This past year, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs began to focus on priorities other than tech. Who will fill their winged sandals and become the new Gadget Gods?
These next gods will, like their predecessors, be people whose professional and private lives, and even personal appearance, are of equal importance to hordes of obsessed nerds. They're people whose creativity and willpower are presumed to steer the course of personal technology, with legions of engineers and programmers and designers and manufacturing experts carrying out their vision. The key is putting themselves out for all the public to behold, with the hopes of becoming revered by apostles who buy anything they unveil. Seeing as we're running low on golden calves, let's check out the current options:
People say Cook is the man who makes the beautiful products turn into a beautiful pile of money, and he actually took over Apple when Jobs was recovering from his first surgery. A southern gentleman, avid cyclist, iron-fisted boss, mysterious loner, emotionless decider—man, Cook is so easy to reduce to two-word stereotypical descriptors, he's bound for godhood. Even his name comes packaged in a suave but unforgettable two syllables. The catch of course is that he can't ascend the mighty throne of Apple until the big cheese retires or bows out due to health. Cook's trod the boards at Stevenotes before, but now he's holding back—or being held back—perhaps because if he becomes big boss, he'll need a fresh start. All eyes not on Steve are on this guy. Can he fill the shoes left open and be the forceful visionary that Jobs is?
Chance of Godhood? 75% with a few variables we'd rather not think about
Schiller has helped sell Apple products since forever, but the general impression is that he's best used as a right-hand man, a Boy Wonder to the real Batman. The mullet/beer gut combo probably doesn't do wonders for his public image, either, though "death diving" from 30 feet up like he did back in '99 isn't a bad way to entertain the fanboys. It's easy to forget that Phil used to be involved in product development, including notebooks, and some even credit him for the addition of the iPod's clickwheel. We also hear that the man can kick some ass behind the scenes. He might have what it takes to be the next product don of Apple, but the current hierarchy won't make it easy for him.
Chance of Godhood? 35% assuming the Apple board is thinking like we're thinking
The Monkey Man act may work to get attention, to rally your troops and put fear in your enemies, but it's too easy to make fun of in Photoshop. This kind of attention has taken Ballmer pretty far along the road to godhood, but the public doesn't often see the quieter, shrewder Ballmer that we know exists. The key is this: He is not a code nerd, but a Harvard-educated marketing-and-sales guy. Being able to climb inside the mind of the Average Joe, typically oriented around useful features instead of sheer software power, is what Microsoft needs to limit bloat in product design. If Windows 7 is a success, we'll see the Bruce Banner in this Hulk, but if it's not, it'll be "BALLMER SMASH!!!!" and the end of Microsoft.
Chance of Godhood? 85% assuming Windows 7 erases the terrible memory of Vista
Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices boss has Xbox, Zune, Media Center and a lot of other potentially tasty toys in his workshop, and he's rumored to be the man who would replace Ballmer. What's most important here? His group accounts for most of the Microsoft products that don't suck. Word is, though, that the limited profitability of his group, today, limits the amount of respect he gets internally. We say the rest of the company should stop and see what he's doing right. He certainly understands the art of the keynote, strutting around and working the crowd with the shoulders-forward energy of a college football coach. He may be too good at sticking to the script, though. His cautious replies may be good for stockholders, but you can't inspire the masses without a little bit o' crazy.
Chance of Godhood? 70%, higher if he is heard matter-of-factly admitting that Windows Mobile sucks
Sir Howard Stringer
Usually you get the "sir" appended to your name after you live a wild and crazy life in the public eye, but this guy is only more and more in the spotlight each year. When he talks he brings delightful controversy and charisma, but he doesn't do enough with big crowds. How come no gloaty Blu-ray victory dance party? Chilling with Charlie Rose isn't a direct path to divinity, but showing up with Tom Hanks at CES is a start. Still, Sony needs to regain gadget clout, not remind the world that it's a piracy-fearing movie maker. One thing he has done is give the Japanese firm a leader who isn't afraid to lay off when the company is bloated with employees not pulling their weight, unlike traditional Japanese CEOs. And he encourages Japanese employees to work abroad to increase their understanding of the customers of the world. But he's also been working hard to unify the company's software and hardware development not only in each division, but across product groups. Only Apple and Microsoft have done this successfully, but Sony is actually making progress here, behind the scenes.
Chance of Godhood? 45% because it might just be too late for the guy—or for Sony
Larry Page/Sergey Brin
Never mind that Google keeps more products in beta than it launches or that these two are tech titans already on the web. Their first foray into hardware was received lukewarmly. But Google is here to stay, and no matter what CEO Eric Schmidt does, these two dudes' faces will be the ones people think of. The last 60 years of tech are full of dynamic duos—Woz and Jobs, Hewlett and Packard, etc.—but unless you've got the timing of Martin and Lewis, it's hard to pull off a tandem keynote. It definitely doesn't help when you show up late wearing rollerblades. We just hope that the company can give their Android division the support it needs to compete with the companies full time in the gadget game, because Android is not only disruptive, but it's the ammo that the phone makers need to compete with the all-in-one giants from Redmond and Cupertino.
Chance of Godhood? 60%, could go up if they release more products, or undergo the operation Damon and Kinnear had in Stuck On You
Netbook-revolutionary Asus is probably the company (companEee?) doing the most with Apple's old mantra, "think different." Their stuff coming out of Taiwan is radical and fun, and Jonney Shih, little known in these parts, is the sole capitano up top. He's not afraid to rock the microphone, but he keeps doing it at other people's events. Asus also makes a lot of notebooks for competitors, and has hardware expertise to spare. But in terms of software, they're still limited by a strong dependence on Windows for their notebooks. As for their weak brand presence in the mainstream: Dude, you got some cash, time to throw bigger parties of your own, and not just ones timed with CES. And take another page from Apple: Learn how to keep products secret until they're finished and shipping.
