Books on greed and madness

Introduction

In order of literary interest, books about business and books about computers rank pretty low in most people’s reading wish list. While I wouldn’t want to pack a book about management or a volume on JavaScript in my holiday suitcase, Mac bookworms are advised to check out a couple of recent computer-business books. Sure The Plot to Get Bill Gates is hardly Fred West’s House of Horrors, but there is a belly full of bile and rancour in many of ghastly stories aplenty here. Author Gary Rivlin calls this book “An irreverent investigation of the world’s richest man… and the people who hate him”. As such, it lists many Windows war crimes, while probing the motives of those who attack Microsoft’s ruthless CEO. Rivlin essentially follows industry analyst Esther Dyson’s point that: “What people think of Bill tells you more about them than it does about him”. So alongside a (very) long list of Bill beastliness, we get fascinating insights into Oracle’s colourful Larry Ellison (“a master of the ill-conceived remark” and “a really bright sociopath”), Sun’s Scott McNealy (the “illiterate genius”; “a sports nut, a drinker, and a total ****-off”), and Novell’s Ray Noorda, who crippled Novell in his anti-Gates crusade, and once said: “To have a heart-to-heart with Bill, you have to have two hearts”. Ouch! If you want more personal ammo on Gates, this is also the place to get it: Bill has got fat on a life’s diet of cheeseburgers, has suffered from dandruff, and fidgets, twitches and “bounces like a teenager”. Our thirst for such juice stems from a global case of Bill-envy. And, who can blame us? According to Rivlin, if Microsoft stock continued its current rate of growth, Gates would own everything by the year 2020 – all the world’s real estate, every share of stock, and the assets of every bank. But we, as much as Larry and Scott, should remember Nietzsche’s warning to “be careful who you choose as your enemy, because that’s who you become most like”. Despite Microsoft’s championing of the Mac in its early days, and excellent software ever since (except Word 6, of course), Gates gets it in the neck quite unfairly from most Mac fans. It’s about time we gave up this Bill bashing – after all, it was he who advised Apple to license the Mac OS. It’s not his fault that Apple was then run by a bunch of un-Bill-like bozos. Even if Bill is “the company’s mascot – a sort of high-tech Colonel Saunders”, remember the legion of dead competitors: “Gates wasn’t a visionary who saw the future so much as a gambler who bet on every horse entered in the race,” writes Rivlin. Bill vs Steve
“Every age gets the icon it deserves” states Rivlin of Gates. Imagine our age, then, if Steve Jobs was our icon? While Gates binges on burgers, Steve is a vegan. While Gates can’t stop making billions, Steve earns just $1 a year as Apple boss and owns just one share – though, he gets 50 times that amount from his other company, Pixar. It’s certainly not the case that Steve was no match for Bill. In fact, the two are probably closer than either would like to admit. The parallels run deep. Bill’s hissy fits at incompetent engineers easily match Steve’s when it comes to bawling out employees – “motivation through fear-based bullying”. It even seems likely that Bill dropped acid around the same time that Steve is alleged to have done so. The reason our age’s icon is Bill, and not Steve, has as much to do with Apple throwing away its advantage as with Microsoft’s allegedly illegal business practices. There’s been a spate of well-researched books on exactly how Apple lost the plot. And the latest, Infinite Loop by Michael S Malone, is a worthy addition to the canon. Malone sets out to show: “How Apple, the world’s most insanely great computer company, went insane”. And while most of the madness happened after Steve was fired in 1985, the seeds were certainly sown in his first tempestuous tenure. The central addition to our learning is Malone’s debunking of the great Xerox PARC myth. Legend has it that Steve walked into Xerox’s research centre, and – after seeing cool computing innovations, such as the mouse and windows-based graphical user interface – started Apple on the road to the Mac. Truth is, Malone argues, that it was Apple employee Jeff Raskin – author of a 1967 thesis on computer displays based on graphics rather than characters – who took the Lisa development team to PARC before Jobs’ visit. Before seeing the light, Jobs even described Raskin’s Mac project as “the dumbest idea” he’d ever heard of. After Jobs, there’s plenty for Malone to get his teeth into: the Newton, efforts to sell Apple to the highest bidder, PowerPC negotiations, OS flops, financial disasters, three more CEOs to get the boot… Did you know that Apple had the chance to buy Compaq for just $100 million in 1984? That Jobs and Wozniak invented the seminal computer game Breakout at Atari? Unlike the earlier books, Malone manages to squeeze in the story’s happy ending, with the successful launch of the iMac and first quarterly profit – making this book the definitive history of Apple to date (even if that date’s October 1998). Infinite Loop is highly entertaining reading. The titular Loop is Apple’s Cupertino HQ’s address, but it might just as well be Steve’s corporate return to save his creation from a fairly certain death.
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