Reviews of two books on Microsoft
Mon, 12 Oct 1998 13:46:44 +1000
Edstrom and Eller think it was luck, Goldman Rohm thinks Bill Gates
is an evil genius.
Take your pick.
BARBARIANS LED BY BILL GATES. By Jennifer Edstrom and Marlin Eller.
Henry Holt; 256 pages; $23.50.
THE MICROSOFT FILE. By Wendy Goldman Rohm. Times Books; 313 pages;
AS MICROSOFT prepares to enter the dock in its long-awaited
antitrust trial, two new books claim to tell the inside story of how
the software giant squashes rivals and drives its business
These are by no means the first books on Microsoft, nor will they be
the last. As well as being the biggest company in the world by
market value-it overtook GE just the other day and is now worth
nearly $260 billion-it is also quite possibly the most
controversial. The company's founder Bill Gates - famously, the
richest man in history - says he dislikes all the books so far
written about Microsoft. Although these new ones differ greatly,
neither is likely to find any better favour with chairman Bill.
"Barbarians Led by Bill Gates" is by two people who should know
Microsoft extremely well. Jennifer Edstrom is the daughter of Pam
Edstrom, the woman who has honed Bill Gates's image as geek overlord
since the company's earliest days and was responsible for
master-minding the extraordinary marketing hype surrounding the
launch of Windows 95. Marlin Eller was a senior developer who, like
many veteran Microserfs, left the company independently wealthy when
his share options vested.
Their thesis is that Microsoft's domination of the computer industry
has come about more through luck than strategic brilliance or
exceptional ruthlessness. No doubt, much to Pam Edstrom's
disapproval, daughter Jennifer and her fellow author depict an
almost directionless company riven by turf wars and the rivalries of
feuding barons intent only on interpreting the frequently delphic
utterances of the bespectacled one. Mr Gates himself is portrayed as
an autocrat-short-fused and increasingly out of touch-who has little
interest in the engineering problems caused by his constant tactical
manoeuvrings and only a shaky grasp of major technological trends.
The huge market success of Windows comes as a complete surprise to
everyone, while the effort to destroy Netscape originated with
developers who were provoked by the bumptious claims of that
Internet browser company's boy-founder, Marc Andreessen.
Although Mr Eller and Ms Edstrom offer some enjoyable vignettes of
the horrors of life on the campus in Redmond, where Microsoft
resides, the book suffers from Mr Eller's exclusion from the senior
executive inner-circle. His is a limited world in which heroic
developers on "death marches" routinely save Microsoft's bacon
despite the best efforts of the sycophants and buffoons who pay
court to King Bill.
If Mr Eller and Ms Edstrom think that almost everything that happens
at Microsoft is a serendipitous accident, Wendy Goldman Rohm is of
the opposite persuasion. A laser-sharp strategic vision, meticulous
planning and execution, a cynical and contemptuous view of both
rivals and regulators are what puts Microsoft on top and keeps it
there. For Ms Goldman, Bill Gates is a very evil genius indeed.
Perhaps not surprisingly, little, if any, of her evidence comes from
sources within Microsoft. Rather, her considerable reportorial
energies have been focused on the bloody and often terminal
experiences of competitors and the escalating legal efforts to
restrain the way in which Microsoft both maintains and leverages its
monopoly of the PC operating system.
Much of what Ms Goldman writes will be familiar to readers of two
earlier books by James Wallace-"Hard Drive" and "Over
Drive"-although her account of the crushing of DR-DOS, a rival to
MS-DOS, Microsoft's pre-Windows operating system, provides new
Most compelling is the government's increasing exasperation with
Microsoft and the sheer weight of evidence concerning abusive and
illegal business practices that seems to have been accumulated. As a
primer for anyone wishing to follow the trial, this book is
valuable, even if Ms Goldman seems addicted to a strange (and often
hilarious) purple prose.
Men of genius are admired, men of wealth are envied, men of
power are feared; but only men of character are trusted.