Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace
($). John Wiley & Sons, 1997.
I love books about
. I find Gates fascinating for all the familiar reasons, and love to read how this nerdy guy built a puny software company into the winner of what James J. Cramer calls the "the most important industrial battle of the second half of the 20th century" (see
Wrong! from July 21). I am fascinated by his competitive drive, awed by his wealth and amazed that he and his company could have been run over by the arrival of the Internet. That both Gates and Microsoft could recognize the Internet threat and respond swiftly is a lesson in corporate adaptability.
James Wallace does not particularly like Bill Gates and Microsoft. Among my collection of books on Gates is Wallace's rather nasty volume,
, which paints a dark picture of Microsoft's ascent and portrays Gates as insatiably power-hungry. As some readers may know, Wallace's book was read by Federal Judge Stanley Sporkin, and Sporkin repeatedly cited the book in court before he threw out the 1995 consent decree between Microsoft and the
Department of Justice
Sporkin was later removed by a three-judge panel and reprimanded for overstepping his judicial authority. Perhaps in defense of his own role in this fiasco, Wallace quotes Sporkin as saying of his first book that it "doesn't seem to be one that's trying to be unfair ... it seemed somewhat balanced." He also describes Sporkin as "one of the most colorful, controversial, and independent judges on federal bench," adding that after he rejected the consent decree "Sporkin became something of a judicial folk hero."
You can tell how much Wallace dislikes Gates by contrasting the images he uses to describe Gates to the "folk hero" image uses for Sporkin. Wallace is careful, though, to let others sling the mud. Philippe Kahn, ousted chairman of
, is a great source. To Kahn, Gates is "the Satan incarnate of the computer industry." Gates "will go down in history as one of the most ruthless and powerful people of all time." Kahn says that "Gates has sworn to destroy me personally by all means"; and elsewhere, "There is not an ounce of conscientiousness or compassion in him. The notion of fairness means nothing to him."
When he isn't sounding paranoid, Kahn likes belittling Gates' technical prowess, and in some passages sounds like a teenage boy bragging about his own sexual achievements. For example, Kahn, whose new company
developed the personal management program "SideKick," says that Gates once tried to talk tech with him but "got tripped up in the conversation and was not making much sense. It's almost like there is something he wants to prove that he can't prove ... He was envious because he knew that what I was showing was my personal design ... I think that hurt him more than if he lost his $12 billion."
You gotta wonder why Wallace includes so many ridiculous comments like these.
If you want trash on Gates, then Wallace's book eagerly provides it from many different dumps. Wallace goes all the way back to Gates' two years at
(1973-75), telling us that Gates would "frequent Boston's notorious Combat Zone, with its porn shows, strip joints, and prostitutes." Wallace reports that by 1988 Gates' "womanizing was well known," that he had "wild bachelor parties" and that "Gates would visit one of Seattle's all-nude nightclubs and hire dancers to come to his home and swim naked with his friends."
As a businessman, Wallace says that not only did Gates "not take prisoners, he shot the walking wounded," and that he was "the most hated man in the industry." Others describe Gates as "divisive" and "manipulative" and his company as "a threat to everyone in the industry."
In the last line of the book, Wallace makes sure we remember that Microsoft will always be propelled by its chairman's ruthless and insatiable appetites: "Driven by Bill Gates, whose burning desire to win and fear of failure compel him not only to beat his competitors, but to destroy them, Microsoft's dominance seems secure for a long time."
Occasionally Wallace will say or quote something nice about Microsoft (never about Gates, however), and Wallace does weave stories well. But the book is only secondarily about the emergence of the Internet and how Microsoft nearly missed out on the party. Indeed, although I am no expert, Wallace seems to ignore the fact that it appears unlikely that any single company will ever "control" the Internet in the same way that Microsoft dominates operating systems.
But ultimately it's the trash that tarnishes Wallace's credibility, in my view. The book's real purpose, delivered with all the subtlety of a snowplow, is to spit venom at Bill Gates. Federal judges, you have been warned.
Roger Segal, the main keeper of the Investors' Bookshelf, writes his reviews from Manhattan's Upper West Side. He welcomes your feedback at