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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)

1.

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 in 1994, its “vision” of the future might already seem seriously out of date, much like that of a book about Europe written just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Through 1993 and 1994, computer industry analysts were deeply interested in the likely convergence of the video-game, computer, and cable-TV industries. Video-game machines, from companies like Nintendo, Sega, Atari, and 3DO, are present in far more households in America than are personal computers. Although Bill Gates’s Microsoft has become the best-known corporate name of the computer era, the Nintendo Corporation, of Japan, was in the early 1990s earning annual profits comparable to Microsoft’s by selling arcade-style games like Donkey Kong and the machines to play them on.1 Video-game machines are cheaper than personal computers and much faster at certain specialized functions, especially producing rapidly changing graphic displays.

Therefore, people who had a “vision” about the future of computing two or three years ago often speculated that the “set-top box”—essentially a combination of a video-game machine and a cable-TV controller, which sits on top of a household TV—might challenge or even displace the personal computer as the high-volume product of the electronic age. According to this view, the information that people wanted would come to their homes along existing cable-TV lines, which can carry vastly more data than ordinary phone lines can. People would sit in front of their TVs and choose various information offerings, much as they now channel-surf. An improved version of the remote controls for today’s TVs, equipped with a keypad, would allow people to send commands to the set-top box, providing a limited degree of “interactivity.”

Very few people put much emphasis on this possibility any more. During the last year the technical and financial excitement of computing has all concerned “the Net” and “the Web.” “The Net” is, of course, the shorthand term for the Internet, which was originally a scheme sponsored by the Defense Department to link its labs with American universities in an ingenious and robust way. Instead of connecting computers in a hierarchical, trunk-and-branch fashion, comparable to a city’s electric or water-supply network, the Internet ties computers together in an entirely decentralized system, analogous to a grid of streets crisscrossing a city. As a message leaves a computer in, say, Boston, bound for another one in Seattle, it is broken into a series of small “packets” of several characters apiece. Each packet is sent along the route of interconnected computers that is, at the instant of its dispatch, less crowded than any other path. At the receiving end, the packets, which may have come by completely different paths, are reassembled into a complete message.

During the cold war the great advantage of this approach was that it made the Internet virtually indestructible, even by an atomic blast. An electric network can be knocked out if you destroy its central station, but in principle the Internet could simply send messages on new paths if some of its nodes were destroyed. The same design concept now makes the Internet surprisingly “scalable”—able to absorb dramatically increasing traffic without becoming frozen by its version of gridlock. Still, the last year’s increase in traffic has been so tremendous that using the Internet now requires great patience. After learning the commands and protocols necessary to make connection with the Internet, after determining which Internet sites they might want to visit, and after typing in the proper site addresses, which are known as “URLs” (“uniform resource locators”) and which usually begin with the obscure code “http://www.,” most users still have to twiddle their thumbs and stare at the computer screen as they wait for data and images to rumble across the overburdened phone lines.

The Web” is shorthand for the World Wide Web, a system allowing users to move from one Internet site to another and to inspect the information that is available there without remembering complicated commands and protocols. The Macintosh computer, applying concepts developed by Xerox, greatly simplified computing a decade ago by substituting a little picture of a disk-drive or a printer for the more complex commands that were necessary to work those devices. The sudden popularity of the Web has had a similar streamlining effect. While using a Web “browser,” a software program such as Netscape or Mosaic, you can inspect the information available at different sites—for instance, the full text of all pending legislation at the Library of Congress’s Web site, called Thomas, or a catalog of paintings held by the Louvre. To get an idea of where, among the world’s Web sites, which are increasing by many thousands per week, the information you want might be, you rely on specialized search programs like Yahoo and Webcrawler, which attempt to keep a current master list of Web sites.

When a person or a company sets up a “home page,” or Web site, it uses the Web’s “HTML,” or Hyper-Text Mark-up Language, to link information together in ways that might be interesting to the user. The Atlantic Monthly’s Web site, for instance, posts articles from its current issue—but includes links to related reference material. If you read an article about abortion, one link would take you to the original text of the Roe v. Wade decision, which is, for computer use, physically stored on a law school computer at Case Western Reserve, and another might take you to magazine articles on the subject from the 1920s. The concept of such “hypertext” links is not revolutionary—the physicist Vannevar Bush described it in his article “As We May Think” fifty years ago—but they have caught on in practice only in the last two years.

At the moment, many people and companies experiment with the Web more because it’s a novelty than for immediate practical benefit. The different ways of finding the information you may need remain limited. Web-based shopping experiments have generally proven disastrous, since people find it easier and more satisfying to call a 1-800 number if they don’t want to go to the store. The whole system can seem a nightmarish extension of cable TV: five million channels, but not much one wants to see. In interviews Bill Gates has scoffed at some of the current euphoria surrounding the Internet. An idea that would sound stupid on its own, he says, suddenly becomes attractive if the words “for the Internet” are tacked on. In his book he envisions a broader, all-embracing data network that will use wireless communications to transmit information to devices much smaller and more portable than even the most miniature of today’s portable computers. Which aspects of the Web will eventually prove most useful, popular, and profitable will not be clear for years. Nonetheless it already seems evident that the last year’s developments in networked computing will have a significant effect on the way we use computers in the future.

This brings us back to the “vision” of Bill Gates’s new book. When Gates signed the contract to write The Road Ahead two years ago, very few people foresaw how radically the Internet would be changing the computer business by 1995. Those prescient few probably did not include Gates; through 1994 and 1995, as talk about the Net became more and more dominant in the industry, Microsoft was slower than Sun, Netscape, and arguably even stodgy IBM in shifting its emphasis to Internet products. (Through the fall of last year, IBM’s chairman, Louis V. Gerstner, was giving speeches that increasingly stressed IBM’s commitment to a nework-related approach. Gates gave a similar news conference in December.) Therefore, whatever Gates may have had in mind in 1993 as a vision for computing has probably been under reconsideration as well.

Still, Gates’s account of the different phases of his career during the last twenty years gives his book some coherence. During the first half-dozen years of Microsoft’s existence, in the mid- and late 1970s, personal computers (then called “microcomputers”) were a hobbyist’s oddity. Through the next dozen years, from the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer in 1981 and Apple’s Macintosh in 1984 to around the beginning of the Clinton administration in 1993, personal computers began to be like cars. They were simultaneously a mass commodity; a source of shared lore and experience; an opportunity for tinkering and status competition primarily among men; a means of speeding up the operations of countless other industrial processes, from the lay-out of magazine pages to the handling of bank transactions; and a major industry in their own right. The stadium where the San Francisco Giants and 49ers play, née Candlestick Park, was recently renamed 3Com Park, after a company that supplies components for computer networks. Traditionalists complained about the shameless commercialization of sports. But that trend has been underway for decades. The real significance of the change was to show that computer companies were joining the makers of beer, cigarettes, soft drinks, and automobiles in wanting name-brand recognition with the mass public.

  1. 1

    See my article on Game Over, David Sheff’s book about Nintendo, The New York Review, March 24, 1994.

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