Scott Bradfield asks what we really know about Bill Gates
Yesterday's computer nerds are already today's chief executive poobahs, zipping around in private jets, and teeing off at millionaires-only clubs with the likes of Bill Clinton and Mike Ovitz. Take, for example, the story of software-entrepreneur Bill Gates.
When Gates founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen, he was a 19-year-old Harvard drop-out, and just the sort of ungroomed and shower-dysfunctional geek no girl would go out with. Today he's listed by Fortune magazine as the single richest man in America, with assets worth something like $20 billion. He attracts crowds of fans to his odd personal appearances as large and frenzied as those assembled at any rock concert. And, when he's not stopping off at Wendy's for a cheeseburger and a Diet Dr Pepper, he conducts his own foreign policy with China. Imagine that.
Overdrive takes up where James Wallace's previous biography of Gates (co-authored with Jim Erickson) left off, and concludes with the quarter-billion dollar launch of Windows 95 on August 24 of, yes, 1995 (the same date as the eruption of Vesuvius, though Windows 95 probably stirred up a lot more smoke).
According to Wallace, the challenges facing Gates in the early Nineties were pretty perilous. He had to keep his company from turning into another multinational dinosaur. He had to master the Internet (an aspect of personal computing which passed him by on the first few go-rounds). And he had to find a woman he could marry and produce kids with - thus putting to use the enormous "children's wing" he was building at his $50 million estate on the shore of Lake Washington. By all accounts, Gates doesn't like to waste either space or time. Especially not his own.
Besides working these large "paradigm shifts" into both his private and business worlds, Gates's company suffered a series of legal setbacks in the Nineties - which, Wallace suggests, they probably deserved. This is because for the first 20 years or so of his business life, Gates was not known as an innovator, but rather as a ruthless man who put other people's innovations to work. And he wasn't reticent about taking the low-road, either, following three rather dubious business practices.
The first was promoting "vaporware," products which Microsoft publicised for imminent release, but which they had no intention of finishing on time - all they really wanted to do was prevent other companies from selling their own already-marketable brands. The second was a deal Gates made with IBM which - allegedly - prevented other computer systems designers from competing fairly with Microsoft products, such as the ubiquitous DOS and Windows. And finally, there is Gates's annoying tendency to seek out the manufacturers of popular new software (such as the data-compression technology developed by Stac Electronics), and distract them with negotiations about a possible (but never completed) merger while setting Microsoft's own engineers to work emulating the smaller company's new technology.
"Gates looks at everything as something that should be his," complains Phillippe Kahn, one of Gates's bitterest rivals. "It can be an idea, market share, or a contract . . . The notion of fairness means nothing to him. The only thing he understands is leverage."
Genuine rage or sour grapes, it's not always easy to tell them apart. But Gates has contended with his fair share of both in the Nineties. In the end, however, Gates always seemed to get what he wanted. He missed the first exit on to the Internet, and flubbed the second one - but the third time round seems to have proved a charm, considering the recent success of Microsoft's late-coming access-provider, MSN (for Microsoft Network). Gates lost some important court cases, but then managed to overturn many of the decisions made against him. And even when Wall Street began betting on other rising young computer-companies like Netscape a few years back, to this day Gates's company takes its lion share of the market.
Wallace's depiction of Gates's recent ups and downs lacks some of the high drama and geeky gossip of his previous book. Nor does it stand up to some of the better recent histories of geeks on the Net (one might especially check out Clough and Mungo's outdated but far more lively account, Approaching Zero). For despite Overdrive's dense and knowledgeable summary of where Microsoft has been lately, the book abounds with too many acronyms, and too much dry business - especially when the most fascinating thing about the Gates-like entrepreneurs of our world is the sheer bombast of them.
Because, in the end, computer nerds aren't really outsiders at all - rather they're the ultimate postmodern consumers. They spend too much time alone in their rooms watching TV. They keep all the electrical wall outlets buzzing. And they eat nothing but pre-packaged brand-name crap. In fact, they aren't world-shapers at all. They are market-shaped. And that's why, like Bill Gates, they will always come out on top.
Scott Bradfield's latest novel, Animal Planet, is now available in paperback (Picador)