Have a Laugh with Mr. Bill-ionaire
Gary Rivlin's book The Plot to Get Bill Gates is a satisfying, rollicking read for anyone who is one speck interested in the rise of the Internet.
And who among us isn't? After all, we're in the home stretch of the 20th century. The recent decades splay behind us, neatly defined, precise as an Excel spreadsheet: the '60s (revolution), the '70s (adjustment), the '80s (excess). It's possible to think of a person or people who characterize each of these decades: the Beatles, the new executive woman, Ronald Reagan. The '90s have been all about technology and, most specifically, the Internet.
Going into the '90s, no one had a dot-com tacked on to their name. As we leave this decade, domain names are almost as common as middle names. There's a sea change happening in the world. We sense we're in the thick of technological innovations that are as consequential, as momentous, as the birth of fire or the automobile or the railroad. And if you had to pick one human being who personifies that transformation, Microsoft's Bill Gates is an obvious choice.
The reader emerges from the book with a full view of Gates the manalbeit a smidgen biased by Rivlin's unrelenting interest in Gates's physical features, e.g., his hair ("dirty-blond and cowlicked," "bowl cut, his bangs looking as if he had taken a pair of scissors to them himself") and his voice ("a cross between Julia Child and Barney Fife").
More telling than the external details is Rivlin's artful tracing of Gates's childhood origins as a nerd in Seattle. His parents, well-meaning folks, just didn't know what to do with him. The middle child in the family, he went to a private school while his siblings went to public school. Bill, not surprisingly, was always a little different.
Best of all is Rivlin's ability to weave Gates's biography into a chronological tapestry involving not only his colleagues and underlings but also his adversaries. The author paints a colorful portrait of the milieu, beginning in the late 1970s, when "the PC industry was still young, male, and awash in testosterone." Rivlin's view is that there's Microsoft, and then there's the rest of the worldNovell, Oracle, Intel, Sun, and everyone else. Gates is at the center of this galaxy, "the Rorschach blot of the industry," as Esther Dyson dubbed him. "What people think of him tells you more about them than it does about him."
Rivlin is a thorough and entertaining reporter, and it's fascinating to have a glimpse of what makes each of these high-tech titans tick: Oracle's Larry Ellison, Sun's Scott McNealy, Novell's Ray Noorda, et al. But Gates is the standout. His ambition and focus beat all. And if Rivlin's story of the richest man in the world doesn't keep you riveted, skip ahead to the appendix: It's a compendium of Bill Gates and Microsoft jokes.
Sarah Finnie Cabot
Sarah Finnie Cabot is the president of KSV Interactive, a new-media company in Burlington, Vermont. She was previously the programming director of iVillage.com and the editorial promotion manager of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. She is working on a book about the maternal instinct. Cabot lives in Vermont with her husband and their four school-age children.
I was prepared to hate Gary Rivlin's The Plot to Get Bill Gates. The title just sounded to me like cheap sensationalism. A book editor tells me that the recent tech-industry books about Gates and Ellison and AOL aren't selling all that well; maybe someone thought that this one would do better if spiced up with a conspiracy-theory title.
When I got into the book I found some decent writing and analysis on Microsoft and its competitors. Rivlin's a good writer. But I don't know that I'd say, based on this book, that he's a good author or a good reporter, because I found the book to lack cohesion and originality. Even the conspiracy-theory premise doesn't tie all the chapters into one story. And Rivlin seems to rely far too much on other books. Having read a lot of his sources, I kept encountering stories I'd read before. And although I don't know that this is a bad thing, the book really doesn't justify its sensationalistic title. By the end of the book, you really don't come away with a sense of a conspiracy against Bill Gates so much as a sense that a lot of people really don't like Bill Gates or Microsoft. Which you probably went into the book with.
Rivlin actually undermines one of the conspiracy theories I've heard, pointing out that, far from buying Senator Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) opposition to Microsoft with contributions, Utah-based WordPerfect and Novell were heavy contributors to the Democratic party. When I finished the book, it struck me that Rivlin might have been better able to defend the notion of a real plot against Gates if he had focused on just one of Microsoft's competitors.
