Caught in the Web

The Road Ahead

by Bill Gates, with Nathan Myhrvold, by Peter Rinearson
Viking, 286 plus a CD-ROM pp., $29.95

Microserfs

by Douglas Coupland
Harper Collins, 371 pp., $21.00

Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway

by Clifford Stoll
Doubleday, 247 pp., $29.95

The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity

by Thomas K. Landauer
MIT Press/A Bradford Book, 425 pp., $27.50

I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year with Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier

by Fred Moody
Viking, 311 pp., $23.95

Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure Story

by Jerry Kaplan
Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp., $22.95

Microsoft Secrets: How the World’s Most Powerful Software Company Creates Technology, Shapes Markets, and Manages People

by Michael A. Cusumano, by Richard W. Selby
Free Press, 512 pp., $30.00

Road Warriors: Dreams and Nightmares Along the Information Highway

by Daniel Burstein, by David Kline
Dutton, 466 pp., $24.95

Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry—and Made Himself the Richest Man in America

by Stephen Manes, by Paul Andrews
Touchstone, 560 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The most effective aspect of Bill Gates’s new book is its cover. A wonderful photograph, taken by Annie Leibovitz, shows a friendly-looking and casually dressed Gates standing on an isolated highway somewhere in the West. With his crew-neck sweater and penny loafers, with his warm expression and relaxed pose, Gates looks like the brainy young nephew in whom a family reposes its future hopes. Behind him, toward a horizon of pastel blues and pinks, the highway stretches straight, promising much. The image recalls other American fantasies of the next frontier and the open road. The message is, of course, that the competent, unthreatening Gates will guide us toward the information frontier.

The book itself is a less artful attempt to convey the same message. Within the computer industry there has been some puzzlement about why Gates would want to write a book at all. The advance paid for The Road Ahead is reported to have been $2.5 million, but Gates is the rare author of a best-seller who could have made more money by sticking to his day job. Depending on the valuation of Microsoft stock, Gates’s fortune is said to be worth at least $10 billion, and perhaps significantly more. Gates is dividing his royalties with two co-writers, and has announced that he will give his share of the money to charity. (The collaborators are Nathan Myhrvold, a highly respected computer scientist at Microsoft, of which Gates is chairman, and Peter Rinearson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and software developer. For the record, Rinearson and I were friends and colleagues when we both were based in Japan.)

It seems unlikely that Gates’s primary motive in writing the book was to reveal the major insights he had developed in two decades of astonishing business success or to disclose his canniest ideas about future technologies and markets. (Gates, who turned forty last fall, was nineteen when he founded Microsoft with his partner Paul Allen in 1975.) The book seems meant mainly as a primer for people just beginning to be interested in the computer industry. Yet even on those limited terms it is puzzling, for the electronic landscape that Gates wants to describe has changed dramatically since the time he decided to write the book.

The Road Ahead was published just before Christmas 1995, but it had originally been scheduled to appear one year earlier. Gates observes sardonically in his foreword that writing a book turned out to be slower and more complicated than he had envisioned. “I innocently imagined writing a chapter would be the equivalent of writing a speech,” he says; but while he could crank speeches out easily at the office, “to complete the book I had to take time off and isolate myself in my summer cabin with my PC.”

In retrospect Gates may actually be grateful that writing the book proved to be so slow. The computer industry changed so much in 1995 that if The Road Ahead had appeared on schedule, late …

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Letters

The Trouble with Computers’ May 23, 1996