Everybody knows that Steve Jobs was a business genius and visionary, but to ask a slightly crass question, how much was the guy worth, anyway?

After all, Bill Gates – along with people like Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim – has always shown up prominently in the Forbes Rich List. But somehow I can’t recall spotting the name of Jobs – the founder of the company that had cash reserves that were bigger than the US government’s at one point.

So one of the first things I did when I picked up Jobs’s new biography, Becoming Steve Jobs, was to try and look for his net worth. But while the book has lots of stuff that titillates one’s imagination, it didn’t answer my question. I would have to find my answer elsewhere.

And when I found it, it would give me a ‘Hmmmm’ moment.

Miles Davis once summed up the history of jazz in four words: “Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker”. In which case, I suppose the history of modern computing can be summed up in the words “Bill Gates, Steve Jobs”.

The worldviews and business strategies of the two men may have been very different but, as biographers Brent Schendler and Rick Tezeli point out, they seem to have been joined at the hip of fortune: both of them dropped out of college and founded their companies at almost the same time; both shared a closer love-hate relationship than we realise; and the influence and wealth of both waxed and waned in a curiously reciprocal trajectory.

Back in 1991, when Fortune magazine was looking for a centerpiece for its special issue on the 10th anniversary of the IBM PC, it picked on these two, Jobs and Gates, for a joint interview. It was a prescient choice, because these two guys would, between them, shape the future of computing over the next twenty years: Gates would first unveil the vision of a digital era of “Consumer Products Plus”, and Jobs would then deliver on that vision with an array of magical products.

The Steve Jobs anomaly

Jobs was the tech world’s first real Richie Rich – worth $1 million at age 23, $10 million at 24, and $250 million at age 25 (at a time when those amounts really meant something). Having founded Apple in the first place, he later came back to save it from oblivion, and put it on track to becoming the first trillion dollar company in history.

And yet, when he died in 2011, Jobs had a net worth of only $7 billion, compared with Gates’s $59 billion –despite the fact that Apple’s net worth at the time was almost equal to the net worth of both Microsoft and Google put together. (Indeed, Jobs’s net worth was less than even those of Mukesh Ambani, Azim Premji, Ruia brothers, Savitri Jindal and Gautam Adani!)

The reason for this anomaly lies, of course, in the personal histories of Jobs and Gates – and, ultimately, in their very different personalities, and temperaments.

For, Gates stayed steadily invested in Microsoft from the start, but Jobs, in a pique, had sold out all his Apple shares when he left the company in 1985 (except for one share which he retained, so that he’d receive the company’s annual report).

And he did that yet again in 1997 when, as a vote of no-confidence in Gil Amelio’s CEO-ship, he sold out all the Apple shares that he’d received for the sale of his NeXT Computers (except, again, for one share).

If Jobs had, indeed, held on to the 11% stake he had in Apple in 1985, somebody has calculated, he would have been worth at least $54 billion when he died.

And – to pursue this argument – if he‘d held on to the 26% stake he originally held in the company (understandably, he sold a lot of it in the early years for his own personal reasons), he would have arguably have been worth a mind-bending $127 billion – more than twice as much as Gates.

Life, actually

But that’s just the way life is. For example, more than half of the $7 billion Jobs had when he died actually came, not from Apple, but from Disney.

For, back in 1986, he had picked up Pixar, more or less on a whim, from film producer-director George Lucas, for just $10 million. Ten years later, after the Pixar team had very successfully produced Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, Jobs (whose role in Pixar was mainly as a financier), sold the company to Disney, netting $4.3 billion for himself.

That’s the way it goes.

In this new biography, authors Schendler and Tezeli talk about one of the great losers of history, Ron Wayne, who along with Jobs and Wozniak, was one of Apple’s founding partners, back in 1976. But he decided to drop out shortly after, and sold his shares back for a poignant $2,300. If he’d stayed on, he could have been worth an estimated $25 billion. Instead, he now lives in a mobile home in Nevada, selling stamps and stamps to collectors.

Yes, that is, indeed, the way it goes.

Becoming Steve Jobs presents a contrarian view of Jobs. Schlender and Tezeli, the authors, claim that we’ve really misunderstood the guy all along. According to them, the public image of Jobs as part genius, part tantrum-throwing brat, was accurate only up to a point. During his wilderness years, between 1986 and 1996, they tell us, Jobs underwent a major personal transformation, mainly due to his experience of managing Pixar, and his marriage to Laurene.

As a result, the Steve Jobs who returned to run Apple in 1996 was a much more mature, empathetic, trusting and effective leader of people than the immature corporate brat who’d been shoved out ten years before. Becoming Steve Jobs is an interesting book, but it raises more questions than it answers.