Fighting the Dark Side: Tech's Heroes and Villains

The hero and the villain. It's the age-old formula that pervades today's reality TV showdowns, the shenanigans of professional wrestling and cinematic classics like Star Wars. Tech is no different, with its passionate heroes who balance profit with innovation and social responsibility, and the money-mad, egomaniac villains who simply cannot be trusted. Here's a look at tech's good guys and bad guys.

  • HEROES: Linus Torvalds He is the beloved man behind the penguin. Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel and operating system, is a hero to proprietary software-hating developers everywhere. The open-source movement, where software code is developed in a collaborative way and shared, has become a driving force in computing. It all started with the modest Torvalds, and he remains open source's ambassador.

  • HEROES: Larry Page and Sergey Brin Does Google always practice its "Don't Be Evil" motto? That's up for debate. But they certainly innovate. Outside of search dominance, Google Apps have challenged Microsoft; open-source Android is now a mobile player; and Chrome, a Web friendly, Linux-based client OS for netbooks, is due this year. But Google really made this list because it stopped censoring its Chinese search engine, thus defying the Chinese government and risking massive profits. Definitely not evil.

  • HEROES: Tim Berners-Lee Soft-spoken British engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee did kind of an important thing back in the late '80s: he invented the World Wide Web! It was in 1990 that Berners-Lee implemented the first successful communication between an HTTP client and server via the Internet—forever changing life as we knew it. Berners-Lee remains one of the good guys for fighting to keep the Internet open, nonproprietary and free.

  • HEROES: Marc Benioff Benioff, CEO of breakthrough enterprise cloud company, is a savvy businessman and he's not afraid to let people know it. But his vision of "the end of software" was remarkably prescient, and he had the gumption to use the SaaS model successfully against big enterprise vendors like SAP and Microsoft. He is also a respected philanthropist. Through his Salesforce Foundation, the company contributes one percent of profits, equity and employee hours back to the community.

  • HEROES: Steve Jobs Apple's CEO and resident mystic visionary personifies tech innovation. His ideas and products changed the music industry with iTunes and the iPod media player, and he brought more multimedia (and apps!) to smartphones with the now wildly popular iPhone. Is Mr. Jobs good at getting you to spend money? Yes. But has the iPod made your life just a little better? I bet it has. Is he a hero? We're going with yes.

  • VILLAINS: Steve Jobs Apple's cryptic CEO made our hero list for being a true innovator, but he's arguably also a villain. He is secretive to a fault in an era of Twittering transparency. Allegedly, even Apple employees don't know what products are in development. Jobs also has a reputation as an elitist slave driver. In addition, he and his cronies continue to keep prices out of reach for many — and there's nothing heroic about that.

  • VILLAINS: Larry Ellison Jerk is a strong word, but it's often used to describe Oracle CEO Ellison. He is known for being arrogant and for encouraging a cutthroat culture where deals and acquisitions (some of them hostile) get done no matter who gets stomped on. Ellison also flaunts his exorbitant wealth with his yachts, mansions and designer suits. It's as if he is daring you to like him.

  • VILLAINS: Steve Ballmer Microsoft CEO Ballmer doesn't have the oily self-importance of Ellison, but he does suffer from a reputation as an incompetent bully. It might just be that he is in charge of Microsoft, a company that many people would love to see fail. Microsoft's long history as a monopolistic profit hog makes the company itself more a villain than Ballmer the man, but he is the one calling the shots.

  • VILLAINS: Mark Zuckerberg Zuckerberg is the rising star who created — or did he steal the idea? — a little social networking site called Facebook, but his sneaky tactics to obtain personal info (changing privacy terms and conditions) and boost ad revenue (through the Beacon program that tracked users' activities on other sites and published them on Facebook) have exposed him as a bit of a Web 2.0 scoundrel. User protests and lawsuits will hopefully keep young Mark from following in the footsteps of other villains on this list.

  • VILLAINS: Bill Gates How can a renowned philanthropist also be a villain? If anyone qualifies, it's Gates. For decades, the Microsoft co-founder used Windows' dominance to push questionable business tactics that locked competitors out of various markets. Behind the nerdy glasses was a ruthless businessman who didn't always play by the rules. But Gates's amazing charitable work makes it easy to forget his past transgressions. He's the Ebenezer Scrooge of tech.

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