To: billg@microsoft.com

From: agunn@seattleweekly.com

Re: vacation reading list

I HEAR YOU'RE THE kind of guy who not only reads business and science texts on vacation,

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Dear Bill

What you should be reading this summer.

To: billg@microsoft.com

From: agunn@seattleweekly.com

Re: vacation reading list

I HEAR YOU'RE THE kind of guy who not only reads business and science texts on vacation, but you actually read the stuff writers write about you. Moreover, I also hear that many people are completely obsessed with your every movement and action, no matter how personal or private. So, in order to increase readership for my roundup of tech-related books, I propose the following: I, Angela, will tell you, Bill, about the books you will find most personally significant—a Bill-centric view of important tomes from the past few months. After all, it seems like every tech book around drops your name—it can't be easy to keep up. I figure all those other people, eager to see what The Gates has on his nightstand, will read the article to say they're in tune with you, or ahead of you, or whatever. Sound good?

Since I also know from my reading that you like hedging your bets, I'll present these books two-by-two, head-to-head by category. That's taxonomy in action, Bill, and you know how those kids at Yahoo made taxonomy pay off. (Besides, the head-to-head clash thing will give you that sensation of being in a Redmond staff meeting—can't let these vacations unwind a guy too far, you know.) So without further ado:

All Business:

aol.com vs. How the Web Was Won.

Kara Swisher writes for the Wall Street Journal. Paul Andrews writes for the Seattle Times. They have, respectively, brought forth tomes on how America Online and Microsoft clawed their way to the top of the steaming Internet heap, where they currently stand tusk-to-tusk.

aol.com was originally released last year, though Swisher has updated the paperback edition to include details of AOL's Netscape acquisition. She's writing a sweeping history here, sort of—beginning with a well-drawn portrait of Bill Von Meister, whose embryonic company Steve Case built into AOL, then skimming to 1992, when your buddy Paul Allen started scarfing AOL shares, and picking up the business end of the story from there.

Andrews, on the other hand, already wrote you up at length in '93 (Gates). How the Web Was Won focuses on a relatively brief span of Microsoft history—the 1990s, when the Internet snuck up on you. Don't deny it, Bill! Sure, Andrews shows the groundwork being laid when you hired wunderkind J Allard in '91, but his meticulous research clearly indicates that the fire was not sufficiently hot beneath you until at least '93. How you got from there to here in six years is the stuff business books are made of, so Andrews made one.

aol.com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web

by Kara Swisher. Times Business/ Random House, 1998, 1999. 367pp. $25

How the Web Was Won: Microsoft from Windows to the Web—The Inside Story of How Bill Gates and His Band of Internet Idealists Transformed a Software Empire

by Paul Andrews. Broadway Books, 1999. 352pp. $27.50

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 Business/ Random House, 1999. 360pp. $25

Infinite Loop: How Apple, the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company, Went Insane

by Michael S. Malone. Currency/ Doubleday, 1999. 597pp. $27.50

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

by Michael Hiltzik. HarperBusiness, 1999. 448pp. $26

The Visionary Position: The Inside Story of the Digital Dreamers Who Are Making Virtual Reality a Reality

by Fred Moody. Times Business/ Random House, 1999. 353pp. $27.95

The Meme Machine

by Susan Blackmore. Oxford University Press, 1999. 264pp. $25

My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World

by Julian Dibbell. Owl/Henry Holt & Co., 1998. 336pp. $14.95

These are solid business texts, well researched and meaty with executive-type detail; clearly both writers had excellent access to their subjects. And reading them in tandem was fascinating. In many cases, I saw the very same meetings and occurrences from two very different points of view. If these become standard business-school texts, they ought to be bound together.

