Accidental Empires. (book reviews)
by Clifton Karnes
Just who is Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft land its chairman? Despite the fact that he's arguably the most important and influential person in the software industry, Gates has remained a shadowy figure cloaked in mystery and surrounded by gossip. Two new books cast some light on Gates, but not enough.
Hard Drive by James Wallace and Jim Erickson, published by Wiley, is a biography of Gates by two Seattlearea reporters. Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely, published by AddisonWesley, explores the microcomputer's entire history, not just Microsoft's, but as you can imagine, a large part of the book focuses on Gates.
In terms of style, these books couldn't be more different, Hard Drive takes a reportorial approach that balances careful research with somewhat dry prose. Accidental Empires' author, Cringely (the name is a pseudonym, by the way), is InfoWorld's gossip columnist, and his brilliant writing is as entertaining as a food fight at the White House.
After reading Hard Drive, you realize that the title Acch dental Empires is a misnomer, at least as far as Gates is concerned. Gates planned his success; it was no accident. As Hard Drive makes clear, from the time he was in junior high school, Gates wanted to.be a captain of industry. He read biographies of successful people, and he immersed himself in business books. And, most important of all, he became a computer wizard of the first rank.
Hard Drive also clarifies some facts about Gates that haven't been adequately documented until now. For example, he's a certifiable genius, and he has a photographic memory. The book recounts several exploits where both his genius and photographic memory are demonstrated.
What I found most interesting, however, were Hard Drive's sections dealing with the start of Microsoft, when Gates and Paul Allen created the first microcomputer BASIC, and the chapters that discuss how 'Microsoft got the IBM DOS contract. The IBMDOS business has been so misunderstood for so long, and Hard Drive gives such a thorough account of the whole affair, that this alone is worth the price of the book.
Accidental Empires' droll subtitle, How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date, makes it clear that this is not a dull scholarly treatment of the subject. Cringely starts the book out with Gates and returns to him several times, always making the same points: Gates is driven to prove himself, and he's not a nice person. Interestingly, Cringely gives a much different spin to Gates's motives in the IBM-DOS story than Hard Drive's authors.
In Hard Drive we see Gates poised to make a bundle selling programming languages to IBM for its new under-development PC, codenamed Project Chess. But there's a problem. IBM won't do business with Digital Research, the company originally slated to develop the operating system. In order to gets IBM's language business, Gates, knowing that IBM must find an operating system for the PC--and fast, finds one himself and licenses it to IBM. His sole motivation in doing so is to be able to sell his language products to IBM.
Cringely sees it differently. Gates immediately realizes the power he'll have if he controls the operating system software, so he makes some shrewd behindthe-scenes moves and manipulates events to his own advantage. He comes up with the operating system and seals the deal.
The books seem to agree on two things, though: that Gates is a genius and that he's a jerk. This two-dimensional treatment is unsatisfying. It's impossible to imagine that there isn't more to Gates than the boy wonder, who performs nearly impossible feats, and the childish bully, who mistreats friends and employees.
These two books are well worth reading, but neither gives us a complete enough picture of Gates. I'm sure there's truth to the two dimensions both books present, but there's also lots of evidence that this is an oversimplistic view and that there's much more to Gates. For example, we find indications in these volumes that Gates is devoted to his family, that his employees idolize him, and that he's a philanthropist, but none of these areas are explored. I find myself wanting a more in-depth treatment, and I think Gates deserves one.