Microsoft Under The Microscope


The Secret Case Against Bill Gates

By Wendy Goldman Rohm

Times Business 313pp $25.95

On page 37 of Wendy Goldman Rohm's new book, The Microsoft File: The Secret Case Against Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp.'s CEO is described sitting in a restaurant in 1991 with a prostitute at his side. According to Rohm, Gates is thinking by turns about the weather (it's cloudy), the Federal Trade Commission's investigation into his software empire (it irritates him), and his companion (she's lovely). Rohm has him musing to himself: "Now this one was like a friend--she was smart and very, very beautiful. What did it matter that it had all been arranged?"

A better question is: What's wrong with this picture? The simple answer is that it seems to be at least partly fiction--in a book that purports to be entirely factual. That's not to say the event didn't happen. It is possible that Gates had such a liaison. (Rohm says yes, Microsoft no.) But what tests our credulity is this: Rohm, an experienced freelance reporter who got no help for her book from Microsoft's man, could not have known Gates's thoughts.

It's a pity that Rohm cluttered The Microsoft File with this and other silly scenes that go inside her characters' heads. At its core, the book is an earnest work of journalism with a serious purpose: to show that Gates and Microsoft have engaged in predatory business practices that all but destroyed competition in the PC operating-system market and now threaten to do the same with the Internet and electronic commerce. The book is being released in early September to coincide with the start of Microsoft's federal antitrust trial.

Rohm clearly spent years poring over documents and interviewing hundreds of government lawyers and computer industry leaders. She traces Microsoft's Path as it uses its clout as the dominant supplier of PC operating systems to squash such rivals as Novell, Borland International, and WordPerfect. She details how Microsoft headed off the threat of Novell's DR-DOS operating system by forcing PC makers to pay for Microsoft's MS-DOS product on every machine--whether they shipped a copy or not.

Especially compelling are Microsoft E-mail messages, apparently obtained from Federal Trade Commission files, showing Microsoft sabotaging DR-DOS. In 1991, she says, Microsoft warned users ofa test version of Windows 3.1 that it might not work well on any operating system other than MS-DOS. And she produces evidence that the company at least considered guaranteeing that it was so. "It's pretty clear that we need to make sure Windows 3.1 only runs on top of MS-DOS...," says a 1991 memo by Microsoft Vice-President David Cole. Another titillating tidbit: On the day before a crucial 1989 meeting between Microsoft and IBM executives, a sEcurity man purportedly found three listening devices in the hotel room of IBM PC operating-system chief James Cannavino. Whodunnit? Rohm doesn't say explicitly, but the clear implication is that it was Microsoft.

That's as good as Rohm's story gets--and that's not very good. Her source documents come from the paper trail gathered, over the past eight years, by the FTC and the Justice Dept. There's little new here except for stringing it all together. There's also no sign of the "secret" teased in the book's title. And the last chapter, on Justice's antitrust case against Microsoft, readS like it was ripped off from the wire services.

Perhaps that's why Rohm adopted such a panting prose style. The Gates dinner-with-prostitute tableau is simply the most sensational of several zestfully rendered scenes, many of which invade the minds of participants who seem unlikely to have shared their thoughts. Here's a half-awake Gates, meditating during a long flight to Australia: "Life was like one of those vast but eroding beaches....Love, at first, was like a prize won in a competition. Soon, it became something else. Most everything had that tendency." Elsewhere, we get a scene as viewed through the eyes of William H. Neukom, Microsoft's senior vice-president for law and corporate affairs, as he rests on a bed in the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Rohm describes herself as an investigative reporter. And she has solid credentials, writing for the likes of the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe. But Rohm seems to have lost her bearings as a journalist. Instead, she's pioneering a new genre--call it investigative fiction. And this fanciful approach raises questions about the credibility of everything she has written here.

What does Rohm have to say for herself? In an E-mail exchange with this reviewer, she says all of her scenes are products of her own observations or of interviews with witnesses. She insists that she never tried to give the impression that she knew what anyone was thinking. The prostitute scene, she says, is important because it shows how Gates operates, regularly mixing business with pleasuRe. "If my goal was to simply embarrass Gates, I would have printed many more sordid details," she contends.

Rohm says she wanted to be much more open about her sources. But according to a Times Books spokesperson, the publisher and author chose not to print a source list, since that would give Gates a road map to her informants. As a result, her book has almost no sourcing for its document-based assertions--and we learn little about how Rohm got even the basic bits of data.

The result of all of this is a book that is by turns salacious, unbelievable, and dated. Not a good mix at all.