Towards the end of their evening chat at Dow Jones' D conference, Steve Jobs gestured toward Bill Gates. "We've kept our marriage secret for over a decade," he said.
The secret is out.
The two most storied names in tech, supposedly rivals for decades, faced off Wednesday night for the first time in 16 years. . . and showed nothing but love and understanding for each other. It was charming, occasionally insightful, and tinged with the melancholy of a long day's sunset.
One can only hope that they were kidding and this was not the valedictory moment it seemed. These guys make good things and thrive on competition. With luck, Jobs showed his continued interest in the game earlier in the day, when he indicated that Apple's iTunes was now on over 300 million computers worldwide, mostly Windows machines.
That Apple is one of the biggest external developers for Microsoft is a boon, he said, since having his software in Microsoft products "is like giving a glass of water to somebody in Hell."
The evening's first question - What each company had contributed to the other - set the tone. Jobs pointed out that Microsoft founder Gates built the first independent software company, with a durable model, and contributed an important early piece of software to the first commercial Apple computer.
Gates credited Jobs with creating a computer that could be "an empowering phenomenon." Later he also said that developing software for the Apple Macintosh computer led Microsoft into graphics-intensive software, setting the stage for Microsoft applications and its breakthrough Windows 95 operating system.
The closest that the two came to disagreement was on the future role of software. Jobs said that Apple is essentially a software company whose hardware is "a beautiful box" for the product, but that close coupling of hardware and software was generally necessary in consumer electronics. Gates, whose company now produces hardware like the Xbox as well as much software, held out for a future where, as in personal computers, software can be decoupled from the machine.
Both saw a great future for their companies, despite the growth of Internet-based "cloud" computing via a browser.
"The mainstream is always under attack," said Gates. "You'll always have [a need for] rich local functionality, speech or graphics." A big part of the future, he said, would be a three-dimensional user interface.Jobs said, "There is still a lot you can do in a rich client environment," that a browser cannot do, adding, "The marriage of great client apps with really great cloud services is very powerful."
Jobs also said that Apple would soon put more emphasis on its own ".mac" Internet offerings.
D is a geeky enough conference that, earlier in the day when a questioner told Jobs, "Your DRM is AAC...I have to go through transcoding," the audience applauded wildly.
For a crowd like that, Gates and Jobs together was an iconic moment, and they earned a standing ovation when Jobs quoted the Beatles to Gates: "You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead."
At the end, he spoke of the passion necessary to build a great company from nothing. "I look at us as two of the luckiest guys on the planet," he said. "We found what we loved and we were at the right place at the right time...Your family and that - what else can you ask for?"