Stalking Gates

In "The Plot to Get Bill Gates," Gary Rivlin provides a much-needed outsider's view of the Baron of Redmond -- and the rogues of Silicon Valley.

By Janelle Brown
August 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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People are obsessed with Bill Gates. Who is the richest man in America, really? Just look at this week's Newsweek cover, "Bill just wants to have fun," which profiles Bill the Family Man and is touted on the Web as "Changes: The view from Bill Gates's head." Or the Aug. 16 issue of the New Yorker and its "Hard Core: Why does Bill Gates think that the Microsoft antitrust trial has been such a disaster for him and for the company?" This is just the kind of thing that surely irks Gary Rivlin, whose own examination of Mr. Microsoft -- "The Plot to Get Bill Gates" -- tries to distance itself from such reporterly insiderism. While Newsweek's Steven Levy attempts to persuade us of his intimacy with the money icon of our times -- "Over a period of 16 years I have had a number of interviews with William Henry Gates, but none quite like this." -- Rivlin plays up his failure to finagle even five minutes of face time with Gates.

Rivlin has attempted, as the subtitle puts it, "an irreverent investigation of the world's richest man ... and the people who hate him." Not content to be just another profile of Gates and his business tactics, this book hopes to gaze into the psyches of Gates and his enemies -- the Scott McNealys and Larry Ellisons of the world -- who would love nothing so much as to watch Microsoft die a slow, painful death. The "plot to get" Gates is essentially the ambition of those foes, most suffering from a really bad case of Bill Envy, to succeed him in his throne.


It's pretty tricky to get into Gates' psyche without access to the man himself. But Rivlin has managed to build a pretty comprehensive profile, using an army of secondary sources. In fact, he must have collected a veritable library of Redmond exposis. The index of "The Plot to Get Bill Gates" lists his sources, including "Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire," "Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace" and, of course, "Gates: How Microsoft's mogul reinvented an industry -- and made himself the richest man in America" plus "Accidental Empires," "microserfs," "Barbarians Led by Bill Gates" and a host of other exhaustively titled tomes. Plus, there are features from every conceivable news outlet from Barbara Walters to Playboy to the Wall Street Journal to the MicroSucks Web site. One thing you certainly can say about Gary Rivlin is that he did his homework.

Unfortunately, Rivlin's list of references is indicative of one of the flaws of "The Plot to Get Bill Gates." The Microsoft canon is already so voluminous, that it's difficult to find much new to say about the company or its leader. We know from endless profiles, cover stories, investigative reports and so on, that Gates is odd, childish, geeky, a ruthless capitalist whom the rest of the industry loathes -- and lately, a devoted husband and father. We've heard about the battles between Netscape and Microsoft and about the Justice Department versus Microsoft, so many times already that Gates as a subject just smacks of staleness.

"The Plot to Get Bill Gates" starts as a profile of Gates and his ascendence to fame and riches, interspersed with stories of the rise and fall of his early competitors -- Mitch Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3, Gary Kildall of Digital Research and the folks at WordPerfect and Novell -- before moving on to his more contemporary rivals at Netscape, Oracle, IBM and Sun Microsystems.


Rivlin's premise that technology has become an industry where "everything seemed merely an asterisk to Microsoft" may be slightly tenuous, but he supports it with lots of juicy details of deals and the tempers behind them. Rivlin clearly spoke to a huge number of industry veterans and the result is a collection of titillating and nasty nuggets about these bigwigs.

We learn, for example, that Gates' secretary had a burger joint loaded into her speed dial; how Oracle's Larry Ellison would lead his minions into competition with the chant "kill, kill, kill"; that Sun's Java programmers spent so many idle months waiting for Sun to develop a strategy that they damaged their tendons playing arcade games; that there's a run on blue Lexuses among "Softies" because that's Gates' current car of choice. Rivlin, executive editor of the East Bay Express, the Berkeley alternative weekly, is a marvelous writer who has a talent for colorful description of people and events -- even those he didn't attend. Consider this passage about Steve Ballmer's speech at an Microsoft all-hands meeting in 1991:

"He stood on stage, punching a meaty fist into a palm, yelling 'Win! Doze! Win! Doze! Win! Doze!' at the top of his lungs for so long and so hard that he ended up requiring throat surgery afterward ... Ballmer was just getting warmed up. The veins in his temples swelled like ropes, blisters of sweat formed on his bald dome. His face turned the color of tomato bisque. There's no time for gloating, he warned, not while they're still getting lunch handed to him."