As Rivlin documents, there is deep hatred of Microsoft and of Bill Gates in the halls of IBM. It's hard to picture IBM making product-line decisions motivated by hatred of Bill Gates -- harder than picturing Oracle twitching to the whims of Larry Ellison. Still -- the IBM that is today embracing every non-Microsoft technology that comes along is not the same IBM that smugly expected to take over the PC industry in 1981. Ellison and McNealy were founders of that industry, sort of. Anyway, they are of the generation of risk-it-all entrepreneurs who rode the revolution from hobbydom to Wall Street. It's not surprising to see them and their companies acting as though this were still a game of marbles between them and a few other boys. Sure they're out to get Gates. But it's open warfare, not some conspiracy that needs to be unmasked. But IBM -- there's the real story, I think. A book on how IBM is making decisions these days, and the extent to which its corporate strategies are based on a hatred of Microsoft -- that's a book I'd read.
Electronic Review of Computer Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gates bashing has by now become an obsession in some parts of the world (at least in Silicon Valley, where rival tycoons resent him, and in the Justice Department, where antitrust lawyers burn the midnight oil). Though Rivlin (Drive-By; Fire on the Prairie) takes his shots at Gates, he also takes aim at his rivals, the heads of companies like Novell, IBM and Sun. He chalks up hatred of Gates and Microsoft to a "king-sized obsession among one-dimensional workaholics who'll do practically anything to win"--making Gates haters sound a lot like the tyrannical drone they themselves make Gates out to be. Rivlin has little tolerance for Gates's famous arrogance and explicitly takes apart Gates's reputation as a coding whiz. On the other hand, he is frustrated with Gates's complaining competitors, seeing them as doing little more than making business personal. Rivlin's writing, never less than lively, is sometimes truly funny. His thesis--that the little guys banded together to slay the Microsoft dragon when they should have been minding their own businesses--is persuasive. He has succeeded in writing a disinterested account of the software wars of the 1990s: this is neither a defense of Microsoft nor a screed against Gates. But it is also a little uninterested, as well. Rivlin appears more concerned with repeating the epithets the moguls have flung at each other than with the substance of their business. As entertaining as the book is, many readers will find Rivlin's pox-on-all-their-houses attitude too smug by half. Author tour. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In a world of high finance and sometimes large egos, it's easy to hate the richest man in the world--and many in that world have no trouble passionately hating Bill Gates. Bay Area journalist Rivlin has covered this world for several years, and he draws on this experience--including a press visit to Gates's home--in this account of how Gates has drawn attacks from obsessed competing executives, users of his products (and adamant nonusers), consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and the U.S. Department of Justice. The book's scope is broader than the title implies; it treats a number of Microsoft's competitors in some depth and provides some recent history of the computer industry. Throughout, Rivlin entertains with a light writing style and the promised irreverence, concluding with a brief set of jokes about Gates and Microsoft. Recommended for both public and academic libraries.--A.J. Sobczak, Covina, CA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
...[Rivlin] casts a light not just on Gates but on the world that loves him and hates him and that has made him a celebrity....[He] writes some graphic passages about Gates as a kind of corporate predator....[Rivlin] has performed the not inconsiderable task of taking on an already overworked subject and saying something new not only about it but about what it reveals about the rest of us.
The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
Back in 1993, a halcyon time when it was still possible to read through an
entire magazine without coming across the name Bill Gates, Novell CEO Ray
Noorda and Gates engaged in one of those public sneering matches that both
antagonists might come to regret, but only later, long after the verbal
stilettos had done their damage. The Utah-based Novell had devised a clever
means of connecting groups of freestanding personal computers so that
coworkers could share printers and computer files. This was in the early
1980s. Since that time, Novell had been drawing billions of dollars from
this single product in a market that Microsoft had never quite managed to
Life was torture for the Microsoft team charged with conceiving and then
marketing a rival product to Novell's. First it was Microsoft Net; then,
after five years of futility, it was LAN-Man (LAN for "local area network,"
Man for "manager"). Gates used the carrot with his minions and also the
stick. Microsoft rallies were held and milestones celebrated-and then when
that failed, as inevitably it did, Gates would scream. "I've never met a
stupider, more inept group in my fucking life!" he'd yell in a tweedling
whine. "How fucking hard can it be?" Despite everything, Microsoft could
barely dent Novell's market share. By the early 1990s, Novell would rank
fourth on a listing of the largest high-tech companies, behind only
Microsoft, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard.
