Thursday, May 10, 2007

Barbarians Led by Bill Gates: Microsoft from the Inside (Jennifer Edstrom and Marlin Eller)

John Gruber wrote an interesting article back in 2004 on his Daring Fireball Web site about what he sees as a persistent and erroneous myth, namely that if Apple had only been willing to license its OS to PC makers, it could have become the industry-dominating giant that Microsoft eventually became—“an industry colossus sitting atop a Scrooge-McDuck-style mountain of gold.” He believes that this is unlikely for a number of reasons, but he also offers, as a theory about why Microsoft became so gigantically successful while Apple struggled through much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, that it came down to pragmatism vs. idealism. Microsoft, after convincing IBM to license MS-DOS, was able to build on that success with early versions of Windows (which, importantly, still ran DOS software and would still run on the same kinds of PCs that DOS did), and then able to build off of Windows with Microsoft Office. Microsoft wanted to dominate the PC software market, and particularly the OS market, so compatibility was key.

Apple, in contrast, had developed the hugely successful Apple II . . . and promptly abandoned it in favor of the Mac, which had nothing to do with the Apple II. The Mac was revolutionary—but anyone who wanted one also had to buy all new hardware and all new software, a not-insignificant obstacle. Rather than making the sound business decision of building off the Apple II, they wanted to make something insanely great.

To hear Jennifer Edstrom (daughter of former Microsoft PR rep Pam Edstrom) and Marlin Eller (a lead developer at Microsoft for over ten years) tell it in Barbarians Led by Bill Gates: Microsoft from the Inside, however, Microsoft practically stumbled into its monopoly on accident—almost in spite of its business strategies rather than because of them. Far from the clear-headed prescience often assigned to Gates, which would have him cackling as he talked IBM into handing over control of its OS and then relentlessly pushing forward with the ubiquitous Windows, Edstrom and Eller describe Windows as something of an ugly stepchild at Microsoft, a project seen as little more than a temporary stopgap product while they worked with IBM on a graphical OS/2, one that was almost wholly abandoned at least once, and one that Gates himself only saw as important after it was well on its way to monopoly status.

Although Microsoft might not have had deliberately and strategically built off of DOS the way Gruber implies, he and Edstrom and Eller certainly agree on one thing—by the time Windows rolled around, Microsoft was pragmatic to the core. Rarely do you hear anyone in the book talk about making a great product, something cool that people would like, or even something that they themselves would like, much less anything truly innovative. Everything they did was instead motivated by a competitor: in describing Microsoft’s floundering attempts to build sophisticated software to automate people’s homes—lights, music, heating, air conditioning, everything—Edstrom and Eller write, “No other major companies were working on it, and that was exactly the problem. Microsoft does best when it has a successful competitor it can copy and then crush.” Gates’s constant refrain throughout the original development of Windows was “Make it more like the Mac!”* And after devoting a lot of time and effort, during a brief craze for handwriting recognition technology instigated primarily by a company called GO, to developing an OS called Pen Windows, when Eller’s manager points out that it hasn’t really sold well and seems like a disaster, Eller tells him,

“Greg, look. This wasn’t a thing about making money. This was all about ‘Block that kick.’ We were on the special team. We were preventing GO from running away with the market. That was our job. . . . We weren’t trying to sell software, we were trying to prevent other people from selling software.

“From my view, Pen Windows was a winner. We shut down GO. They spent $75 million pumping up this market, we spent four million shooting them down. They’re toast. That company is dead. They won’t sell their shit anymore. We did our job.”

Barbarians is, unfortunately, plagued by strange decisions in the writing. They make occasional stabs at a misguided breeziness, referring to Microsoft as “the Soft,” and to Gates as “Field Marshal Gates” and (once, weirdly) “Supreme Techlord William Gates.” More significantly, although Eller is a coauthor, he is also described in the third person: Marlin Eller did this, Marlin Eller said that. They mention this in the introduction, and explain that the book had evolved beyond an autobiography when they wanted to include more varied material, but it still gives the book an oddly disingenuous feel—particularly since it seems that Eller’s colleagues and managers, and Gates himself, are always missing the big picture, pushing forward with unrealistic goals, and wrongheadedly refusing to listen to Eller’s invariably sensible ideas:

Myhrvold was just throwing out some random and utterly convoluted way of doing the same thing Eller was already going after on a much more direct path.

. . .

Plenty of developers resented Myhrvold. They were the ones who actually wrote the code and knew the nitty-gritty. . . . Myhrvold argued that you could design a new graphics architecture in only two weeks. People like Eller, who had personally spent three years developing graphics for Windows, knew better.

. . .

A long silence hung suspended between the two. Eller knew Gates had heard him. But Gates gazed off in the distance, seemingly oblivious to the Willits canoe, to the black and white stills of early Seattle settlers—and to Eller’s point.

“Uh huh,” Gates muttered.

In a first-person autobiography, it would be understood that the author is just presenting his own view of things. Here, though, the third-person narrative gives it the weight of journalistic objectivity, a weight it doesn’t always bear well. Still, Barbarians is a quick, interesting read on how one of the most dominant companies of the last quarter-century arrived in that position—full of fits and starts, fights, and accidents, and driven as much by internal politics and competitiveness as anything else.

__________
* A refrain he seems to have been keeping up during the development Windows Vista, as David Pogue points out in this tongue-in-cheek video for the New York Times Web site.

1 comment:

Paperback Writer said...

I agree, "Make it more like a Mac" I'm online here tonight using Sarah's new PC with Vista. It sure is pretty but it would be much cooler if it were more like a Mac. Especially enjoyed the link to the short baseball video.