The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man...and the People Who Hate Him


To understand the magnitude of Bill Gates, one must understand the legions of people who are obsessed with him, in Silicon Valley and Seattle, on the Internet, in the media, and in Washington. In this irreverent work of comic nonfiction, acclaimed journalist Gary Rivlin strips away the puffery surrounding Bill Gates and other titans of high tech, many of whom suffer from varying degrees of Bill Envy. The result is a contemporary variation on Moby Dick in which a loosely knit cabal of Ahab-like enemies such as ...
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To understand the magnitude of Bill Gates, one must understand the legions of people who are obsessed with him, in Silicon Valley and Seattle, on the Internet, in the media, and in Washington. In this irreverent work of comic nonfiction, acclaimed journalist Gary Rivlin strips away the puffery surrounding Bill Gates and other titans of high tech, many of whom suffer from varying degrees of Bill Envy. The result is a contemporary variation on Moby Dick in which a loosely knit cabal of Ahab-like enemies such as Lawrence Ellison of Oracle and Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems attempt to harpoon the Great White Whale of Seattle. They are joined in their plot to get Bill by a memorable array of players, including Silicon Valley attorney Gary Reback, consumer activist Ralph Nader, former Novell CEO Ray Noodra, and webheads who love to hate Gates.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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 man—albeit 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 world—Novell, 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 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.

Michael Swaine

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.
Library Journal
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.
Richard Bernstein
...[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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812930061
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/29/1999
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.54 (w) x 9.64 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Rivlin
Gary Rivlin is the author of two acclaimed works of nonfiction, Drive-By and Fire on the Prairie: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, winner of the Carl Sandburg Award for Nonfiction and the Chicago Sun-Times Nonfiction Book of the Year. He has reported on city politics for The Chicago Reader and the East Bay Express. His work has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, Upside, In These Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1993, he received the San Francisco Bay Area Media Alliance's Print Journalist of the Year Award for his reporting on urban violence. He lives in Oakland and is editor of the East Bay Express.
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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 crack.

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

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Lord of the Manor 3
Part 1 The Great White Whale
1 Captain Ahab's Club 21
2 Nowhere, Utah 40
3 Five-Card Stud, Jacks or Better to Open 51
4 Bill Gates for Dummies 58
5 The Big One 74
6 Opening the Kimono 89
Part 2 Call me Ishmael
7 The Great Internet Land Grab 117
8 Bill Envy 135
9 Animal House 147
10 Java High 163
11 The Borg 184
12 "Bill Gates Is Satan" 202
13 What About Me? 219
14 The Silver Medalist 240
Part 3 Floating Coffins
15 Resistance_Is_Futile.Com 259
16 The Anti-Bill 277
17 The Love Song of Ralph Nader 291
18 Bill Gates 3.1 318
Afterword 335
Acknowledgments 343
Index 347
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Lord of the Manor

Bill Gates loved few things more than his annual pilgrimage to a computer industry conference called Agenda. Each fall, more than four hundred of the industry's brightest stars, its moguls and its junior moguls and its moguls in waiting, descended upon the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a weekend of golf, tennis, and two days of speeches and hobnobbing. Every week, or so it seems, brings another computer conference, each sounding vaguely like Internet Interconnectivity NetWorld Expo, but among the industry's digerati, only two annual conclaves matter: Esther Dyson's PC Forum, held each spring, and Stewart Alsop's Agenda, held each fall. There are those who will tell you that of the two, Alsop's is the one-in part because Gates stopped going to PC Forum around five years ago.

The Agenda crowd includes some of Wall Street's brightest stars, Silicon Valley's most heavily endowed venture capitalists, and the size 12 triple-E business reporters from whom a laudatory word in print can help launch a company. For the head of a young start-up, a moment in the limelight at Agenda is the computer world's equivalent of a young comic winning a guest appearance on Letterman; for the established CEO, an invite to address the royal court is an honor and a business opportunity but mainly a sign that he or she has arrived.