Twice Microsoft approached Noorda about buying his company; both times
Gates later claimed a change of heart. Not without reason, Noorda felt
taken-felt that Gates and his minions were cozying up to Novell only to
learn what they could with the kimono open. Noorda could live with Gates's
yearly boasts at COMDEX (the computer dealers' trade show) that this would
be the year Microsoft overtook Novell. Long ago he had made his peace with
Microsoft's penchant for bad-mouthing Novell in meetings with Novell's
largest customers and its practice of offering deep discounts on other
Microsoft products if a big company would switch to LAN-Man. But what
Noorda believed were phony merger talks proved to be too much. Noorda told
anyone willing to listen-fellow computer execs, federal investigators, and
eventually journalists working for the country's top business
publications-that the boy wonder was really a monster in the making.
The first Noorda quote that got everyone's attention appeared in Business
Week in 1993. "To have a heart-to-heart," he said when asked about his
short-lived merger negotiations with Gates, "you have to have two hearts."
In response, Gates puffed out his concave chest and charged that Noorda was
growing "increasingly paranoid." Gates's number two, Steve Ballmer, a bull
of a man with a megaphone voice, decried Novell as a "dirty" competitor
selling a packet of "lies" to the press. And from there the fight
escalated. "Bill Gates's behavior is an insult to the industry and to the
world," Noorda said in another interview. He dubbed Gates "Pearly" and
Ballmer "The Embalmer" and then proudly explained his little joke to anyone
who asked. Gates was Pearly because he promised you heaven, while behind
the scenes Ballmer prepared you for burial.
Noorda organized meetings with executives from Lotus, WordPerfect, and
other companies selling software products so successfully that Gates seemed
to take it personally. "We're all a bunch of sissies," Noorda declared.
"Let's stand up to that little squirt!" Feature articles about Noorda, a
man well into his sixties when most of his counterparts were still in their
thirties, tended to use terms such as "avuncular" and "grandfatherly" to
describe him, but Microsoft let it leak to the press that it tended to call
old Ray the "grandfather from Hell."
Noorda has gotten so personal, Microsoft's executives would cluck. They'd
shake their heads and talk about the toll Noorda's outbursts were taking on
Gates. Poor Bill, they'd say to one another with tight frowns. Business is
one thing, but saying Bill has no heart? That's just plain cruel. Ballmer
is Gates's best friend, but it was Nathan Myhrvold, the company's chief
technology officer and Gates's alter ego, who turned to Herman Melville's
Moby-Dick during a high-level Microsoft staff meeting, hitting on a
metaphor that allowed the group to transcend the sting of Noorda's insults.
"Sometimes I think Nathan sees his job as making everyone laugh inside our
meetings," says a top chieftain who has witnessed countless episodes of the
Bill-and-Nathan show. Another Microsoft employee described the relationship
between the two as "an old and complicated marriage that no one outside the
relationship can hope to understand." The two make an unlikely match.
Whereas Gates is a furrowed-brow pessimist, Myhrvold is the cheery
optimist. Myhrvold is so well rounded it's almost frightening, Gates so
monomaniacal about business and technology that it makes one shudder. Every
time Gates loyalists hailed his ability to discuss a wide range of topics,
not just technology and business, I'd press them for examples. They would
mention genetic engineering, physics, world economics, artificial
intelligence, satellite technology-every example offered fell under either
the hard sciences or business. Myhrvold is every bit Gates's intellectual
match, but by contrast he's an accomplished chef (with a first-place finish
in the worldwide barbecue cook-off held in Memphis, Tennessee), an amateur
photographer, a fly fisherman, a race-car driver, and a bungee jumper.
Copyright 1999 by Gary Rivlin