Chance of Godhood? 40%, more if he finds a good barber and a dealer of fine turtlenecks and presentation sweaters
The phone maker who first teamed with Google and launched the T-Mobile G1 is chaired by, yep, a lady! Named Cher! Cher actually got her start selling computer parts for a computer company, and helped found HTC to realize the vision of the true handheld computer. Even if the HTC brand is only a few years old to consumers, HTC has been making phones for other companies for a while: One in every six phones sold in the US this year were from her factories. They'll grow stronger now that Android is here and Windows Mobile is (hopefully) in a period of major improvement, but their branding and design is still a bit on the chunky side. From the looks of her official corporate portrait, she could probably use a queer eye or two—I know I sound like a dick here, but sadly society does judge women more harshly than men on personal appearance. My guess is that as someone who emphasizes being a "devout Christian" in her bio, she'd probably frown on the whole "tech god" thing anyway.
Chance of Godhood? 30% since Cher's probably too busy to take our advice anyway—she also runs the chipmaker VIA
Colligan's generally stormy course at Palm's helm finally reached some smooth waters: He just unveiled Pre, a fresh, attractive take on the smartphone, bolstered by healthy chunks of DNA from Apple and other new smartphone platforms via the talent they aggressively poached. He's proven he has what it takes to make big aggressive changes with this handset, and get the right talent in place, just like Steve Jobs would. And Colligan isn't afraid to make bold brash statements, a requirement of godhood. But can he go all the way? Currently, his problem is with presenting—he's not all that memorable, which might actually be good if you're the guy who introduced the world to the Palm Foleo.
Chance of Godhood? 15% cuz did I mention he believed, not long ago, that Foleo would "redefine how people work"?
The "executive chairman" to Colligan's "president and CEO," it's hard to tell if Rubinstein is sitting on the throne or next to it. He has our vote. The man in charge of bringing about Palm's would-be salvation, the Pre, previously at Apple led development of the frickin' iPod (maybe you've heard of it), and has actually out Apple'd Apple with the UI in this new handset. And Rubinstein's team is one of the only in the world that is capable of revolutionizing cellphone operating systems. He keeps it cool on stage, reminding us a little of Nintendo's amiable US boss, Reggie Fils-Aime. And his more than passing resemblance to Jeff Goldblum is a plus, too. One limitation in Palm that both Rubinstein and Colligan have to face: Palm will never build an end to end personal tech environment the way Apple and Microsoft can, even if they are on par in terms of making interfaces from the future.
Chance of Godhood? 55%, but sky's the limit if he can shoo Colligan away
Bezos already was a god—a dotcom god. Many of those other former household names are now mercifully forgotten, but Bezos still shows up on magazine covers. He recently heralded in the eradication of DRM from online music retailers to the applause of paying music customers. But what really surprised us, and earned him a place on this list was that he had such a grand vision of what the ebook should be—the replacement of the book—and the funding and drive to make it happen. But he should do more live appearances to drum up more mainstream excitement over software initiatives like the DRM-free MP3 store and video on demand. And he needs to keep Kindles in stock long enough for people to buy them. Most importantly, he's finally learning that tech gods are only as good as their next products. Just because Bezos understands books on a deep level doesn't mean he'll ever be able to do any other type of gadget besides E-Ink tablets. That's ultimately limiting when it comes to building next-generation personal tech ecosystems. In the meantime, where's my Kindle 2?
Chance of Godhood? 30% if he does more bragging in person, though that braying laugh of his could be a liability
Back in 2001, the rumor mill leading up to the launch of the Segway rivaled any Apple buzz. Before the product was even seen, people wrote about it being civilization-changing, and as important as the internet. Kamen's been on a roll (get it?) since then, not just developing the police Segway, the golf Segway and some kind of Segway footstool, but also perfecting a water purifying technology and a truly robotic prosthetic arm, all while greening up his own private island. He's did it all with few mainstream public appearances: Showing up at All Things D with a video of the robot arm—not the real thing—was a misstep in our minds, but appearing on Colbert with a working water purifier was definitely a sign of publicity (and worship) to come. If he can invent something for the gadget lovers of the world that is as bright and thoughtful and life changing as his humanitarian tech, he'd become the Jobs that Jobs wishes he was.
Chance of Godhood? A tragic 45%, seriously, this guy is Q, MacGyver and Hank Scorpio rolled into one—why isn't he a god already?
The sad fact is that our whole world is shifting over from hardware to software. Sure, Kamens are still needed to make sure there's progress in mechanical devices, but our toys are less and less mechanical. Facebook is probably the best example of an internet platform that has stolen thunder from the gadget world. Trouble with Facebook is that it's big and amorphous, and the charming Zuckerberg needs a second act to propel him into the heavens. Still, he's like 13, with his whole life and a lot of money ahead. He'll think of something. But to be a Gadget God, he'll have to always depend on the hardware of others. At least until we have browsers in our brains with which we can access our social networks with.
Chance of Godhood? 95% even if it doesn't happen in my lifetime
These are all strong candidates, but the assumption is that there will, in fact, be new gadget gods. Maybe, like the ancient gods themselves, our new era doesn't have as much use for them. Maybe it's not just the transition to software, but the shift from bright ideas to massive team efforts. Or maybe Jobs and Gates are the kinds of guys that only come along once a century, and we're gonna have to wait a little longer for something that divine.