But Rivlin's book sometimes spends too much time lingering over these kinds of details, at the expense of developing a coherent argument about Gates. The structure of the book is baffling -- it jumps around in time, profiling Gates, then a competitor, then considering more dirt on Gates, jumping back to the valley, discussing Internet mania, then the role of venture capitalists, a history of the network computer and then back to Gates and on to describe the plethora of anti-Gates Web sites. It's as if Rivlin feels that, since all roads lead back to Microsoft, he has to cover all the major events of Silicon Valley history just to be safe. But this super-comprehensive approach means that almost every topic gets short-changed -- including the antitrust trial, which gets a hyped-up intro, but is glossed over at the end of the book.

If "The Plot" is about anything, it's about why, as Rivlin puts it, "A $40 billion nest egg means that we as a society need to knock you off the pedestal that we have put you on, to tame you, to fit you into an oddly shaped box." (That "we," as the book makes evident, includes Rivlin, who clearly doesn't like Gates much more than Microsoft's competitors do). It's about Gates's success and how it has led inevitably to his celebrity and his role as most despised despot. After all, he argues, who doesn't resent Bill Gates?


"The Plot to Get Bill Gates" works best when it focuses on the personal side of the business -- the characters and habits and foibles of the numerous male egos who run the tech industry and who seem sometime single-mindedly obsessed with Microsoft. And what egos they are: Scott McNealy, Larry Ellison, Philippe Kahn, Ray Noorda, John Doerr, are all given equal treatment in this book, and all of them come off looking bad. After reading page after page about the self-important rich men who run the industry, you may never want to use a computer again.

Each has his own nasty habits -- Ellison's women, McNealy's frat-boy behavior, Noorda's monomaniacal obsessiveness -- but their common fatal flaw, Rivlin believes, is a sense of greed. This is a greed driven by jealousy -- a desire to overtake Bill Gates and his billions at the pinnacle of the industry. The quest to defeat Microsoft, Rivlin posits, has less to do with good software and more to do with a self-righteous feeling that the "underdog" needs to knock the big guy off his perch at the top of the stock market -- and step into his place.

One of the great shadows overhanging Rivlin's book is the fact that Rivlin is not, as he puts it, one of the "size 12 triple-E business reporters" that do have access to Gates. Rivlin is an outsider, who during the writing of his book couldn't even manage a face-to-face moment with Gates. In fact, Gates' only personal appearance in the book is in the footnotes, where Rivlin quotes the one and only e-mail exchange he ever had with Gates himself.


As a result, moments when Rivlin insouciantly gets inside Gates' head -- the first line of the book states that "Bill Gates loves few things more than his annual pilgrimage to a computer industry conference called Agenda" -- come off a bit oddly. The same goes for the occasional passages when Rivlin slips into the second-person to describe what might happen when "you" have a personal encounter with Gates himself, ("Bill Gates pounds on the table. You pound back"). To his credit, Rivlin has managed to cobble together the material and observations of so many other journalists and insiders that his portrayal of Bill Gates feels solid, if occasionally embellished with the second-hand biases of other people.

In fact, Rivlin's outsider status makes him perhaps a better observer than those triple-E business reporters he seems to dislike. Rivlin takes the role of curious sociologist, deconstructing not only the minds of Gates and his enemies but of the journalists who have goaded the technology industry into a frenzy of cover-story competition. Rivlin has little at stake by infuriating everyone; he has no coveted relationship with Gates to preserve, unlike the writers at Fortune, Time, Forbes, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and so on, whom he skewers for printing, unquestioningly, the words that drop from Gates' lips as if they were precious jewels. (Fortune, he writes, is "a magazine whose editors ogle money like the editors at Playboy ogle breasts.")

Compare this to the "Hard Core" feature by Ken Auletta in the New Yorker, profiling the characters behind the Microsoft antitrust trial. Auletta makes sure that we the readers know that he is downright cozy with Gates, and the result is a semi-fawning piece that is peppered with variants on the phrase "Gates told me recently." Auletta's piece, much like Rivlin's book, posits itself as an examination of Gates' attempt to "upgrade" his public persona and company image. But while Auletta occasionally shreds Gates for his quirky behavior -- he mentions his twitchinesss, his arrogance, his brusqueness -- he ultimately paints Gates in sympathetic colors, showing how the "belligerent Gates ... transformed into a vulnerable adolescent."


Of course, while Auletta, Levy et al may appear to prostrate themselves at the Altar of Gates, Rivlin as an outsider seems to have a major chip on his shoulder about the whole celebration of Gates (If "The Plot" resembles anything, it's Michael Wolff's "Burn Rate" -- to which Rivlin devotes several pages and from which he seems to have contracted a bitterly critical tone). Auletta and Levy may have more inside details about who Gates really is, but as snarky meta-journalism "The Plot to Get Bill Gates" makes for more interesting reading. And as a barometer of Gates Zeitgeist, it's probably a pretty accurate prediction of the coverage and the plots and envy that we should continue to expect to witness -- as long as Gates reigns supreme.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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