When gearheads go gray

Our iconic whiz kids -- Gates, Case and Jobs -- debut new, mellower versions. Plus: What Hillary really didn't know.

Topics: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Google, Steve Jobs,

The high-powered, high-minded, high-tech summit in San Diego, Calif., sponsored by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal — the D (as in digital) Conference — was like a scene from “Heaven Can Wait.” Formerly lethal rivals like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Case were being so nice to each other it was as if they had died, rebooted and uploaded themselves for a reunion in cyberspace.

Maybe the end of the wild ride of the ’90s has mellowed them out. They are now at the point where they have made vast fortunes, cartwheeled intact through one crisis after another, and metamorphosed into touchy-feely dads.

In the past, at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Gates would arrive by helicopter, make his speech and lift off again like a visiting U.S. president. At the D Conference he worked the cocktail party and hung out with eager, next-generation geeks. He’s still a version of the large, freckly, animatronic schoolboy with jerky movements and high insistent voice, but now he wears a self-deprecating smile that’s almost appealing. To the charge that Microsoft has never been creatively daring enough to break out and take the big leap he replied mildly, “Dropping out of school and starting Microsoft was a pretty big leap.” Say hello to Buddha Bill.

The business buzz was about Google finally getting ready to go public. Google’s search engine is not only hot  its aw shucks, Jimmy Stewart appeal owns the digital zeitgeist — it also has the friendly, 21st century ethos of playing well with others. Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who still look 5 years old, were like a nostalgic manifestation of the early Gates and Jobs and Case — only without the rock ‘n’ roll passion of the pioneer generation. They are geniuses, yes, but still a bubblegum boy band next to the digital equivalent of Mick and Keith and Eric Clapton.

Exiled from the company he founded, Steve Case drifted around the hotel with a small, disengaged smile. Rumors continue to fly around, which he enjoyed denying, that he will buy back AOL when the merger is finally given the last rites in the AOL Time Warner executive suite. He could take consolation — sort of — from the sight of Steve Jobs stealing the show. There were so many predictions that Jobs and Apple would disappear when Prodigal Steve came back to the company in 1996 after his own humiliating ejection. But Jobs showed once again that he is a self-replenishing cool hunter. Even a techno fool like me can understand and lust for Apple’s elegant little white-chrome iPod, the hand-held version of an infinite jukebox. And last weekend his digital animation company, Pixar, turned out another smash with “Finding Nemo.”

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At the D Conference, Jobs, dressed in jeans and renegade stubble, springs around the stage like a wired cat, demonstrating Apple’s latest software wheeze — the iTunes Music Store, which lets you download songs at 99 cents a pop from any of the 200,000 he’s secured the rights for. It’s sublime when he keyboards the name of “One for the Road” and the auditorium is successively blasted with four different versions — by Willie Nelson, Billie Holiday, Bette Midler and Frank Sinatra.

The traditional record companies wring their hands about piracy, but Jobs, it seems, has found a way to bring a touch of law and order to the high seas of music. You have to admire his maniacal powers of persuasion. Getting 275,000 downloads from iTune within nanoseconds during the first week was a given, but winning the participation of these paranoid entertainment companies was not. He got it, in part, because more than any of his competitors he can speak the language of entertainment. Watching Jobs in action, you realize he has more in common with Steven Spielberg than with Steve Case.

The problems Bill Gates likes to solve are cerebral rather than creative. He was most alive when he talked about the humanitarian work of his foundation, which already has an endowment of $24 billion. It’s as if he has made the problem of Third World disease his new consuming mathematical equation. His glasses glinted with moral — or was it intellectual? — fervor when he said, “A life in the developing world is worth 10,000 times less than in the United States. This is not acceptable.”

Gates, Jobs and Meg Whitman of eBay all claimed that if they were starting again now at the age of 17 they would go into the field of biotech and medicine. The tech billionaires are burned out with the fast track. Now they are spiritually restive, searching for passion, avid for meaning. Other generations of movers and shakers have chosen this as the moment to dump their spouses in favor of the office arm candy, but the idea of the trophy wife has little currency among gearheads. Besides, these boys are more New Age than dirty old man. Their midlife quest is drawing them more and more into the worlds of medicine and education.

Dr. Richard Klausner of the Gates Foundation told the rapt audience of mature geeks that up to 95 percent of all the great apes in Africa have died from Ebola. At break time, that’s what the guys from Google and Yahoo and Palm were all talking about. And if these techies have climbed far enough out of their digital isolation to worry about their fellow primates, anything can happen.

They might even rejoin the human race.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

The first vivid leaks from Hillary Clinton’s memoir describing her rage and pain over the discovery that the president lied to her about Monica Lewinsky will perhaps silence the howls from her enemies that she was spinning at the time. Hillary haters have always promoted the notion that Hillary “knew all along” about the Monica mess. She was, they said, protecting Bill’s lie to the bitter end when she went on TV and chalked up the vicious rumors of the affair to a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

But the marital scene she describes in which the president wakes her up early that August day and, pacing around the bedroom, finally tells her the awful truth, rings harrowingly true. I saw her at some fundraiser in the Hamptons that summer, pale, overweight, in a suit the color of mourning. No political-deal marriage would have manifested such devastation. But more on this next week.

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Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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