In eleven years, Gates has missed Agenda only once (he had a previous engagement with the premier of China). Agenda is a place where Gates can just be. He once flew to Davos, Switzerland, to deliver a speech at the World Economic Forum, anticipating having time to listen to some of the confab's more compelling speakers, but so great is the World's Richest Man's celebrity that he found he was forced to keep to his room. Away from Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington, Agenda is one of the few places in the world where, as one fellow Microsoft executive put it, "Bill can have a goddamned cup of coffee and schmooze." During the breaks and the cocktail hour, Gates can be found engaged in impenetrably technical conversations, arguing TCP-IP stacks and the nuances of e-mail protocols. He stands twisted like a corkscrew, one arm wrapped around his midsection as if reaching for an itch on his back he can't quite scratch, the other arm flying spastically into the air, head tilted to one side, mouth working. Meanwhile, the other sovereigns stare wide-eyed, forgetting for the moment that they are not where they usually like to be, in the center of things. For many it might be excruciatingly dull, two days of speeches and chitchat bloated with talk of JITs, GIFs, and distributed computing inside the enterprise. For Gates, though, Agenda is nerd heaven.

The Phoenician, home to Agenda since 1994, tries fiercely to convey rustic charm, but everything about it drips money. The industry's titans dress casually in short-sleeved plaid shirts and baggy khakis, but their environs expose them as royals slumming at the summer castle. A sprawling Caesar's Palace-like monument of excess, the Phoenician was financed by Charles Keating Jr., the infamous savings-and-loan felon. Set against the desert scrub of Camelback Mountain, the resort offers nine swimming pools (one inlaid with mother-of-pearl tiles), a dozen tennis courts (including a Wimbledon-style grass court), and its own private championship-caliber twenty-seven-hole golf course. Crystal chandeliers in each room. Italian linens on the beds. Italian marble in every bathroom. Rooms start at $400 a night. Agenda itself costs $3,500 a head, room and airfare not included, yet every year Alsop fights off a small herd of junior VPs pleading for the right to drop five grand so that maybe by chance they'll step on an elevator carrying Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel, or grab sixty seconds with Bill Gates in the Thirsty Camel Bar. Alsop has heard it all: "I'll lose my job." "The VCs [the venture capitalists who own a big chunk of the company] have my balls in a vice." "This one break, and we're the next Netscape." Alsop, normally a sweet-natured man with a Fred Flintstone build and a small bush of curly brown hair, fends them off as heartlessly as a bouncer working the rope at the hippest South-of-Market club in San Francisco.

Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Computer, is an Agenda regular. In the fall of 1997, Dell was worth $5 billion-a mere eighth of Gates's $40 billion holdings. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, was then worth $12 billion. Intel's Andy Grove made headlines because his compensation package in 1996, including the stock options he was granted, topped $100 million-big money, but less than a month's interest if Bill Gates were simply to invest his $40 billion net worth in a money market account. One year Alsop polled his audience: Would you continue to come if Gates stopped showing up? Nearly four in ten answered no, they would not. On the grounds of the Phoenician, Gates typically saunters with his hands in his pockets and his feet slightly splayed, a blandly satisfied expression on his face, emanating the casual ease that one sees only on the faces of the rich. So relaxed does he appear that it can sometimes seem as if he's sitting while he's walking.

A few years back, Scott McNealy, cofounder and CEO of the soaringly successful Sun Microsystems, opened a talk by joking that while he was honored to be addressing the audience at Agenda, his true desire was an invite to participate in one of Alsop's fireside chats. "Please, please, oh please," the industry's class clown cajoled Alsop, to the delight of the audience. The shtick was funny, especially when delivered by an undisputedly successful man then worth more than $100 million, but like most jokes it had an edge of truth to it. Every CEO in the audience, young or old, visualizes himself or herself sitting on stage matching wits with Alsop while a packed ballroom listens and watches with hushed attention. Maybe twenty people speak at Agenda each year, but only two or three luminaries are granted the ultimate prize: an invite to fill the oversized wicker throne that serves as the fireside set piece. Andy Grove has been so blessed, as have Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, and eventually Scott McNealy. But each of these figures has been granted a fireside on the conference's first day. The session that closes the formal portion of Agenda each year, day two's fireside, is reserved for Gates.