However, I wish that both authors had been able to step away from texts that become, essentially, apologia for Microsoft and AOL. Swisher's book was particularly disconcerting, with little discussion allotted to AOL's death-march style of content development or the effect of the company's Virginia isolation from incestuous, rumor-driven Silicon Valley. (I found myself wondering whether Swisher was writing about the same service I've been covering since 1990—not because her facts were wrong per se, but because of her insider slant on a company that has been notoriously closed to journalists.) However, she redeems herself late in the book, discussing legislation such as the Communications Decency Act and AOL's resultant PR trial by fire. And her honest depiction of AOL's many belly flops off the diving board gives the story an underdog vibe, though one wonders whether a company so prone to tripping over its own feet didn't really just stumble into success. Swisher says not. I wish she'd said why not.

Andrews, meanwhile, is in the uncomfortable position of writing about a reigning Sun King. (I know, Bill, you don't see it that way. Still.) The Microsoft mutation to Net-savviness seems oddly fluid and boneless—a few sprightly discussions, a little soul searching, and presto! Net liftoff! Of course, you weren't exactly an underfunded start-up in the '90s, but How the Web Was Won doesn't take me there. I am told that Microsoft was a massive beast, and I meet the top brass who altered its course, but I have no sense of what it takes to make an entire company execute the brass' vision so swiftly. That was the unique story, and I wish it had been told—that Andrews had walked out of the executive suites and into the cubicles. (And he, too, could have given much more room to discussion of Microsoft's content initiatives—certainly an area where Microsoft can't be declared a winner.)

But let's cut to the chase—how early do you, Bill Gates, appear in these books? Software mogul, two lines, no waiting—you're on the cover of both books. That's gotta smoke Steve Case's hide!

On the cover, Bill! You'll save money on bookplates, and I've heard how thrifty you are—not from these books, but from . . .

Deep Dish:

The Plot to Get Bill Gates vs. Infinite Loop.

Like Sinatra said, here's to the losers. They certainly make for livelier reading.

Now you may be asking yourself: how can a book about me, Bill Gates, be about losing? But The Plot to Get Bill Gates is about you as seen through others' eyes. Envious others. Dishy others. Others with long, long memories. Exactly the kind of people folks want whispering in their ears about your quirks and foibles, not to mention your money.

Gary Rivlin has less technical savvy than either Swisher or Andrews, but he knows from conflict—his 1995 book Drive-By, which examined the ruinous effects of an Oakland drive-by shooting on the four families involved, was riveting. Turf wars and random acts of violence are excellent preparation for covering the loose coalition of industry players out to get you, Bill; Ray Noorda (Novell), Scott McNealy (Sun), Larry Ellison (Oracle), even Ralph Nader show up in The Plot, all with axes to grind. And Bill-watchers will adore this book. All the dish about your personality makeovers, your eating habits (Burgermaster? Hermano!) and resultant weight gain, your extravagances and your penny-pinching (coupons play a major role in your budget), your teary-eyed reactions when the Department of Justice started poking you with sticks—that, Bill, is the stuff that beach reading is made of.

Infinite Loop, meanwhile, is about beautiful losers—Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and all those other funksters who contributed to the rise and fall of Apple Computing. If you enjoyed Pirates of Silicon Valley (and if you didn't, you should have, Bill; you came out looking relatively good), this is 597 pages of bigger, longer, and uncut. And where the movie ended with Jobs' first expulsion from Eden, this tome takes us right up to the iMac, and plenty of bodies fall along the way. Subterfuge! Politics! Bad management! Bad code! Bad grooming! Feckless idealism! Reckless spending! Egos bigger than your house!

First BG reference? The Plot to Get Bill Gates, right on the cover; Infinite Loop, page viii (the introduction). But really, Bill, this kind of brain candy ought to be beneath you. I understand from The Plot to Get Bill Gates that you like to take an occasional Think Week to get your head around Big Thoughts, and these two are a little lightweight for that. You ought to be wrapping your brain around the vision thing, around . . .

The Past, The Future:

Dealers of Lightning vs. The Visionary Position.

