Bill Gates recently produced a documentary series about himself called “Inside Bill’s Brain” on Netflix. Predictably it was self aggrandizing propaganda. But it reminded me that I had bought a few books about the tech overlords who now rule us and, as I was laid up after a procedure for a while, it was a good time as any to dig in.
Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire
by James Wallace, Jim Erickson
This is a highly recommended biography of the man behind the corporate juggernaut Microsoft, a company that found a way to lease the only essential program needed to run a computer to nearly every user in the world. In 1976 and 1980, Congress allowed the copyrighting of software and this law is how Gates became the richest man alive. Gates owned DOS and later Windows, which because of cheap IBM clones became the standard. Therefore anyone who made software had to pay the Microsoft toll to get on Windows or DOS. Microsoft also made applications. Hmm I wonder if owning the platform they would run on would give them a competitive advantage? Of course it did, that’s why they destroyed WordPerfect with Microsoft Word, VisiCalc and Lotus 123 with Microsoft Excel, and on and on. Yet somehow they were never broken up. They most famously destroyed Netscape by including a free web browser with Windows.
So what’s in Bill’s brain according to authors Wallace, Erickson and Paul Allen biographer Laura Rich? One word: greed. He is one of the greediest businessmen in history and that’s saying something. But what’s inside Bill’s brain is not the focus of the story or at all the most interesting part. The rise of the PC and software industry is.
For anyone who enjoyed the documentary “Triumph of the Nerds” you will really enjoy this book. Meticulously researched and written like a novel, it’s a real page turner. The authors manage to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. The story of how Microsoft came to be is fascinating. The reason why Bill Gates and Paul Allen got there first was simply because it was their hobby at the perfect time. Once they realized that there hobby could make money (and a fuckton of it), they jumped at the chance.
Bill Gates, being a silver spoon fed rich kid, didn’t ever have to worry about putting food on the table so he could go all in and move to whatever town was at the epicenter of the PC. In the beginning it was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His parents had the connections, his partner Paul Allen had the idea and programming expertise, and Bill had the drive to destroy competitors and become a king. He wasn’t interested in girls, he wasn’t interested in booze or fun. He was interested in winning. There really is little to admire about him, except maybe his work ethic and business know-how. But being a workaholic is really seen more as a vice, not a virtue. He forced everyone around him to work 12-14 hour days or even to just live in their office as he did. Just so he could destroy so-so potential competitor.
The book was written before Gates became a media darling philanthropist. It ends when he was at his height around the release of Windows 95. But Gates philanthropy is a smokescreen. For all he’s donated, he’s still at the top of the billionaires club. His investments make him so much money that he can give away billions and still make it all back. There’s Bill Gates – the image he made for himself and then there’s the real Bill Gates – the evil, manipulative bully who got lucky.
5 anti-trust lawsuits outta 5
And then there’s his former partner…
THE ACCIDENTAL ZILLIONAIRE
Demystifying Paul Allen
By Laura Rich
A shorter book about a less interesting career, Rich’s “Zillionaire” actually takes a lot of it’s info about the early days of Microsoft from “Hard Drive.” But unlike that book, this is not about the history of Microsoft. This is an exposé on the hard to pin down co-founder and then mysterious venture capitalist cable tycoon, Paul Allen. This is a story about a wasted life and wasted potential. Other than one moment of brilliance, Paul Allen never amounted to much despite being one of the richest men alive. Allen is now dead from cancer. His moment was when he saw an issue of Popular Electronics magazine with a photo of the Altair 8800 (the first PC) on the cover. He knew that the day had finally come. No more would hobbyists or businesses have to deal with room-size mainframes the way he and Gates did in high school. This was the moment when the PC revolution began and that PC would need a programming language. He knew that whomever got their first would get the prize.
Both Allen and Gates worked on this first version of BASIC, but it was Allen who was the lead and one who flew to Albuquerque alone to run it on the Altair for the first time. He finished writing the code by hand on a napkin on the flight down. And it worked. He couldn’t believe that it did, and the Microsoft Empire was born.
Allen was much better liked by early MS employees than the slovenly Gates would often didn’t shower and enjoyed yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs. Gates was a spoiled little prince but Allen grew up middle class and had a little more… well class. But he left MS after only eight years due to his cancer diagnosis and the brutal workload imposed by Gates and never came back. Once Microsoft went public he became richer than God and as a result he changed.
Allen dedicated the rest of his life to luxury and decadence, building the biggest yachts on Earth and throwing parties that were compared to the days of Roman Emperors. He threw his money at failing business after failing business, losing billions. The one post-Microsoft Empire he managed to build was Charter Communications, but even they ended up being a loss in the end. He called himself “The Idea Man” but he only had one really good idea. Nothing he ever did compared to his prescience about the PC industry. Like Gates, he completely missed the internet boat.
I found it a bit sickening that his obituaries praised him for putting so much money into his sports teams and into his hometown of Seattle. He did it serve himself and never protested that he didn’t. If others benefited from his lavish spending it was by accident. There really is nothing to admire about Paul Allen. At least Bill Gates had a photographic memory and naturally high intelligence. Allen could have done something amazing with this king-like wealth, but now it’s in the hands of his sister and her descendants, so just another worthless dynasty.
That said, this book was also a fun read, but it’s more of a personality profile or exposé, less of a history book.
4 super yachts outta 5