The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World’s Richest Man … and the People Who Hate Him , by Gary Rivlin. Times Books, 360 pages, $25.
The first of the world’s millionaires was most likely the Scotsman John Law, who held an exclusive concession to the French territory of Louisiana and floated it on the Paris stock market in 1719-20. The first billionaire was probably John D. Rockefeller. His fortune reached about $1 billion soon after the forced dissolution of his Standard Oil trust in 1911.
As for the first trillionaire, there isn’t one, but we all know who is out in front: William Henry Gates lll, founder and chief executive officer of Microsoft Corporation, business genius and Robber Geek, and possessor of a fortune in property and securities of some $100 billion. If Microsoft stock goes on going up like this, Mr. Gates will be worth a one and nine zeroes in half a dozen years. Pecuniary history is accelerating: It’s easier to make money nowadays.
The three men have much in common. They made their fortunes not from inventing or discovering things but from colonizing, for the purposes of the stock market, a new commercial territory: respectively, the Mississippi Basin, commercial hydrocarbons and personal computing. Stock investors believed each of the three corporations–Law’s Compagnie des Indes, the Standard and Microsoft–could charge monopoly prices and earn monopoly profits in their protected territories. Law died a pauper and Rockefeller took to philanthropy when, respectively, the French monarchy and the United States Government took away their monopolies. The question that arises from Gary Rivlin’s intriguing book is whether Bill Gates will suffer this romantic destiny.
The trial of Microsoft on antitrust charges, which seems to have been going on forever, heard its last witnesses in June. Microsoft and Mr. Gates are accused of using their power over personal computers to force the rest of the computing industry, rivals and allies, to drop competing software products. This power, as if anybody doesn’t know, derives from Microsoft’s WindowsPC operating system and various applications for routine office jobs, which each have 90 percent of their markets. In theory, Judge Thomas Jackson might order the breakup of Microsoft (though that is unlikely).
The complaints come not just from anybody, but from pretty much the entire U.S. computing industry not domiciled in Redmond, Wash.: Intel, Netscape Communications, International Business Machines, Sun Microsystems, America Online. It seems that Mr. Gates, the Saddam Hussein of computer software, has managed to get through his career without making a single friend. In Mr. Rivlin’s portrait, the founder of Microsoft is hard-working, tenacious and decisive. He is also a foul-mouthed and ill-mannered bully, a momma’s boy, a compulsive fidget, a person without a scrap of common decency. His colleagues at Redmond come across as apprentices in those characteristics.
But Mr. Rivlin demonstrates that many of the disasters that have befallen Silicon Valley–that is, the non-Microsoft computing industry–in the past 20 years come down not merely to Microsoft’s antisocial behavior but to the vanities and envy of the other chief executives. Those men constitute what a Microsoft official named Nathan Myhrvold calls “Captain Ahab’s Club”: men so haunted by Bill and his billions and his celebrity and his car and his market share and his house that they destroy themselves. Mr. Rivlin’s story is thus driven forward not merely by changes in technology, as the companies would have us believe, but by the interplay of character and technology, which is much, much more interesting. The pity is that Mr. Rivlin, a clear writer, is so lively that he becomes a little wearisome. I suppose all business writers believe that business is too boring for unvarnished reporting.
The story opens in 1975 with Mr. Gates at Harvard, doing his last useful piece of coding to create a computing language for the hobby market, and then trying to charge through the nose for it. His breakthrough comes five years later with the adoption by I.B.M. of a Microsoft operating system for the personal computer it was developing. The launch of the operating system in 1981, famous if unlamented as MS-DOS, establishes the Gates pattern. Gary Kildall, who had devised the CP/M operating system, which was the hobbyists’ standard, fell asleep on his franchise and Mr. Gates crept in with a licensed product and stole his market. (Kildall was to die in a barroom brawl in Monterey, Calif., in 1994.) Microsoft then expands into computer applications, and Mr. Rivlin leads us through the word-processing and spreadsheet battles of the 1980’s, the humbling of I.B.M. over the successor
to DOS, the self-destruction of Novell in network software, the fiasco of Oracle’s so-called “dumb” computer and the unresolved challenge of Sun’s Java.
In each case, Mr. Gates has been able to use his control of the operating system for ever cheaper and, incidentally, less profitable personal computers–first MS-DOS and then Windows in its various incarnations–and his arsenal of cash to attack each market as it arises and to drive its pioneers out of business. As a competitor, he is terrifying. Pete Peterson, the Mormon founder of Wordperfect, the word-processing company destroyed by Microsoft Word, said in launching a new software: “We’re hoping that we remain small enough so that Microsoft doesn’t mind us, where Gates has no reason to kill us because we don’t take enough money away from them.”
Beneath the jeans and sweats, it seems, there beats a heart as hard as Henry Clay Frick’s. Even in Harvard days, Mr. Gates was only ever interested in building a business, being in control and, I guess, making money. He seems to have had no time for the win-win platitudes of a cartelized computer economy, any more than for the Web utopias that are supposed somehow to reknit our atomized societies. (Mr. Gates was certainly quite slow in his appreciation of the Internet.)
Mr. Gates’ fault, or rather that of his parents and teachers, is his boarding-house reach. It has been a business axiom from at least the late Middle Ages that a weak competitor is better than no competitor at all. But Mr. Gates, it seems, is too anxious and pessimistic a man happily to permit even a crumb of competition. In a last chapter, neatly titled “Bill Gates 3.1,” Mr. Rivlin presents to the world a sort of reformed Mr. Gates, more sociable and spontaneous and more attuned to market coexistence. Don’t believe a word of it.
For what it’s worth, I would have more sympathy for the anti-Gates camp if I felt the American public and not just poor I.B.M. had suffered. Windows is a horrible product. It is more of Mr. Gates and Microsoft than I, for one, can tolerate and I wish I were not forced to tolerate it. Yet Windows works in a dim sort of way and doesn’t cost a whole lot. The Internet is cheaper than the mails.
In the future, we are promised the wireless Internet, software that will recognize speech without error, every sort of electronic commerce. This world will probably be based not on the desk computer but on more compact and intimate technologies, such as the mobile telephone. I fear Mr. Gates’ social inexperience might be a hindrance here. It is hard to imagine Microsoft, so unstylish and muscle-bound, capturing all those markets.
That poses a new set of questions. What if Microsoft stock falls? Will Bill sell to protect his fortune? What do we do if Bill sells?