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The New Bill Gates Book: Getting Nowhere Fast

  • Bill Gates, Business @ the Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System, Warner Books, 1999, 470 pages (hardcover, $30)
  • Bill Gates could have called this sequel to The Road Ahead something like The Path Well Taken. It is a bland, boring book that shows how U.S. companies are using such obvious technologies as email, spreadsheets and databases to run their businesses. It's a little bit like reading that we're using refrigerators to revolutionize mealtimes.

    The book lacks substance as well as flash. Gates is a smart and serious man, and he could have written a thoughtful, detailed overview of the current state of corporate information technology. Such a book would have delved more into recent and important trends in knowledge management and Web-based group collaboration. It would have discussed trade-offs and downsides as well as successes. Unfortunately, Gates has missed an opportunity to provide leadership where it is needed.

    Instead, Business @ the Speed of Thought serves up a shallow stew peppered with a few whiz-bang cliches about "radical transformation." The best thing about it is the introduction, in which Gates explores how the speed at which information is now available will change business and help us make full use of our existing computers.

    For example, "Groups of people are using electronic tools to act together almost as fast as a single person could act, but with the insights of the entire team," he says. Unfortunately, he fails to follow this up with any illuminating real-life examples. The following chapters touch on topics like the paperless office, e-commerce, the power of information and how computers are being used in education and health care. Each chapter bursts with examples from Fortune 500 companies and Microsoft (MSFT) itself, but most are unconvincing. We don't hear enough about the former systems, the numbers aren't rigorous and there is seldom a downside to change in Gatesland.

    Take the section in Chapter 3 about how digitizing paper forms supposedly saved Microsoft $35 million in procurement processing fees the first 12 months after the change was made. (The company reduced its paper forms from more than 1,000 to 60.) This number is derived from a standard yardstick estimate of $145 per transaction for paper-based orders -- not actual data about how much the paper processing cost Microsoft.

    Business @ the Speed of Thought asserts that all digitization is inherently good, but it never really explains why. For the most part, any potential difficulties with technology are glossed over or ignored. For example, while it's true that information in digital form can be distributed and massaged quickly, the book fails to grapple with the problem that human beings still have to digest it.

    A glut of information can confuse and overwhelm as much as it can help. A 1997 internal Microsoft study (not mentioned in the book) found that the company's corporate intranet was so big and disorganized that 70% of Microsoft employees couldn't find what they were looking for.

    Gates also makes it sound as though no manager ever before had access to any sales data, which of course is not the case. What the move from the mainframe to the PC has enabled in the last eight years is the ability to get at information more quickly and in more flexible form.

    The book also glaringly contradicts some of Gates' and others' testimony in the government's antitrust suit. In the book, Gates talks about how wonderful Microsoft's all-digital sales data systems are. In the trial, Microsoft witnesses testified that the company tracks sales of operating systems by hand on paper.

    Ironically, Gates' failure to consider the potentially negative consequences of digitization has cost him. Because of his fondness for email, the Justice Department has been able to build a strong case based on this exhaustive record of the company's innermost thoughts over the last five years.

    Any reader intimately familiar with the current state of management information systems will notice that the book contains hints that Gates grasps what's really going on, but for some reason has failed to articulate it. It's clear he understands that technology in business is not about automating old processes but creating entirely new ones, that competition has created a situation in which businesses have to invest in information technology, though it brings no competitive advantage and that the only ones benefiting from this massive investment are the customers of Microsoft's customers: consumers. Oh, and technology companies and Wall Street, of course.

    But the book fails to grapple with anything real. Or help business make better use of computers. Why bother, when chaos and relentless change sell so well?

    Cate T. Corcoran writes about business, technology, culture and media from San Francisco. She has been writing about business computing and productivity since 1990. She wrote a weekly seven-month series on Microsoft, competition, and antitrust called Vs. Microsoft for TheStreet.com. Her work has also appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and Salon.

    TheStreet.com has a revenue-sharing relationship with Amazon.com under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon purchases by customers directed there from TheStreet.com.

    TheStreet.com selects books for review solely on the basis of merit for its readers.

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