10, 2011 14:02 IST
Marc Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sergei Brin and Larry Page of Google, Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft -- are they visionaries, missionaries or monopolists?

A bit of all, says B S Prakash. Illustration: Uttam Ghosh.


Are you one of the five hundred million people in the world using Facebook for your 'friends'? I assume that you use Google along with countless others in the world. And naturally Windows, as you read this column on the computer. Or are you seeing this article using an iPad or an iPhone, more expensive and more exclusive, no doubt, but still used by seventy million people already.

The history of any of the above is not all that old, five years in the case of Facebook, somewhat longer for others. And if millions are using it already, surely it is one sign of success.
What is common then between the creators of these successes: Marc Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sergei Brin and Larry Page of Google, and Steve Jobs of Apple? They all 'wrote code' the computer-speak for writing software programmes.

While there are tens of thousands who write code, including thousands of gifted Indians, these are creators or innovators who have built something on a global scale and in the process have become billionaires.

Money is not the issue being emphasised here, but it can be a measure of success in the material and in the cyber world. The attempt here is to decode the code writers with extraordinary creativity and to see whether they have any qualities in common.



Why am I leaving Bill Gates out? He is as great or perhaps even greater, but he has now transcended 'code writing' and even supervising. Like an ancient Raja who renounces his kingdom and aims at becoming a rishi, Bill Gates has handed over the day to day concerns at the empire he built, Microsoft, and is now more keen on doing 'Good'. Also his story is better known to us than that of the other supernerds I mentioned above.



Let us start then with the oldest of them and one of the most enigmatic IT legends, Steve Jobs of Apple. He is currently in the news as he has taken leave at his company for the second time, afflicted with serious health issues. This made headline news in most parts of the world.

His is a story that lends itself to a film. An adopted kid, it is only in adult life that Jobs came to know that his biological parents were gifted academics. Steve had one advantage, though, growing up in the natural habitat for innovation, in Silicon Valley around Stanford University. Steve was always unorthodox and his search during his youth took him to India too in the mid 1970s, a version of the spiritual quest in the hippie era.

Not much is known about this period, but he returned influenced by Buddhism. Starting in the mid 1980s Jobs went into what he has done consistently since then: Creating an object that you desire for its simplicity, beauty, and yes, utility. He started by changing the face of the computer itself pitting himself against IBM, no less.

Steve did not invent either the computer or an operating system, but what he did was to make it smaller, sleeker, simpler and overall more desirable. In the process he also created a brand, Apple, that introduced a sense of fun and toy-like quality in all its products and started winning devotees for its design, and elegance, even though at a higher cost.

In the last two decades despite many upheavals in his professional and personal life, Steve Jobs has come out with products which are termed 'game-changers': The iPod and iTunes changed the music industry and in the process challenged established music companies, formats like cassettes and CDs, and finally devices including Sony's celebrated Walkman and Discman.

Subsequent products -- the iPhone, for instance -- has redefined mobiles and the way we communicate. The latest is the iPad and its clones which may change the way we read books or see television.

One of the keys to understanding Steve Jobs' genius is to see him as a visionary in a literal sense, as someone who envisages a product that no one knew that they wanted, but soon come to desire. His excellence over many things: Product design, strategic secrecy till the patent stage, monopoly marketing, aesthetics in user-interface, obsession with simplicity makes him a unique innovator.

There is the famous quip about Henry Ford, the inventor of automobiles: 'If I had asked people what people wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse'. Such is the engineering and marketing genius in the code in Steve's brain that these wonders in gadgetry have emerged from his vision.

From product to process, as we turn to look at the two young code writers who created Google. Google was registered as a company in 1998 and is thus less than fifteen years old and yet can you imagine a world without it?

Imagined and founded by Larry Page and Sergei Brin, both PhD students in their early twenties at Stanford University, their initial idea was simple and yet breathtaking in its ambition. To find an algorithm, ie, a mathematical formula to map the links between all the pages in the Worldwide Web.

Their combined computing genius in being able to do it and devising a 'Web crawler' that found all the links is a testimony to their code writing skills of a sublime order.

Later their ability to grow Google as a company by finding the right kind of investors, by 'scaling' it -- the Silicon Valley expression for the growth of an application which does not crash if millions start using it instead of hundreds, - their instinct in finding a great business manager who was also an IT professional, Eric Scmidt, now equally responsible for Google's success, their skills in staying at top in new areas, say gmail, Googlemaps or the latest Android technology for mobiles -- all this has shown that they are much more than code writers.

They are among the world's most admired business leaders. Today in the battle of the nerds, Google has triumphed Microsoft in many ways and is now being challenged by the new kid on the block, Facebook.

Which brings us to Marc Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old brash, aggressive and superambitious creator and owner of the latest phenomenon sweeping the web -- Facebook. If 'simplicity' was Steve Jobs'credo and 'search' the passion of Page-Brin duo, 'social networking' as an essential attraction was Marc's insight propelling his creation.

A Hollywood blockbuster The Social Network has already been made about Zuckerberg's less than three decades of life. In the movie, his inspiration to create Facebook is somewhat inaccurately attributed to his having no girlfriends at Harvard where he wrote code for a new site and in the process cheated friends who had the idea first.

But the movie does capture an important insight, a 'aha' moment that Marc had in college. Everyone knew that all college kids like to see photos of pretty girls. But how much more fun, if you could look at photos of all your collegemates, even if you did not know them, learn about their hobbies and interests, and whether they already had a boyfriend or you still stood a choice: thus was born the prototype for Facebook, according to the movie version.

Sure, Facebook has privacy issues, is controversial in some ways and the direction that it may take is yet to be seen. But already, to day, Facebook has been valued at $50 billion, is overtaking Google in terms of users, and Marc is one of the youngest billionaires in the world. And is still writing or improving code.

Is there a common code to these code writers? The brief story of their achievements show that each one did something unique: They created a superior product, or search, or network. And yet there are some common features. Each one was an innovator -- experimenting, thinking new and weathering failure.

They are all IT greats, but much more. Their multi-skills include interest in business, marketing, advertising, revenues, and skills in staying on top of what they had developed.

Their passion is in creating something new, but also in growing it global and keeping it as their own. Are they visionaries, missionaries, monopolists: a bit of all, I suspect.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br

B S Prakash