The Microsoft defile

'The Microsoft File' is all the dirt on Microsoft that fits between covers.


Scott Rosenberg
September 16, 1998 11:27PM (UTC)

"She was beautiful. It hardly mattered that she was paid." The opening line of some dime-store thriller, perhaps? No -- it's the start of a chapter in "The Microsoft File: The Secret Case Against Bill Gates," one in which Gates "lets off steam through liaisons arranged by his colleagues."

In another episode, Gates pursues the attractive manager of a German account for Microsoft and hangs out with her in an Amsterdam cafe eating hash cakes. (She rejects his advances and winds up in the arms of Microsoft's general counsel instead.)

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At such moments, "The Microsoft File" feels like an attempt to chronicle the secret life of Bill Gates. But the scenes never coalesce into any kind of insightful portrait of Gates himself. These brief episodes of Gatesian libido come off as odd interpolations of carnality in the midst of "The Microsoft File's" preponderance of legal maneuvers and boardroom negotiations. What's this stuff doing in a business book?

In fact, these anecdotes only make sense when you realize that author Wendy Goldman Rohm is serious about her title. She hasn't really written a book at all -- she's assembled a file of damning evidence, strung it together with unhelpful chapter titles and intros and sent the resulting hodgepodge to her publisher, which has dutifully bound and shipped it our way.

It's too bad "The Microsoft File" is such a kludge of a book -- a largely undigested mass of new dish and old documents strung together in loose chronological order -- because we could use a good, tough, outraged portrait of Microsoft's arrogant and deceptive business practices right about now. As the Department of Justice's antitrust suit against Microsoft heads to trial next month, a definitive account of Microsoft's rise to computer-industry dominance -- detailing all the double-crosses and aggressive practices that helped it achieve the monopoly it holds today -- would be a public service.

When someone finally gets around to writing such an account, its author may find "The Microsoft File" a useful source of leads and raw material. But Rohm's book itself is anything but definitive.

For one thing, there's the little problem of its sourcing: Basically, there isn't any. OK, today's business-book authors -- prodded by cost-cutting publishers -- have largely eliminated the practice of footnoting or otherwise documenting sources. But "The Microsoft File" doesn't even try to help us evaluate its evidence. Rohm tells us in an introduction that the book is based partly on anonymous sources, partly on for-the-record interviews and partly on her personal observation. Too bad the reader has no idea which passages are based on which. Microsoft, unsurprisingly, would not cooperate with Rohm, but she does write: "At one point during the creation of this book, Bill Gates engaged in an e-mail correspondence with me over the period of several weeks." Why doesn't she quote any of that e-mail? If it was all off-the-record, why does she bother to tell us about it?

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Because we have no idea where the information comes from, what are we to make of the strange passages in which Rohm pretends to present an inside-Bill's-head point of view ("There were times when it seemed that pieces of himself had distilled and separated under the glare of the bare sun")? And given her willingness to present such mind-reading, it's odd that the author keeps herself entirely absent from the narrative -- in the stiff manner of a New York Times reporter referring to herself in the third person. As a result, when she recounts a funny anecdote about a Financial Times reporter overhearing Gates publicist Pam Edstrom panic -- Edstrom thought she was on hold -- we're left to assume that said reporter is Rohm herself. But who knows?

Beyond these questions of documentation, "The Microsoft File" suffers from a deeper failure of organization. At some times, Rohm digs deep into the details of major conflicts in Microsoft's history. There are some valuable revelations about the company's effort in the early '90s to squeeze out Novell's DR-DOS, a competing version of MS-DOS, the operating system that first made Microsoft a household name: In beta versions of Windows 3.1 -- the versions trade journals would use for their early evaluation reports, and corporate managers would use to make purchasing choices -- Microsoft inserted a devious piece of code that checked to make sure the user was running Microsoft DOS. If it didn't find Microsoft's product -- if, for instance, the user was running DR-DOS -- it generated an alarming error message. (Nothing was actually wrong.)

But such material is sparse in "The Microsoft File." Through much of the book, Rohm's attention wanders from one event to the next, and from one perspective to another, with little sense of direction. Sometimes her gaze is focused on infighting in the offices of the Federal Trade Commission, which gathered evidence for a case against Microsoft but finally deadlocked on actually filing one. Sometimes she casts her glance at Microsoft public events at trade shows -- like a scene at a Comdex chili cook-off at which we're told that Gates looked tired, "like a man who had given up," and nothing more (given up on what? and why?).

And sometimes she dwells for whole chapters on the minute details of the choreography of software-industry mergers, like the IBM-Lotus takeover and the Novell-WordPerfect deal. Though such deals certainly related to Microsoft's growing dominance in the markets these companies shared, Rohm tells their stories in a vacuum -- as if it really matters today that Lotus' Jim Manzi told a petty lie, or we really wish to read the ludicrous doggerel that Novell CEO Ray Noorda apparently likes to write in his diary (Noorda called Gates "Pearly": "The game's the same,/Pearly,/And you and I/can meet no more/together/Too bad!").

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"The Microsoft File" ultimately seems organized on the empty-your-notebook principle. And so we hear way too much detail from those sources who, presumably, granted Rohm access -- like Noorda and some of the FTC attorneys -- and too little from, or even about, the ostensible subject of the book. As a result, "The Microsoft File's" accounts of industry history are so patchy -- finely detailed in one spot and blank in the next -- that they're unlikely to make much sense to anyone except an insider.

It doesn't help that Rohm's style also fluctuates between the bare rewriting of legal documents, with lists of who was in attendance at certain meetings on certain dates, to wild overwriting ("The horse was sent hurling into space, and down went Cannavino tumbling over so that earth was a green blur and the solid brown of the horse had become a wave, no longer solid but as if made of sound or heat"). Sometimes the author's choices are simply baffling: One chapter about the revitalization of the Department of Justice's antitrust division begins with the line "Aunty Em. Auntie Mame. Antitrust."

In her introduction, Rohm promises, with a prosecutorial air, "This book will show that Microsoft ... has engaged in a pattern of predatory business practices over the past decade that have all but killed the market in operating systems and applications software, and now likewise threatens to stifle free competition in the Internet and electronic commerce arenas." Many people in the computer industry already believe this to be true. But "The Microsoft File" won't sway too many fence-sitters.

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One of Microsoft's watchwords has always been "FUD," which stands for "fear, uncertainty and doubt" -- emotions that the company's actions are calculated to evoke in its competitors. The only effective antidote to FUD is honesty, clarity and certainty. Unfortunately, it's far too easy for Microsoft to simply dismiss much of "The Microsoft File" as unsubstantiated gossip. The next muckrakers who take on Microsoft will need to assemble a more unimpeachable file if they expect their case to stick.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

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