Gary Rivlin on Bill Gates -- 'hypermisdirected'?

July 04, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | By Mark Ribbing,Sun Staff

"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 Books. 360 pages. $25.

Bill Gates is not merely the richest person alive; he's also just about the most unavoidable.

His colossal software company, Microsoft Corp., furnishes the operating systems of most of the world's personal computers. His bland, bespectacled face has adorned innumerable magazine covers.

His every action, whether it's building a $60 million mansion or getting hauled into court by the federal government, is parsed and pilloried in Web sites and newspaper articles around the globe.

As if all of this exposure were not enough, here comes a book -- not the first and surely not the last -- profiling Gates and his many foes.

To author Gary Rivlin, Gates is the paragon of our times: "Every age, it is said, gets the icons it deserves," Rivlin writes. "The money-drenched, harried 1990s ... demanded a workaholic, unrepentant overachiever worth in the tens of billions of dollars."

This is among the gentlest digs Rivlin takes at his protagonist. Throughout the book, Gates comes off as a backstabber, a graceless social misfit, and an unfeeling corporate generalissimo who cares for nothing outside the utilitarian worlds of technology and commerce.

The descriptions are at times quite vivid, such as this snapshot of Gates holding court at an industry conference: "He stands twisted like a corkscrew, one arm wrapped around his midsection as if reaching for an itch on his back he can't quite scratch, the other arm flying spastically into the air, head tilted to one side, mouth working."

Rivlin's sharp eye for such physical detail is matched by his ear for the spin and gibberish that permeate the software industry. Gates refers to his world-beating company as "the total underdog." His ingenious young imitators sling around adjectives like "ultragreat" and "hypermisdirected." The future of human communications lies in indifferent hands.

The author attacks the popular assumption that Microsoft has gotten ahead on its technical brilliance. To the contrary, Microsoft's software is condemned as "sloppy, bloated" work intended more for quick distribution than for customer satisfaction.

Unfortunately, this criticism all too aptly describes Rivlin's book. From its uninspired title to its aimless conclusion, "The Plot to Get Bill Gates" has a hasty, half-built quality that undermines Rivlin's acute observations.

The narrative is poorly organized. Themes pop up, vanish and reappear with little regard for clarity or dramatic tension. This is frustrating, because Gates is a rich subject in more ways than one.

Perhaps Rivlin and his publisher simply rushed this book to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Microsoft antitrust trial. That might explain, though hardly excuse, nonsensical pronouncements such as "Those who could, abandoned the company -- if they hadn't already."

Even sentences unsullied by such head-scratchers frequently bog down in bad construction: "To read the charges the government has filed against Microsoft is to learn that the government believes Microsoft is in violation of the 'essential facilities doctrine." To read this book is to wonder what ever happened to good editing.

Mark Ribbing has covered the telecommunications industry for The Sun since 1997. Before that, he was a staff writer and attorney for the Lehman Communications Corp. newspaper chain in Colorado.

Pub Date: 07/04/99

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