Now, here's the kind of thing you can wade into without feeling like you, Bill, are attending a class reunion gone bad. Michael Hiltzik attends to the ghosts of the past in Dealers of Lightning, a gripping tale of the legendary Xerox PARC (birthplace, in myth if not in fact, of the concepts ruling both the Mac and Windows). Meanwhile, the Weekly's own Fred Moody looks into the virtual-reality future-that-might-yet-be in The Visionary Position, which follows the industry's fabled dandelion effect as a group of VR pioneers set forth from UW's Human Interface Technology Laboratory into the cold, cruel world of Seattle start-up culture.

(For the record, Fred is my editor here at the Weekly, but frankly, he can't get me to turn my articles in on time, much less say anything I don't want to. I'm sure you understand how it is with slipping ship dates, right, Bill?)

These are also both lively reads, with nice balance between tech observations and insights into the personalities on the scene. Hiltzik's book is a real treat, since Xerox PARC is the Camelot of the computer industry—oft-invoked in legend but not part of the current political landscape. A great many of the PARC players have retired or drastically changed careers, which gives this fine (if slightly overlong) history a thoughtful, elegiac tone.

Moody, meanwhile, seems to have unearthed a colony of enfants terribles—a raucous group of characters providing bone-jarring quotes and anecdotes, not to mention a couple of mental images I'd personally pay to have excised from my mind's eye. Most of his players are still industry figures, if not the revolutionaries they dreamed of becoming; they speak in the hyperactive, excitable voices of people still in the game. If VR ever takes off on a recognizable trajectory, it'll be interesting to revisit this book and see how these brilliant, fractious folk fit into the saga; as it stands, it's an elegant story about inelegant folk, and a great deal of fun. First BG reference? The Visionary Position, page xv (first page of intro); Dealers of Lightning, page xvi (introductory time line).

But Bill, why limit yourself to histories? I have two last books for you. They may just jar you into really Big Thoughts about . . .

The Ghosts In The Machine:

The Meme Machine vs. My Tiny Life .

Susan Blackmore spent a quarter-century pursuing the paranormal and contemplating the meaning of life. After much thought, she arrived at the classic activists' bromide: you can kill a person, but you can't kill an idea. The Meme Machine puts forth the thought that all we humans are is walking, breathing, replicating carriers for virus-like fragments of cultural data—memes. (The song "Happy Birthday" is a meme. The peace sign is a meme. The word "meme" is a meme.) Memes replicate like genes—survival of the fittest, mutation, and so forth—and humans are but their vectors of transmission. Over time, memes have evolved us into having bigger brains, speech capabilities, concepts of personal identity, and so forth—all to ensure the continued propagation of memes. In other words, Bill, you only think you have thoughts, Big or small; really we're all just a bunch of idea-hauling meat. They're not even "our" ideas. They belong only to themselves.

Julian Dibbell almost reached the same conclusion, but he swerved into another lane. His tale of life in the chatworld/shared hallucination of LambdaMOO is beautifully written, and the questions he raises about responsibility and community resonate long past his relatively brief MOO experience in 1994. With no soapbox in sight, he makes a case that virtual lives and identities are as compelling and real as those in RL (real life)—maybe even more so, since he left LambdaMOO when the intensity of his virtual life threatened to knock his real one off the rails. When I picked up My Tiny Life I remembered what I found so mesmerizing about chat and Usenet discussions years ago. By the time I finished it, I was back on both. This is a beautiful, provocative, dangerous book, and I'm going to regret having read it when I re-emerge from my virtual haze and it's September 2006.

Both books are about the absolute primacy of ideas. The Meme Machine claims that our physical entities are merely the devices by which ideas replicate. My Tiny Life suggests that maybe those physical entities aren't necessary for that replication—but that they do make the process worthwhile.

And best of all, Bill—if either book mentions you, I sure didn't notice. How's that Big Thought for you?

 
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