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From Barnes & NobleHave 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 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.