Being Bill Gates’ Best Friend (And Running Microsoft, Too)

Bad Boy Ballmer: The Man Who Rules Microsoft , by Fredric Alan Maxwell. William Morrow, 278 pages, $26.95.

I recently caught up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. The afternoon winding down, I idly asked him whatever happened to his brother, a vicious little punk who ignited neighborhood cats for fun. I figured he had to be about 30 now, and was somewhere laying out rodenticide on a subway track. “Oh, no, no. He’s retired.”

Apparently the little no-account had become a code jockey for Microsoft in the early 90′s. Now he sits in the basement of his Lake Washington McMansion, surrounded by empty Pringles cans, Grand Theft Auto cued up on the PlayStation. “Six thousand square feet,” my friend told me, shaking his head, “not a stick of furniture in the place.”

A fitting image for the parent company itself: immense good fortune accompanied by an almost spooky capacity for immaturity. What are we to make of Microsoft? Over its 16 years as a publicly traded company, Microsoft has been an astounding wealth-generator for those lucky enough to have gotten onboard early. Since the company hit the Nasdaq in 1986, its share price has increased by 44,000 percent; thanks to stock options, almost a third of its 40,000 employees are now millionaires. (This has transformed the city of Seattle, but created a problem for the company’s retention of talent. The acronym “FYIFV” is widely understood by locals as standing for “Fuck You, I’m Fully Vested.”)

Such numbers inspire lofty ruminations on the distinction between blind luck and just desserts-which is to say, they inspire envy and spite in the rest of us. Did Microsoft create wealth through its startling powers of innovation, or merely concentrate wealth by abusing its power as a monopoly? How can anyone deserve to be as rich as Bill Gates? Is he a genius, or merely shrewd? An innovator, or a ruthless chiseler who knew how to wring the most out of a millennial stroke of luck?

Many gifted journalists, among them James Fallows and Ken Auletta, have devoted their energies to answering these questions. The journalist Frederic Alan Maxwell has found a somewhat oblique angle of approach. Bad Boy Ballmer: The Man Who Rules Microsoft is a biography of Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s longest-serving employee, Bill Gates’ oldest and closest friend, his most trusted ally and his successor as company C.E.O. As Mr. Maxwell explains, “Gates is the techie, the strategist, the commander in chief. Ballmer’s the business guy, the tactician, the field marshal.” (Or, as a Novell executive more colorfully put it, they’re “the Pearly Gates” and “the Em-Ballmer”: When they’re cutting a deal, “one promises you heaven, the other prepares you for the grave.”)

Notorious in the tech world as an unremitting Microsoft cheerleader, Mr. Ballmer is perhaps best known for two moments of endearing infamy: In 1991, while leading a primal chant of “Windows! Windows! Windows!” at a sales meeting in Japan, Mr. Ballmer shredded his vocal chords so badly they needed to be surgically repaired. And at the height of the Justice Department’s scrutiny of Microsoft’s anti-competitive practices-and at the precise moment a little balm might have gone a long way-Mr. Ballmer cracked, “To hell with Janet Reno.”

Steve Ballmer was born and raised in the suburbs outside of Detroit. The son of a Ford executive who never made it very far up the company ladder, Mr. Ballmer competed for a scholarship to the well-heeled Detroit Country Day School. Once he won it-and won it handily-he never looked back. Galumphing, earnest, weird, intense and hyper-competitive, Mr. Ballmer is one of those heroes of outer-directed corporate America, indestructible in his need to win by seeing his product, whatever its merits, prevail. And as a greenhorn in Harvard Yard, his product was Steve Ballmer: He showed up for freshman orientation greeting every classmate by name, having already memorized all the names and faces in the student directory. His classmates included Yo-Yo Ma and Caroline Kennedy; but while the aristocracy of talent was busy introducing itself to the aristocracy, Mr. Ballmer met Mr. Gates, and that was pretty much it, at least for Bill Gates-Steve Ballmer is his only friend from the Harvard days.

Mr. Gates dropped out to start a software company, while Mr. Ballmer stuck for a while to the straight and narrow. After college, he went on to become a brand manager at Proctor & Gamble, eventually handling the Moist & Easy line for Duncan Hines. But bored with cake mix and the snoozy management style of P&G, Mr. Ballmer began to drift a little, taking a job as a script reader for NBC and parking cars at celebrity galas. After a few semesters at Stanford Business School, Mr. Ballmer moved to Seattle, to rejoin his old Harvard chum and create a global empire.

Mr. Maxwell takes us through the various Microsoft legends one more time: how Mr. Gates shrewdly convinced I.B.M. to let Microsoft retain the copyright to the operating system-on I.B.M.’s part, perhaps the biggest gaffe in the history of corporate deal-making. (I.B.M. remembers it a little differently: “We had a terrible problem being sued by [programmers] claiming we had stolen their stuff,” claims one I.B.M. executive. “We went to Microsoft on the premise we would license this product.”) Regardless, the picture of Mr. Gates that emerges is the familiar one: Exploiting the frontier atmosphere of a nascent industry, Mr. Gates borrowed liberally from the more naïve, all the while slowly creating a world in which his own intellectual property rights could be ruthlessly enforced. On whether Microsoft is a predatory monopoly, Mr. Maxwell is no agnostic: He openly sides with Scott McNealy, the feisty counterpuncher who founded Sun, and who told Congress in 1998, “The only thing I’d rather own than Windows is [the] English [language].”

All of which points to a central problem with Bad Boy Ballmer : Mr. Ballmer is big and colorful, but while Mr. Maxwell tries to sell him as a Whitmanesque bundle of contradictions, he is what he is: an impressively accomplished corporate strategist. Confronted with the central controversy of his career-whether Microsoft is the Standard Oil of its day and should be broken up by the courts-he responds with routine smoke-blowing, arguing that all the concerns regarding Microsoft’s corporate conduct boil down to one simple question: “Who should determine success in the software industry? Millions of consumers making individual purchasing decisions? Or government regulators?” And, even more remarkably: “I still don’t know what a monopoly is.”

Well, here I sit, running MS Word on a Windows platform, booting up Explorer and waiting in dread for the moment “Clippy” next descends to ask me whether I’m writing a letter. No doubt Microsoft is an endlessly fertile topic, feeding ruminations on the nature of the tech revolution, the bounties and depredations of capitalism, and the dark recesses of Bill Gates’ soul. Does the fascination extend to Mr. Ballmer? In spots, without a doubt; but too often in Mr. Maxwell’s book, Mr. Ballmer and the various well-aired stories surrounding Microsoft have been bundled together as speciously as Windows and Explorer.

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.