Why No One Will Replace Bill & Steve

As noted author Nick Carr said in a video recorded for our Structure 08 conference, the retirement of Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates marks the end of an era for a certain style of computing and the start of a new era of cloud-delivered services.

To that I would add that it’s the end of an era of a certain kind of technology entrepreneur, one with the patience, guile and technology chops to survive multiple cycles, but also the business acumen to amass a vast fortune and carve out a monopoly.

Such individuals are few and far between. If David Packard and William Hewlett of HP and Intel Corp.’s Gordon Moore represented the early days of Silicon Valley and version 1.0 of the technology entrepreneur, then Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (and to some extent Larry Ellison) came to represent Silicon Valley’s youth — the PC boom years and version 2.0 of the archetypal tech entrepreneur. (Watch Steve Jobs & Bill Gates together on stage at All Things D.)

What made them so special? They started their companies, built them one piece of code (or one computer) at a time, stuck around (or left and came back) and played the game late into their working lives. Jobs continues to play and win, but even he can’t defy the merciless nature of time.

More importantly, Gates and his peers had an insatiable desire to win, at any cost. Gates took on the entire U.S. government — the ultimate alpha male nerd. And Jobs has ruled his Apple kingdom with an iron fist and a relentless focus on user experience and simplicity.

But it’s the singularity of their missions — their obsessions, if you will — that truly makes them special. So special, in fact, that no one currently on the horizon will even come close to replacing them. Erick Schoenfeld, a former colleague of mine at Business 2.0 and now at TechCrunch, came up with a list of names of candidates he thinks can replace Bill.

His picks: Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Google), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Marc Benioff (Salesforce.com), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Max Levchin (Slide) and Evan Williams. These are all great names but compared to Bill and Steve, they’re all playing (with one exception) in the little leagues.

Larry and Sergey have had a honeymoon of a ride so far, one largely devoid of adversity. Benioff would sell for the right price. Zuckerberg, who has yet to build a profitable enterprise, has his own challenges including proving that he can build a sustainable franchise and a platform that continues to attract developers. Furthermore, he has yet to prove his longevity. Same goes for Evan.

Max is a close one – for with Paypal he had helped build a new kind of money distribution network but instead decided to sell out. He is scary smart but Slide isn’t the company that is going to be around when I kick the bucket. Maybe he will come up with a scary big idea soon. (Watch him on The GigaOM Show.)

That leaves Jeff Bezos, my pick for the guy who could be the next Bill. I think has has a bit of both Steve and Bill in him, which makes him even more interesting. He is relentless in his focus on customers and giving them the best deal. And yet he sees the future of technology before everyone else. Amazon is almost a proxy for future trends of technology; cloud computing is only the most recent example. That said, he has been at it for almost 12 years and Amazon is not a money-making monster, like Apple and Microsoft.

Beyond personalities, I think there are some fundamental changes that have taken place in the technology industry itself that make the odds of another Bill or Steve emerging very low.

The first is a shift toward commoditization — open-source software and the global distribution of intelligence makes is hard for any one person or company to build a monopoly, be it real or perceived. (Apple has a perceived monopoly of quality, class and user experience.) Market forces no longer allow for monopolies unless governments prop them up.

The companies in the Internet age — with the exception of Cisco Systems — have had a hard time lassoing the wild mustang-like changes in the technology landscape. Those changes are becoming even more rapid; a pioneer today is a footnote tomorrow. Which is one of the main reasons why we have founders and entrepreneurs ready to cash their checks as soon as opportunity knocks.

Skype co-founders Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, who first made their name with Kazaa would have made my short list as well, but even they sold out to eBay.

So I bid adieu to the man who, like his peer Steve Jobs, will always be — even more than just one of a kind — irreplaceable.