Two looks at the 'who' of cyberdom

October 25, 1998|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,SUN STAFF

Browse the technology shelves of any decent bookstore and you'll realize that the computer revolution has spawned a new and unexpectedly large niche in the publishing industry - books that are supposed to explain how all this stuff works.

Hardly a week goes by without the appearance of titles that purport to unravel the mysteries of Microsoft Word, Netscape Navigator, or some other impenetrable piece of software. You can fill a book case with volumes that insist you're a "Dummy" who can't understand anything more complicated than turning on a light bulb, and another shelf or two with books that tell you how to make a fortune on the World Wide Web (trust me, if anyone has really figured out how to do this, they're not telling the rest of us).

If you really need one of these books, spend some time and read a chapter or two before you buy. If it doesn't make sense the first time around, things aren't likely to improve with rereading.

For readers more interested in "who" than "how to," the computer industry has yielded more than its share of instant millionaires who turned themselves into cultural icons through a mixture of brains, marketing skill, good luck and in some cases, pure avarice. Some of these heroes are has-beens by the time a book gets to press, but a few have persevered, - their tales often make for good reading if you want to understand how far technology has brought us and where we're heading.

If you already believe that Microsoft is the Evil Empire with Bill Gates as Darth Vader, you'll confirm your worst conspiracy theories in "The Microsoft File: The Secret Case Against Bill Gates" by Wendy Goldman Rohm (Times Books, 313 pages, $25.95).

If only a fraction of the allegations in this book are true - and many appear to be documented by Microsoft's own internal correspondence - the Justice Department has plenty of ammunition to fight the landmark antitrust case against Gates & Co. that got under way last week.

Rohm, a journalist who has covered technology for more than a decade, portrays Gates as a piranha in nerd's clothing, obsessed with dominating the software industry and our desktops at all costs.

Over the years, she argues, he used Microsoft's money and clout as owner of the world's most popular operating system to knock off competitors by stealing their technology, driving them from the market with predatory pricing, restrictive marketing agreements, and even downright dirty programming tricks designed to sabotage their software.

You'll read a lot of this in accounts of the trial, but Rohm asserts that Gates' attempts to dominate the industry actually date back to the late 1980s, with an obsessive effort to kill off DR-DOS, a competing operating system that was compatible with Microsoft's own MS-DOS.

By forcing computer makers to accept "per processor" licenses for MS-DOS, which meant they had to pay Microsoft a fee for every computer they made - regardless of what operating system they actually installed - Microsoft made it financially unattractive for manufacturers to use any other system.

Rohm alleges that Microsoft went so far as to insert code in the version of Windows 3.1 that went to thousands of testers that threatened a crash if it detected DR-DOS on the computer. It was a classic case of trashing the competition through the application of what later became known as the FUD factor - Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

Rohm adds names, dates, places and details to better-known details of Microsoft's activities - including some salacious and misplaced tidbits about Gates' sexual habits that have almost nothing to do with the rest of book. She rarely names sources, outside of company memos that were apparently obtained from Microsoft and government investigators - but she claims to have spent years interviewing officials at Microsoft, its competitors and computer manufacturers. "The Microsoft File" is rambling and poorly organized, making it hard to determine what's really important and what's merely titillating. But thanks to the wheels of justice, we'll get a chance to see just how much of it is true in the weeks ahead.

Of course, no one can be a winner all the time. Bill Gates occasionally loses, and by far his biggest defeat came at the hands of a quiet marketing genius named Steve Case, who turned America Online from a bit player in the world of cyberspace to its dominant force today.

Kara Swisher, a Wall Street Journal reporter who shadowed AOL's top executives for a year, tells the tale of this accidental empire in "" (Times Books, 320 pages, $25), whose apt subtitle is "How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads and Made Millions in the War for the Web."

Case was only a few years out of Williams College when his older brother, a venture capitalist, brought him into a little startup company called Control Video Corporation. Founded in 1982 by a colorful Washington-area entrepreneur named Bill Von Meister, CVC was going to make a fortune delivering video games by telephone.

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