His fellow moguls may look at Gates as a vulture, a snake, or worse, yet there's no disputing his primacy. Nothing at Agenda is as fascinating as watching the other generals around Gates. The guy who was crying into his Tanqueray the night before, chewing your ear off about what that bastard Gates had done now, clucks about him like a society matron picking up the fallen hairs of the European princess gracing her party. Agenda is Alsop's baby, but Gates is the show's main draw; he is lord of the manor, Louis XIV at Versailles. All of which makes the series of events that unspooled so publicly in the fall of 1997 at Agenda 98, one week before Gates's forty-second birthday, all the more deliciously cruel. Alsop had offered his introductory remarks and the first set of industry mavens had already held forth when the group took its morning break on the conference's first day. Big screens in the ballrooms and televisions set up in the hallway blinked on, and onto the screen popped Attorney General Janet Reno, standing behind a lectern at a Washington, D.C., press conference. She was talking about Microsoft.

Some people figured it was one of Stewart's little jokes: dusting off an old tape from 1993 or 1994, when the Justice Department accused Gates and Microsoft of violating this country's antitrust laws-a humorous exclamation point to the debate that had just ended. But then recognition struck: it was happening again. Two years before, also during the first break on Agenda's first day, the conferees had gathered around television monitors to watch a Los Angeles jury declare O. J. Simpson not guilty. Now, in the fall of 1997, people again stood with mouths agape. Flanked by a row of officials, her hair looking frightfully like Gates's before his mid-1990s makeover, Reno stood awkwardly at the podium, eyes magnified behind oversized glasses, dressed in a nubby red-and-blue-plaid jacket, and a plain dark skirt. She spoke in dry, bureaucratic tones stripped of anything remotely approaching excitement or righteousness. She matter-of-factly accused Microsoft of violating the consent decree it had signed with the U.S. government in 1994. Because of that, she said, Microsoft would have to pay. She announced that she was asking the court to impose a million-dollar-a-day fine until Microsoft was back in compliance with the decree-the largest civil fine in Justice Department history. Upon hearing the million-dollar-a-day threat, the halls buzzed with wonder.

In the computer industry, it's an article of faith that the government's lawyers are woefully in over their heads regarding all things relating to computers. So it's probably reading things into the timing of Reno's announcement to say that it was the government's clever way of giving the knife a nasty little twist. But whatever the cause, the timing was humiliating. It was as if federal marshals had marched into a party to slap a pair of cuffs on the guest of honor and then paraded him out for all to see.

Four hundred sets of eyes searched for Gates, but he was nowhere to be found. He was off in another room, idly picking at a bowl of nuts, patiently sitting through an interview with a reporter from Newsweek. Newsweek had a terrific scoop-except that its reporter was behind a closed door, unaware of all that was transpiring. For the remainder of the day, the dozen reporters attending Agenda circled around him like buzzards, but for the moment Gates was talking to no one outside the Microsoft family.

Sun's Scott McNealy was the fireside speaker that afternoon. The timing could not have been better. Over the years, a long list of Microsoft rivals has tried to slay the dragon. In the 1980s, the brave knights included Jim Manzi of Lotus and Philippe Kahn of Borland. In the early 1990s, it was Ray Noorda of Novell; then, when Noorda was torched, Oracle's Larry Ellison took up the lance. That was in 1995. Ellison has not given up the fight, but lately McNealy has proven himself far braver.

Kahn had an acid tongue, Manzi a street-tough fearlessness. Noorda was righteous in the style of a religious fanatic, Ellison glib and droll. A year earlier, Ellison had shown up at Agenda, overdressed in a buttery double-breasted Savile Row suit-and so late that Alsop had had to send a supplicant to fetch him from the can. When finally Ellison had taken the stage, Alsop had good-naturedly teased him about the MiG-29 he was trying to buy from the Russian government. Ellison had brought down the house when he confessed his true aim: he needed a fighting machine so he could fly fast and low over Lake Washington, to rid himself once and for all of his nettlesome rival from Redmond. Heads turned to see a stone-faced Gates surrounded by frowning courtesans.

