Pop quiz: What tech mogul dropped out of Harvard after two years to found a tech company that conquered the world? If you answered Mark Zuckerberg, congratulations! You are correct. And if you answered Bill Gates, congratulations: You are also correct!
And the interesting thing is, it’s not just Harvard. The more you compare the two, the more similar they seem. It’s as if they were cloned from the same DNA: They both were born the only boy into a wealthy family. They both have doting, indulgent mothers, who believed they could do no wrong and instilled in them both a preternatural self confidence.
They both attended exclusive prep schools. As young teenagers both became so obsessed with computers and computing that they thought about virtually nothing else. “I mean it’s bizarre,” says David Kirkpatrick, the author of the canonical history of Facebook, and one of a handful of people who have spent many hours talking to both Gates and Zuckerberg. “There are astonishing similarities.”
The historical parallels between the two men are so strong as to be uncanny—possibly even predictive. Because Facebook today, in the wake of its historic stock plunge and a rising chorus of calls for the company to be regulated or even broken into pieces, looks a lot like Microsoft, 20 years ago.
A quick review of the past, through the eyes of the future: Bill Gates was 28 when Zuckerberg was born, and became the richest man in the world when Zuckerberg turned 10. That same year the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division started pursing Microsoft in earnest with the goal of breaking up what was, to most observers, an obvious monopoly.
That case, The United States v. Microsoft, was finally put to bed in 2004—the same summer that Zuckerberg came to Silicon Valley to turn his dorm room project into a real company. In other words, Zuckerberg’s formative years, his entire teen computer-nerd existence, was spent watching Microsoft do battle with the US government—and lose. And yet, as Zuckerberg told ReCode’s Kara Swisher just two weeks ago, “Growing up, I admired how Microsoft was mission-focused.” And: “Bill Gates has always been a mentor and inspiration for me—even before I knew him.”
Zuckerberg first got to know Gates when he was still a kid, he was barely 21 years old, if that, but Zuckerberg had formulated his big idea even then: to become the next Bill Gates. How? By taking the piece of software he had written in his dorm room—at that time it was still called “TheFacebook”—and turning it into the operating system of the internet. It was a strategy ripped directly from the Microsoft playbook.
Gates had gotten rich by turning what IBM and others assumed was a relatively meaningless piece of software, the Microsoft Disk Operating System, into near-total control of the desktop computing world. Zuckerberg’s plan was to take his little thing—a clone of MySpace.com, but for college kids—into near total control of the medium of the future. But he needed help thinking that strategy through. And so early in 2005, in Facebook’s first year as a real company, he called up the word’s richest man: Bill Gates.
No one except Gates and Zuckerberg knows exactly what was said in that first conversation, but it was the first of many over the years. Gates is one of the very few adults that Zuckerberg could turn to for advice and understanding. In that interview with Swisher, Zuckerberg was asked who his mentors were—and he could only name one: Bill Gates.
Today Zuckerberg and Facebook are caught up in a maelstrom of the first order. It started the day after Trump won his long-shot bid for the presidency. The mainstream media (what’s left of it) quickly fingered fake news as the monstrous crime that gave us a fake president—and Facebook as the getaway car. Zuckerberg famously dismissed this idea, telling Kirkpatrick right after the election that “the idea that fake news on Facebook—of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea,”
Almost exactly 20 years earlier Microsoft was arguing in federal court that it was impossible to comply with a judge’s order to unbundle its operating system, Windows, from its browser, Explorer. The judge noted that he had been able to separate the two by simply uninstalling the browser, and then said to Gates’ assembled lawyers, “If the process is not that simple, I’d like to have it refuted by any evidence Microsoft chooses to introduce.” Then he leaned in for the killing blow: “I want to know whether to believe my eyes.”
That was the moment that the tide turned decisively against Microsoft. Two-and-a-half years later the judge ordered the company broken up. And while a change in political power spared Microsoft from that fate, Gates was decisively humbled and his de facto monopoly over all of computing would slowly start to fade away. Gates’ take-no-prisoners attack on the browser market probably did more harm than good, as it united all of Silicon Valley against him. Google and others poured everything into web apps, steadily undermining the importance of Microsoft’s operating system. And then Apple just leap-frogged Windows entirely, with the iPhone.
By totally dismissing the power of fake news right after the 2016 election Zuckerberg had, yet again, willed the historical parallel between Facebook and Microsoft into existence. This time, however, it was the whole world that wanted to know if it could believe its ears—and eyes. (History, it’s often said, doesn’t repeat—it rhymes.)
Was Zuckerberg really blind to the fake news that showed up in everyone’s Facebook feeds just before the election? Did he really not see how Facebook had decisively tilted the worlds’ political axis towards the populist right? Did he actually think that the idea that fake news was affecting elections was “crazy”? Well, after being dragged to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress and then again to Brussels to testify before the European parliament, he has changed his tune. The echo is perfect. Like his childhood hero, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg has been humbled. Pride goeth before the fall. After the father, the son.
So what do they talk about these days, Gates and Zuckerberg? Well, money, for one: “I think his second act of going and being one of the world’s best philanthropists has absolutely influenced me,” Zuckerberg told Swisher, “[Bill Gates’] lesson there that you have to start early to practice… If I want be really good at this 10 or 15 years from now, then Priscilla and I really need to be starting to work on this now.”
It sounds as if Zuckerberg is planning his own, Gatesian, second act in “10 or 15 years from now.” Again, that would put him right on track with Bill. Ten years after the Judge Jackson debacle, Gates was in the middle of a transition out of any day-to-day role at Microsoft and starting his current career as the world’s most important philanthropist. It’s been a remarkable transformation. Bill Gates has gone from one the most vilified young men on the planet—to being almost universally well regarded and beloved.
So will future generations regard Zuckerberg as another in a short line of tech moguls who have somehow morphed into avuncular global mascots for good? Perhaps not. Kirkpatrick thinks the differences between Gates’ and Zuckerberg’s stories are more predictive of the future than the similarities. He notes that “Gates was a much more mature human being” during Microsoft’s moment of crisis than Zuckerberg is now. Kirkpatrick also sees the two situations as fundamentally different. “So Gates was an asshole to the Department of Justice? Zuckerberg, by contrast, has upset democracy in almost every country on the planet.”
Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook agrees: “Even at its worst Microsoft never approached the harm we have seen from Facebook.” Before he turned against Facebook in a very public break, McNamee had been something of a mentor to the company’s young CEO. “Zuckerberg,” he continues, “would be wise to embrace Gates as a role model, re-engineer both Facebook and his own priorities, and try to undo some of the damage Facebook has done.” It’s the sort of advice McNamee has given Zuckerberg before, in private, but as he says it publicly, his skepticism that Zuck is capable of listening to anyone, even Gates, is palpable.
As for me? I’m not so sure. Take it from this historian: We’ve been surprised before. And let’s hope to God—for our own sakes, and for the sake of the world—that we are surprised again.
Adam Fisher (@AdamcFisher) is the best-selling author of the just-released Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom).