Why Bill Gates still doesn't get the Net

While his new book "Business @ the Speed of Thought" peddles PCs as the ultimate corporate intelligence system, the industry is mutating right under his nose.

Published March 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Bill Gates didn't become the world's richest guy by being shy about selling. So it's hardly a shock that "Business @ the Speed of Thought," Gates' new management-advice book, is a 400-plus-page sales brochure for the wizardry that personal computer technology can work in your corporation.

A "digital nervous system," according to Gates, can motivate and empower managers, increase manufacturing efficiency, hone sales-force performance, enhance strategic planning, speed the flow of information and boost the bottom line. A "Web lifestyle" and "Web workstyle" will allow managers, employees and customers to conduct ever more of their professional and private business across the Net, profoundly transforming the home and the workplace. "Going digital," Gates writes, "will put you on the leading edge of a shock wave of change that will shatter the old way of doing business."

If you plow through "Business @ the Speed of Thought" you will quickly realize three things: Nearly everything Gates writes is obvious. Nearly everything Gates writes is right. Yet somehow he has missed the real story.

He's right that digital technology allows companies to react faster. He's right that e-mail allows important news to bypass hierarchical bottlenecks and get to the people who need to know it. He's right that abandoning paper and "going digital" can not only cut costs but create new business opportunities.

To such revelations, at this point in history, one can only respond: duh!

But your eyes may glaze over as Gates delivers example after example of mega-corporations like McDonald's, Nabisco, Boeing and Coca-Cola achieving digital nirvana. And as the book progresses, a subtle blurring of a key distinction takes place: Going digital is gradually equated with replacing all your old systems with Windows-based PCs. A handy appendix at the book's end provides a technical roadmap; all that's missing is a 1-800 telephone sales line for Windows 2000.

"Business @ the Speed of Thought" is packed with examples of how Microsoft has, in industry parlance, "eaten its own dog food" -- used its own technology to build the kind of "digital nervous system" Gates preaches about, routing critical information to the people who can act upon it. Gates himself says he has "a natural instinct for hunting down grim news ... An essential quality of a good manager is a determination to deal with any kind of bad news head on, to seek it out rather than deny it."

OK, Bill, here's the bad news: A lot of people who agree with you about the promise of digital technology are deeply unhappy with the particular incarnation of it that you peddle. And the Internet makes it possible for them to do something about it.

Gates-trackers will recall that the Microsoft founder's previous book, "The Road Ahead," offered a vision of the digital future that essentially dismissed the Internet as a mere stop along the way to the "information highway" that would change our lives: "CD-ROMs are one clear precursor to the highway," Gates wrote. "The Internet's World Wide Web is another." Today, CD-ROMs offer a good way to distribute software but are in no danger of transforming the world; the "information highway" is a phrase even Al Gore can't utter with a straight face; and it's the Internet's uniquely open standards that have become the foundation for an unprecedented boom in online media, communications and commerce.

"The Road Ahead" appeared in December 1995, just as Gates was unveiling Microsoft's master plan to "embrace and extend" the Internet. Yet the book's first edition, with its clunky accompanying CD-ROM, mentioned the Web a mere seven times in nearly 300 pages. Though later editions tried to correct this gaffe, "The Road Ahead" remains a landmark of bad techno-punditry -- and a time-capsule illustration of just how easily captains of industry can miss a tidal wave that's about to engulf them.

Gates and Microsoft have, of course, so far managed to ride the Net's wave to further success. And "Business @ the Speed of Thought" makes clear that Gates has totally got the Net religion: "If we go out of business," he writes, "It won't be because we're not focused on the Internet. It'll be because we're too focused on the Internet."

But the Internet that Gates depicts is barely recognizable as the Net on which more and more of us work and play. For better and worse, today's Internet is a vast, teeming commons on which buggy technological innovations, experimental business plans, fringe political movements and evanescent pop-culture trends are all emerging, converging and mutating. The Net has become such a crucible for human energy because its technical standards remain wide open -- it's the proverbial "level playing field." Gates does wield considerable influence, largely because he sits upon an enormous mountain of cash that enables Microsoft to acquire promising small companies whenever it chooses. But he does not call the shots.

This must be galling to him.

"One thing "The Road Ahead" made clear and "Business @ the Speed of Thought" reinforces is that Microsoft's corporate culture is built on an ideology of mastery and control. In the one moment of epiphany in "The Road Ahead," Gates explained why he became infatuated with computers as a kid: "We could give this big machine orders and it would always obey."

In his new book, Gates re-creates this adolescent domination fantasy in the executive boardroom -- where, thanks to the digitally enabled just-in-time flow of perfect information to their desktops, the corporate managers Gates profiles can now exercise precise control of their operations. The "digital nervous system" becomes a feedback-and-control loop that lets managers slice their bean-counts ever more finely and tune their organizations to a peak of responsiveness. Gates still loves big machines that follow orders -- only now the machines are organizations made up of human beings.

And so something weird happens when Gates writes about the Internet: Though he pays lip service to the notion that the Net is a new, volatile business environment that keeps you on your toes, it's clear that what really attracts him about it is its promise of "information at your fingertips." To Gates, the Internet's value lies not in its capacity to surprise us but in its ability to organize us. At one point, Gates explains that Microsoft has a "culture of numbers" that prizes "straight math" over all else. Sure enough, the impulses coursing through Gates' "digital nervous system" are corporate numbers rather than human thoughts and feelings.

The Internet can serve as a great big number crunching-and-moving tool, to be sure, but that is only one of its many faces and roles. Gates repeatedly mouths the clichi that the Internet and personal computers "empower the individual," but all the individuals he pictures are working safely behind a corporate firewall, exercising that individuality within the larger group-think of a business organization.

Gates acknowledges that a "digital nervous system" needs to "extend outward to partners and customers," but he doesn't consider how the Net itself changes who those partners and customers are, what they might want and how they think of themselves and the company that's "extending outward" to them. What's missing from "Business @ the Speed of Thought" is any sense that the Net might be transforming more than just the speed at which information moves from point-of-sale to a vice president's desk -- that it might accelerate social and economic experiments lying far outside the org charts of the Fortune 500.

One such experiment happened to bubble up from the Net to challenge Microsoft itself during the time Gates was writing his new book. And if Gates fully understood what's going on out there, he might well have a digital nervous breakdown.

That the free Linux operating system and its open-source methodology represent a genuine threat to Microsoft is now widely acknowledged in the technology industry, even by some of Microsoft's own front-line engineers, who touted Linux's strengths in the widely leaked "Halloween memo." Many users are frustrated by the inefficiencies, rigidities and flaws Microsoft products are increasingly riddled with; many are attracted to Linux and other open-source products that provide ready access for software developers to fix and enhance them without waiting for Microsoft to call back with a patch or deliver a long-delayed upgrade. Tested in real-world conditions by guerrilla groups of coders working collaboratively across the Net, open-source software, proponents argue, offers faster and smarter development than Microsoft. It is, you might say, software "@ the speed of thought."

The one person at Microsoft who doesn't seem to have received the bad news is Gates himself. Last week, he dismissed Linux with these words: "There has certainly been a lot of free software out there for the last 20 years. The main thing that has held that back is that because it's free software there's no central point of control. So what you see with Linux, and other things, is you get proliferations of different versions and everybody can go into the source code, and everybody does."

To Gates, openness and lack of control is a bug; to free-software programmers, it's a feature. Only time will tell whether Gates' prediction of a confusing, splintered Babel in Linux's future proves accurate -- it's certainly a possibility. But that Linux's loose-reined approach can offer a valuable alternative to businesses today is beyond dispute.

Microsoft's public responses to Linux have been all over the map. Sometimes it plays up Linux to bolster its position in its antitrust trial ("Competitors? Sure we've got competitors!"), and sometimes it plays down Linux to reassure Wall Street that Microsoft will continue to be a profit machine. There's just one thing Microsoft's top brass can't seem to do: carefully and openly evaluate the appeal of Linux's fundamentally different approach to developing and distributing software. The company's digital nervous system is failing to properly identify the threat -- perhaps because it comes in the unrecognizable guise of an idea rather than a corporation.

To anyone with a reasonably long memory, Gates' pooh-poohing of Linux offers an overpowering whiff of dij` vu: The last time Microsoft dismissed a popular new technology as being good only for "the student and hobbyist market," as Gates is now describing Linux, it was the early '90s, and the technology in question was the Internet itself -- which, like Linux today, was "too hard to use," "didn't have a good graphic interface" and just didn't fit into Microsoft's vision. Just as "The Road Ahead" required drastic re-routing, don't be surprised if "Business @ the Speed of Thought" -- which today barely mentions Linux -- issues a second edition replete with revisions about the free software/open-source movement.

If you must read "Business @ the Speed of Thought" today, be warned that its contents are even more stupefyingly bland than those of "The Road Ahead." Though the new book advocates a strategy of opening up inner corporate councils to the flow of information from the street, its language never strays from boardroom gray. Gates is widely regarded as someone who's passionate about new ideas in management, but that passion never cracks the plastic surface of his prose (the book is credited to Gates "with" Microsoft marketing exec Collins Hemingway). The closest "Business @ the Speed of Thought" comes to breaking a sweat is when Gates describes Microsoft's Herculean effort to turn its business in the direction of the Internet.

By coincidence, the week that Gates' book hit the stores also saw the arrival on the Net of a funny, insightful manifesto against just the kind of impersonal corporate language in which "Business @ the Speed of Thought" speaks. The Cluetrain Manifesto is the work of a quartet of Internet provocateurs who argue that the Internet is rapidly transforming not just the speed but the tenor and content of business communications. (The "Cluetrain" name derives from a quote attributed to a "veteran of a firm now free-falling out of the Fortune 500": "The clue train stopped there four times a day for 10 years and they never took delivery.")

The Net, the manifesto declares, makes new "conversations" possible among and between corporate employees and the general public -- and these conversations, conducted in "language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking" are inoculating us against the "hollow, flat, literally inhuman" language corporations use.

"In just a few more years," the authors maintain, "the current homogenized 'voice' of business -- the sound of mission statements and brochures -- will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court. Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone. Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves."

What the authors are saying is that the very voice Bill Gates uses in "Business @ the Speed of Thought" is being rendered obsolete by the technology he espouses. Though predictions of the demise of marketing-speak often prove to be wishful thinking, there's plenty of evidence out there to back the Cluetrain argument. For a crude but telling example, all you have to do is look at the reader comments about Gates' book on Amazon.com -- the kind of "Web lifestyle" company "Business @ the Speed of Thought" extols.

The reviews are a mixed bag, from "excellent book" to "You'll find more original ideas on the wall of a barroom commode." They're full of misspellings, grammatical errors and non sequiturs. But there's a liveliness to the exchange among enthusiastic and pissed-off Net users. "Business @ the Speed of Thought" drones on for hundreds of pages without ever achieving that sense of engagement.

On the info-glutted Net, attention is the scarcest commodity. That makes boredom the ultimate business failure.

By 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.

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