McNealy is funny and clever, sarcastic and juvenile, and no McNealy speech is complete without a varied offering of Gates zingers. "To warm up and get it out of the way, I thought I'd do my Microsoft bashing right up front," he began a keynote address before six thousand computer developers gathered in San Francisco's Moscone Center in 1996-and once he had settled on that formula, it was as if he had no use for any other. So it went in speech after speech. There were the garden-variety Evil Empire, Gates-Is-Darth-Vader jokes, and of course cracks about the vastness of Gates's wealth ("Can you imagine being so rich you overdraw your account by four hundred million dollars-and don't even notice?"). Two weeks before Agenda, though, it wasn't McNealy's latest line that the Agenda types were buzzing about, but the breach-of-contract suit Sun had slapped on Microsoft. Even before Reno tossed her stink bomb into the party, the crowd was rubbing its hands in anticipation of McNealy's talk.

Agenda regulars know how to spot Gates-always in the back corner, always flanked by a small Microsoft mafia. Sometimes he sits with a portable computer on his lap, sifting through e-mail while presumably following the speaker on the podium. More often than not, though, he stands, the laptop cradled in his arm. That's part of the Gates legend, having a mind so supple and so powerful that he can partition his brain to "multitask"-that is, perform two or more tasks simultaneously. Gates was surrounded by his minimafia during McNealy's speech, but no computer, and he chose to stand. Elbows nudged seatmates, chins pointed Gates's way, smiles graced faces-no laptop!

Shortly before they went onstage, Alsop suggested that McNealy tone it down. Born in Washington, D.C., the son of a highly regarded political journalist, Alsop was by nature the high-tech equivalent of a policy wonk, preferring serious discussion to fireworks. "Don't Moon the Ogre," Alsop had recently warned McNealy in a column in Fortune.

McNealy, on the other hand, was the mischievous type, a grown-up Wally Cleaver with the Beav's overbite and Eddie Haskell's devilish spirit. His speaking style called to mind a ventriloquist not particularly good at his craft. He constantly interrupted himself with side-of-mouth sarcastic comments. When Alsop asked him to tone it down, McNealy only rolled his eyes, mumbling something about mooning him onstage. Dressed in worn jeans and a button-down dress shirt open at the collar, his hair clipped uncharacteristically short, McNealy self-consciously settled into the fireside throne. No one knew what to expect.

McNealy didn't shy away from attacking Microsoft, but neither did he throw in his usual offering of gratuitous Gates barbs. Sure, he made passing reference to Microsoft as "the dark side" and declared the company's product line unreliable, bloated, and incompatible with other technologies. He ridiculed Windows NT, the operating system on which Microsoft was staking its future, aimed at higher-end customers but so crash prone that system managers derisively nicknamed the resulting blank monitor the Blue Screen of Death. But he aimed nothing at Gates personally.

Standing in a back corner, rocking back and forth from toe to heel, Gates nattered underneath his breath: "That's not true." "That's not true." "Yeah, like you know anything." John Markoff, a San Francisco-based technology reporter for The New York Times, was sitting near Gates-so close he half figured the CEO's running commentary was for his benefit. Markoff marveled at Gates's ability to bore in on McNealy with a hypnotic stare. "The news was only a few hours old, yet he completely focused in on McNealy as if nothing else was going on," Markoff said, shaking his head in wonderment at such a creature. "His whole body language was 'Let me at him.' "

Mitchell Kertzman walked away from McNealy's speech chuckling to himself. His friend had performed well, the head of Sybase told himself. He had landed jabs whenever Alsop had offered an opening, but he had stayed away from the below-the-belt personal stuff. McNealy had proved less controversial than usual, but he had been controversial. That was McNealy: you could shoot him up with a serious tranquilizer, and he'd still be more overamped than your average person on stimulants.

Kertzman was distracted from his reverie by the sound of padding feet behind him. It was Gates. Kertzman and Gates had known each other going on ten years, dating back to Kertzman's days running a software start-up in Boston that wrote software tools exclusively for Windows. The two occasionally talked at events like this one, but they were polar opposites and hardly friends. The rap on Kertzman inside the high-tech fraternity is that he's too nice-a playful dolphin swimming amidst the sharks and killer whales. When Kertzman took over the reins at Sybase, that put the two at odds-Sybase, once a comer in the industry, has seen its star fall in recent years in no small part because of Microsoft. But at the previous year's Agenda, Kertzman had delivered a speech chiding his fellow execs for paying too much attention to besting Gates and too little to innovation. And what is a trustworthy soul to Bill Gates if not someone once within the Windows orbit who, though he had spun free of his gravitational pull, now defended him?

"Let me ask you a question," Gates said brusquely. No hello, no exchange of pleasantries. Just a question spit out by a man anxious to get to the point. "Are all your developers and all your customers switching to Java?" Java was the Sun product that Scott McNealy had just been promoting so aggressively. It was a new programming language that promised to let any computer talk to any other.


"Then why does fucking Scott McNealy say every fucking programmer in the whole fucking world is using fucking Java?"

The two spoke for another twenty minutes. It was all business, of course. Kertzman may be the king of schmooze, but with Gates it's never anything but bits, bytes, and corporate strategy. Before that afternoon, Kertzman had never observed so much as a worry line on Gates's face in the dozen or so conversations he'd had with him over the years. But now Gates's face was creased, his eyes small. Gates always fidgets as if he's suffering from Tourette's syndrome, but now he was practically twitching out of his clothes. Who could say how much of Gates's mood was caused by McNealy and how much by the government? But when the two parted, Kertzman shared this comforting thought with himself: even billionaires have really bad days.

Microsoft's PR staff, citing security concerns, won't say what accommodations Gates selects when he stays at the Phoenician. Perhaps it was one of the Phoenician's Villa Suites, which go for $3,000 per night, including butler service, a private Jacuzzi, a full kitchen, a fax machine, and a golf cart for getting around. To a man worth $40 billion, as Gates was in the fall of 1997, spending $9,000 for three nights' accommodations is the equivalent of 24 cents to a couple with a combined income of $100,000 a year. The fax machine beeps and chortles, spitting out page after page of legal filings; the suite's three phone lines twitch like emergency blinkers. Gates is a screamer even in ordinary times, so on this day one imagines him yelling himself hoarse. Among the decisions reached that night was that Gates should talk to the press.

The following day, it seemed that every time you caught a glimpse of Gates he was off in a corner, talking with another big-name reporter. He downplayed the significance of the federal suit, spinning it as something hatched by a set of foes who couldn't compete in the marketplace. Typical was his talk with Business Week's Steve Hamm. "It's the way they play the game," he said of competitors such as Sun. "By using lawyers. Fortunately, that has no effect on the guys who come in to write software." When Gates wasn't granting an interview, he was huddled with one or another member of the Microsoft entourage.

The big show came that afternoon, when Gates and Alsop took the stage. Gates, dressed in hand-tailored khakis and a madras shirt, crossed his legs and draped an arm casually over the back of the wicker throne. But strain was etched in the muscles of his jaw, obvious in the clamped teeth of his gritted smile. Gates has been giving public talks since almost the moment he dropped out of Harvard, in 1977, but in twenty years of public speaking, his presentations have gone from laughable to merely passable. Even those at Microsoft who talk of Gates as if he were the Leonardo da Vinci of our time allow that he's not much on a stage. His voice is a high-pitched whistle that teeters on the edge of whininess, giving his talks a pleading, almost desperate sound. He speaks with a forced enthusiasm, tinny and false, and exudes no warmth, humor, or personality, despite hours of sessions with a speech coach. His one asset on stage, other than his fame, is his ample memory. He never fails to touch each of his talking points.

"I paid Janet Reno a pretty handsome sum to take that action yesterday," Alsop joked after he and Gates had eased into their seats for this year's annual chat, "so I'd really like to hear your reaction." Of course Gates didn't laugh. He began defiantly: if we decide it makes sense to integrate speech recognition software into Windows, he said, or video capabilities, or anything else we deem appropriate, we'll do that. He ridiculed the government for filing what he deemed a "very strange case"-repeating the word "strange" two more times-and blamed it on the political pressures exerted by competitors. What if you're 100 percent right, asked Alsop, but still your intransigence costs Microsoft dearly in the court of public opinion? Gates, who doesn't understand politics, flashed Alsop, who does, an uncomprehending look. "Maybe I didn't understand the question," he said. The two have known each other since 1982, and are friends after a fashion, but that's when Alsop-as he later described it-"got all caught up in my underpants." Gates stared blankly as Alsop struggled to regain his equilibrium. "It took me a while to recover, and Bill isn't exactly socially adept, so he wouldn't know how to help even if he was so inclined. That set the tone for the rest of the talk," Alsop later recalled with a sigh.*

Gates revealed none of the emotion he had shown the night before when he had run into Kertzman, but he displayed the same petulance, especially when the topic turned to Sun. He said he thought McNealy had looked "nervous" the day before. He declared Sun's products "overpriced" and dismissed the industry's fascination with Java as a "religious" thing. Inevitably, the conversation kept doubling back to the Department of Justice; each time, Gates would shrug the whole thing off. "Read the consent decree," he brusquely told one inquisitor from the audience-you'll see.

Intel's Andy Grove got more than a little angry listening to Gates. So closely linked are Microsoft and Intel, the manufacturer of the microprocessors, or chips, that run Windows software, that the two companies are often referred to as if one: the "Wintel monopoly." Gates has helped make Grove a very wealthy man. But the relationship between the two companies has always been complex and multilayered, like a marriage between two very different people who stay together for the sake of the kids. After Gates's speech, Grove could be found sputtering in the corner. "He's acting like zis is nothing more zan another contract dispute!" he said angrily to reporter after reporter in his heavy Hungarian accent. "He doesn't see vhat it means that zis is the government."

Grove had cause for worry. The computer industry was divided into two sides. On one side were Intel, Microsoft, and two subgroups of software vendors hitching their wagons to Windows: those swimming in money and thus in love with Microsoft, and those equally flush but still resentful because success meant goose-stepping to Microsoft's orders. On the other side were the Internet browser manufacturer Netscape, Larry Ellison's Oracle, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and a host of other companies, large and small. So closely aligned were these companies, at least in people's minds, that people had started referring to them jointly as NOISE (Netscape, Oracle, IBM, Sun-and Everybody else). Suddenly "everybody else" included the U.S. government. During those two days at the Phoenician, there were high fives and knowing smiles when allies passed each other in the halls. At the Thirsty Camel, they sipped single-malt scotches and top-shelf bourbons between stinking puffs on $20 cigars, gleefully envisioning doomsday scenarios for the pencil-necked mophead from Redmond.

As Gates flew home from Agenda, the list of forces that had aligned against him was formidable. The U.S. Justice Department was only one worry among many. Two weeks before Agenda, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a darling of the Left, had announced that he'd be hosting a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., to investigate "perhaps the most dangerous company in America today." Senator Orrin Hatch, a darling of the Right, announced he'd be holding the first of what he promised would be a series of hearings exploring Microsoft's domination of the software industry. By the time the first jumbo shrimp had been dipped in cocktail sauce at an Agenda party, at least a half-dozen state attorneys general, spotting an issue sure to draw the TV cameras, had also joined the hunt; by early 1998 their numbers would swell to more than twenty-five. The European Commission, the arm of the European Union that oversees legal disputes, announced that it was investigating Microsoft. So did the Japanese government. Even several software trade associations, which normally were cowed by Microsoft, jumped on the bandwagon.

Shortly after Reno announced she was reviving the Justice Department's case against Microsoft, a longtime Microsoft employee named Mike Murray sent an e-mail to select colleagues: What if there really was a secret plot against Microsoft? What if Microsoft's foes genuinely were in league with the government, the media, and others in a conspiracy to take down Microsoft? What if foes such as Sun and Oracle were covertly bankrolling everything from Ralph Nader's anti-Microsoft jihad to Orrin Hatch's Senate investigation? The truth was far more complicated than Murray made it out to be. From Microsoft's perspective, NOISE may seem a cabal whose actions border on the illegal, but though they meet regularly, they bicker and publicly step on one another's strategies so often that they are akin to the sectarian leftists of the 1970s. Still, that didn't stop Murray, in a second e-mail message, from fantasizing a sequel: Microsoft uncovers a smoking gun and destroys this cabal of saboteurs by prosecuting them under federal racketeering laws.

At Agenda, Gates said that the government's case boils down to a single word: Was Microsoft's inclusion of the Internet Explorer browser in Windows 95 an "innovation" (as Microsoft claimed) or the tying together of two distinct products (as the government contended)? And he was right. Such is the arcane nature of antitrust law, an expensive and complex debate over semantics that is strictly the province of full-time practitioners. Even corporate attorneys at white-shoe law firms shake their heads over its suffocating intricacies.

To read the charges the government has filed against Microsoft is to learn that the government believes Microsoft is in violation of the "essential facilities" doctrine. To look at Microsoft from the parapets of those who've faced Microsoft over the years, however, is to learn that Gates and Company are the kind who are forever bending the rules yet have memorized Robert's, Hoyle, and other arbiters of fair play so they can be the first to point an accusing finger when a foe steps slightly out of line. To spend time with those who have declared themselves Microsoft's victims (and also to watch the legal proceedings play out while lurking in anti-Microsoft chat rooms, whose participants are restrained by neither evidentiary rules nor good manners) offers a more interesting vantage point-and one far more illuminating than offered by the sundry legal filings in this case or in the broader case the federal government filed seven months later. Indeed, the government's twin cases against Microsoft are significant precisely because they shine so bright a spotlight on the complaints filed by competitors against a company that so unapologetically seeks to conquer and dominate.

The government's case against Microsoft is intriguing, but mainly as a work of political theater starring a new set of players on the national stage, wealthy and bright but politically inept. Robert Dole, Jody Powell, Judge Robert Bork, and any number of ex-congressmen, former officials, and high-powered Beltway players are all being remunerated handsomely for playing bit roles in the plot to get Bill Gates or to defend him, but influence peddlers for hire are nothing new. Far fresher are the lords of high tech, these self-made tycoons who portray themselves as driven only by the most noble impulses. There's the forty-year-old retiree, impeccably dressed in casual elegance, tan, beatific, claiming the money was never even a factor-yet not fifteen minutes later he reveals that since he was a young man he had dreamed both of retiring by age thirty and of owning a home so spectacular it would be worthy of a full spread in Architectural Digest. As columnist Molly Ivins has said, anyone who tells you the money's not important is worth at least a million dollars.

A twentysomething wannabe mogul parrots, without irony, sixties rhetoric about wanting to change the world. What's the product he sells that has him thinking such noble thoughts? Software that more effectively tracks visitors to a Web site.

So-and-so is a true visionary-you hear it time and again-but by "visionary" is meant not a person who sees a more just world or even someone who imagines a public park where now there is just a garbage-strewn lot; he or she is a business executive who recognizes that small pictures, not command lines, are the future of computing. Bill Gates didn't think up the icon-driven technology that allows a user to point and click on a garbage can to delete a file. The wizards at Xerox PARC in Silicon Valley invented that breakthrough. Nor was Gates the first to employ it in a mass-market product. That was Apple Computer's doing. Yet ask Gates's well-paid PR handlers and his top staffers to explain why they call him a visionary, and that's what they'll tell you: he saw before others in the industry that the future was point-and-click computing.

In August 1997, Newsweek foolishly hailed Gates as someone who had "achieved an unprecedented, and still growing, impact on the civilized world." On the other side of that equation, Gates has been proclaimed the most dangerous man on this planet, comparing unfavorably to Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. In this context, the plot to get Bill Gates takes on a noble air-the forces of good banding together to rid the world of this evil. Web pages declare him the Devil incarnate and Big Brother, the CEO of a company whose goal is nothing short of global conquest. On this last point the critics are certainly onto something. In recent years, Microsoft has entered a dizzying array of new areas: cable television, publishing, banking, car sales, real estate, local entertainment listings. What difference that might make, though, is another matter. With alarm, people note that Gates is aiming to own both halves of the information flow, both the means by which information is disseminated and the information itself-what inside the computer industry everyone calls simply "content." Yet does it really matter whether the king of content is Gates, Michael Eisner of the Walt Disney Company, or Gerald Levin of Time Warner? To most people, General Electric is nothing more than a beneficent force that sells us lightbulbs and ranges, but in fact it's a perennial Top Five company on the Fortune 500 list that owns NBC and several nuclear power plants. It manufactures weapons of mass destruction and, as the country's largest mortgage lender, carries the paper on more houses in the United States than any other entity.

"You don't understand," a computer executive's wife told John Seabrook of The New Yorker. "We talk about Bill Gates every night at home. We think about Bill Gates all the time. It's like Bill Gates lives with us." And that was in 1994, before the World Wide Web and when Microsoft was one sixth the size of the $250 billion colossus it would become by 1998. Nowadays, it seems a conversation in Silicon Valley can't go five minutes before Gates and Microsoft are mentioned. Eyes blaze, storm clouds weigh heavily on brows, sunny moods turn stormy. Esther Dyson, host of that other must-attend computer conference, dubbed the disease "Bill Envy." "Just about every guy in this business suffers from it," Dyson says. "Bill is like the Rorschach blot of the industry. What people think of him tells you more about them than it does about him."

At some point, Gates ceased to be simply a powerful industry figure; he has infiltrated the world's dream life. "In every moment of every day," wrote the creator of the "Bill Gates Fountain of Dreams" Web page, "somewhere on the planet someone is dreaming about Bill Gates." The faithful have been known to make pilgrimages to the shrine, like the thirteen-year-old who flew from Denmark to Seattle (his mother works as a flight attendant), hoping that he'd be permitted to shake Gates's hand (he was). There are on-line news groups such as (sample posting from this sycophantic news group: "Bill Gates is absolutely adorable! And those glasses . . . ah, they are sexy. Anyone know a good site that has a good pic of Bill?"), and you could take a Gates quiz at the "Team Gates" Web site.

The Gateses, Bill and Melinda, have earnestly discussed the importance of philanthropy with Regis and Kathie Lee. Barbara Walters bathes Bill in pathos at the same time as she strips him of any personality. Gates talks about his troubles with the government, Walters looks on as if listening to a close friend opening up about the loss of a loved one. Walters's eyes are watery and wide, lips tugged into a tight frown, brow furrowed. Later, Gates gives her a long, steady, opaque look after she has exclaimed, "You're the richest man in the world! How does it feeeeel to have all that money?" He is a celebrity-the world's richest man!-so when Walters's report is over and it's just her and Hugh Downs talking in the 20/20 studio, she rushes to his defense. The government has been awfully rough on him, she says with that dewy-eyed look. It matters not what he did, just that he's successful. He's Madonna, he's Michael Jackson, he's Michael Jordan. The whole thing calls to mind "Doc's" profound words in Steinbeck's Cannery Row: We may admire kindness and generosity, but it's greed and avarice that are the traits of success, and we respect rich and successful people.

We invest the computer industry with so much meaning. The PC is at the epicenter of our universe (wrote Wired magazine in its maiden issue about the Digital Revolution: its "only parallel is probably the discovery of fire"); its best-known figures are hailed like Roman emperors. Fortune gushes over His Billness like a swooning teenager ("with all due respect to the soul man James Brown, Gates may be the hardest-working man in big business"); The New Yorker chisels McNealy in stone, casting him as David up against this Goliath in an article running under the headline "The Sun King."

At its core, the plot to get Bill Gates is a tale of king-sized obsession among one-dimensional workaholics who'll do practically anything to win. At best, it is harmless hero worship, obscuring a far more interesting story residing between the lines. At worst, it's another example of a culture so obsessed with fortune and fame that those starring in a cautionary tale are instead cast as role models. "Sometimes," sighs a woman named Nancy Stinnette, who has worked as a PR manager at both Oracle and Sun, "I feel like all of us, we're just pawns in this fight. Some very wealthy little boys are fighting each other, and the rest of us are just their minions."

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