Steve Jobs, global thinker

November 28, 2010, 5:48 PM UTC

Shares the No. 17 spot on Foreign Policy‘s 2010 top 100 list “for reinventing reading”

Source: Foreign Policy. Bezos: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images; Jobs: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You don’t often hear Apple (AAPL) and Amazon’s (AMZN) CEOs mentioned in the same breath, but there they are in the current issue of
Foreign Policy
, honored together for the contribution of their competing e-readers.

It’s an odd pairing, given what Steve Jobs said about Jeff Bezos’ Kindle in 2008:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he told the New York Times. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

But that was before Apple released the iPad.

“Amazon has done a great job” with its Kindle, Jobs told the press two years later during the unveiling of his own e-reader. “We’re going to stand on their shoulders and go a little bit farther.”

For this, he made Foreign Policy‘s second annual list of the top 100 global thinkers. The magazine’s citation:

Amazon’s Kindle, the e-reader that Jeff Bezos’s online retail juggernaut has sold since 2007, is not particularly arresting as far as electronic fetish objects go, a monochromatic plastic slab with all the charisma of a graphing calculator. But on the strength of the gadget’s popularity, Bezos believes, his company will be selling more e-books than paperbacks by sometime next year. “It stuns me,” Bezos told USA Today in July. “People forget that Kindle is only 33 months old.”

As e-readers go global, it is an open question whether the future of reading belongs to the calculatedly distraction-free Kindle or its most formidable competition, the touch-screen-operated, hypernetworked iPad that Steve Jobs’s Apple debuted to much fanfare this year. But with their promised ease of moving digitized words regardless of national borders, either device is sure to be transformative. Think of what a few Kindles could mean for a school in sub-Saharan Africa, where an entire classroom’s worth of students often have to share a single textbook — or for the corners of the world where ink-and-paper books are still considered dangerous technology. In countries such as Egypt, where even One Thousand and One Nights is regularly banned from brick-and-mortar bookstores, will the Kindle be a crucial breakthrough for free speech? Or will the digital fingerprints left by e-browsers simply give government censors one more surveillance tool? For now, it’s a story without an ending.

The top spot on Foreign Policy‘s list this year was shared by billionaire philanthropists Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, “for stepping up as the world’s states falter.”

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]