Heavy Fog On The I Way


By Bill Gates, with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson

Viking 286pp $29.95

When, in the spring of 1994, Bill Gates announced plans to write a book that would lay out his views on the Information Superhighway, it made news all over the world--not just because of the $2.5 million-plus advance, but because the work promised to provide a glimpse into the brain behind the billions. What did the entrepreneur who so adroitly rode the personal-computer revolution have in mind for the next great technology wave? In looking through the thicket of I-way technologies, business plans, and speculation, what had this great business executive concluded? What would Gates reveal about Microsoft Corp.'s own plans? And, given his amazing ability to quickly grasp emerging markets and business strategies--and sum them up in trenchant, brutally frank analyses--what might he say about the plans of others?

The Road Ahead, which arrived amid a barrage of Thanksgiving week publicity opportunities (Gates was on the cover of Newsweek and is scheduled to appear on everything from David Letterman and MTV to Nightline), doesn't come close to answering any of those questions. For starters, some 30% of the book is devoted to the road behind--the familiar history of Gates, Microsoft, and the PC revolution. Perhaps in tacit acknowledgement of its shortcomings, on the eve of publication, Microsoft execs were positioning the book as sort of an I-way primer. Sure, techno-savvy types may find little to sink their teeth into, the spinners said, but it's not for them: It's for the folks sitting on the sidelines--your mother, perhaps.

Certainly, The Road Ahead won't offend Mom--or anybody else. The final manuscript, which arrived 12 months behind schedule because of extensive rewrites, is credited to Gates, his resident technical guru, Nathan Myhrvold, and freelance writer Peter Rinearson. But it often reads like the product of a much larger committee. The book is so sanitized that even the descriptions of Microsoft's fractious partnership with IBM would pass muster with Big Blue's public-relations department. The tone throughout is breezy, well-modulated, and almost completely humorless. In other words, Gates's voice can scarcely be heard.

But the real disappointment of The Road Ahead is the way it obscures what Gates is really thinking. Instead of learning what's going on behind those egghead glasses, we get a very conventional recitation of what is by now very conventional wisdom.

Much of the book reads like a clip-job of recycled news and opinion: The I-way will bring sweeping changes to how we educate and amuse ourselves. It will replace old ways of doing business, squeezing out inefficient middlemen. High-speed networks will allow workers to leave urban areas and telecommute, perhaps even working in virtual corporations. None of this will happen overnight because we need high-speed communications, easy-to-use software, and compelling new "content." Deregulation will speed the process. In the meantime, the Internet is where the I-way is being built.

When the narrator does speak up, it is often to voice bland aphorisms: "Technology's role is to provide more flexibility and efficiency. Forward-looking business managers will have lots of opportunities to perform better in the years ahead." My favorite: "The information highway won't solve every problem, but it will be a positive force in many areas."

On rare occasions, Gates seems to take a stand but quickly cops out: "We believe...that using the PC/Internet market is the likeliest means of extending interactive TV and the highway. But similar arguments could be made in favor of other computer platforms or even home game machines." Remember, Microsoft still wants to sell software for "other computer platforms" such as cable-TV set-top boxes.

This is not to say that Gates uses the book to push an overt Microsoft agenda. Indeed, what makes The Road Ahead a weird read is the way it bends over backwards to avoid discussing any real products, companies, or I-way strategies. This produces a strangely distorted view of the state of the Information Revolution. Gates tends to cast most everything in an indistinct future despite the fact that in many instances, the new technology is either available now or soon will be. For example, in a chapter on the impact of information technology on business--a particularly disappointing one, given Microsoft's obvious expertise--Gates discusses functions such as online bill-paying, already used by thousands of Intuit customers, as if they were yet to be invented. Similarly, he describes as not yet here the document-sharing software that Intel Corp. and others have been selling for a year or more.

This isn't necessarily a conspiracy of silence: He ignores lots of Microsoft technology, too. The idea may be to portray even more dramatic changes on the horizon, but it's a great disservice to the reader. Gates's description of the current-day Internet, for example, leaves the impression that we're still back at the dawn of the new era, back before the world discovered the World Wide Web and started building a new computer industry there--without waiting for Microsoft to lead the way.

He boldly predicts, for example, that hundreds of entrepreneurs will start businesses to create programming and content for the Net. Hello? Maybe readers have heard of Netscape Communications Corp., the startup run by former University of Illinois computer jock Marc Andreessen? Maybe they remember that this outfit--about the highest-profile startup to hit Silicon Valley in a decade--went public on Aug. 9 and set new records for an initial public offering.

The word Netscape doesn't appear in the book. And it can't be that the upstart hadn't hit Gates's radar in time. In the published text, The Road Ahead refers to the proposed Time Warner buyout of Turner Broadcasting, which was announced on Sept. 23. No, the Netscape omission suggests another motive: By not acknowledging how far such companies have already come in transforming the Web into the I-way, Gates subtly attempts to turn back the clock, to a time before the upstarts stole his march.

You can't blame Gates for such wishful thinking. But the Web and companies such as Netscape and new Internet technologies such as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java programming language (also not mentioned) are changing the rules of the software industry. That has investors questioning Microsoft's future--and Gates applying his talents to a broad range of Web initiatives.

In the book, Gates does acknowledge that, in theory, Microsoft could be in danger of falling behind on the I-way. But his take is exasperatingly vague. "I unexpectedly find myself a part of the establishment," he writes. "My goal is to prove that a successful corporation can renew itself and stay in the forefront." The book that tells how one of the world's sharpest business minds plans to tackle that would be a real page-turner.

For now, readers might do better to focus on the entertaining CD-ROM version of The Road Ahead (included in the $30 cover price). It sticks pretty close to the book, but at least it shows some of Microsoft's promotional flair. It also features clips of Gates that show a bit of his thinking and personality. The stars of the show, though, are Gates's $30 million dream house ("nothing ostentatious," he writes) and a marvel of the future, a wallet-size PC. As shown via computer animation, the PC miraculously adapts to any digital purpose, from bank card to TV set to wireless phone. It is, in fact, an eerie echo of the Knowledge Navigator, a gee-whiz tablet computer that former Apple Computer Inc. CEO John Sculley dreamed up and described in his 1987 book, Odyssey. Like Gates, Sculley had his "vision" turned into an animated film--and then into the Edsel-like Newton MessagePad. Let's hope that's not a portent.

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