UK: The rise of a computer whizz-kid.

UK: The rise of a computer whizz-kid. - Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire. By James Wallace and Jim Erickson. Wiley; 426pp; £14.95. Review by Malcolm Wheatley.

by Malcolm Wheatley.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire. By James Wallace and Jim Erickson. Wiley; 426pp; £14.95. Review by Malcolm Wheatley.

This book is likely to sell like hot cakes irrespective of how it is reviewed. The target readership is clearly defined, consisting of those who, while quite possibly indifferent to computers or software, care very much about the fact that it is possible to become the richest person in the US at the age of 36.

They are presented with a reassuring picture. Sure, it helps to be smart - Gates scored a perfect 800 in his pre-entry Harvard maths test - but what really counts is honest hard work, American-style.

The book heaves with reminiscences of Gates and Co slaving away through the nights and weekends. Sleep was grabbed slumped over a terminal, nutritional needs satisfied with a takeaway pizza, the remains of which would still be on their T-shirts in the morning - when they met with IBM or an-other to do a million-dollar deal.

There's an enormous amount of detail, and lots of quotations from a cast of hundreds of spear carriers. There's even a section on the cars that Gates has owned and the speeding tickets he has collected, adding another dimension to the book's title. Gates's first paid employment in computing came at the age of 13 when he worked for a Seattle software house, locating bugs in its computer operating system. Two years later, he and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen won a contract to develop a payroll system. A year after that, the two formed a company to produce software for analysing traffic flows.

In 1975, by then aged 19, Gates saw a window of opportunity in the fast evolving microprocessor business. He dropped out of Harvard to write and market the language software that would turn these powerful but autistic chips into real computers. Half of the book is devoted to the subsequent growth of the nascent Microsoft through to 1981, project by project, crisis by crisis.

Languages such as BASIC and FORTRAN were the company's speciality. At first Gates turned down IBM's request to develop a PC operating system, referring Big Blue to a competitor instead. When the competitor proved unwilling to do things IBM's way, Gates picked up the job himself. Knowing of a suitable operating system already developed by another Seattle company, he simply bought it for $50,000 and refined it to meet IBM's needs. This was possibly the best $50,000 investment ever made, since it continues to bring in millions of dollars in revenue year after year. The MS-DOS used by virtually all the world's PCs is a descendant of that purchase.

Not until 1982 did Microsoft begin developing the PC applications software, spreadsheets and word-processing programs and so on that have since become the main part of its business.

It has taken a decade to achieve the dominance in this area that the company already possessed elsewhere, and the authors' chronicle of rushed development programmes, skimped tests and missed launch dates goes far to explain why. But by systematically correcting these faults it has been able to overtake competitors such as WordPerfect and Lotus, and collect the accolades that it gets today.

Wallace and Erickson make no bones about the fact that their book was put together without the co-operation of Microsoft. Indeed they tell several tales dating from the early '80s that the company would doubtless have preferred to be kept quiet. For example, DOS 2.0 was allegedly written in order to cause Lotus 123 to break down when loaded, and thereby improve the chances for Microsoft's own spreadsheet. Gates may also be less than thrilled by the passages touching on his own scant regard for personal hygiene.

The authors and publisher know full well that this sort of fluff helps to sells books. Unfortunately the effect is overdone. While interesting enough to begin with, the unremitting tittle-tattle soon becomes wearisome. It's an almost inevitable consequence of having your quotable sources restricted to former (and, therefore, often disaffected) employees. Criticism of the company would have been more effective if presented in a more balanced manner.

Hard Drive is long on minutiae but short on analysis. It is, however, a compelling story.

Malcolm Wheatley is a consultant and writer.

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