Microsoft As Devil And Angel


By Jim Clark with Owen Edwards

St. Martin's 276pp $24.95


By Paul Andrews

Broadway Books 352pp $27.50

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark has been throwing verbal darts at Microsoft Corp. for years. And no wonder. The first company he started, Silicon Graphics Inc., had its air supply threatened by the software giant. Then, after Clark co-founded browser pioneer Netscape Communications Corp., he watched while Microsoft targeted it for extinction. Now, with the publication of his book, Netscape Time: The Making of the Billion-Dollar Start-Up That Took on Microsoft, Clark gets to fire at will at Microsoft and its chairman, William H. Gates III. "For all his nerdy ways and offbeat charm for the press, I feel Gates is happiest when he is crushing the life out of companies that dare establish territory on the borders of Microsoft's sprawling dominion," Clark writes.

Clark's book is a blow-by-blow account of the wild early days of Netscape--in 1994 and 1995--when he and a band of young engineers helped launch the Internet craze with their Web-surfing software and a blockbuster initial public offering. The book is worth reading--and not just for what Clark has to say about Microsoft. It's laced with tangy observations on everything from venture capitalists (he calls them velociraptors) to personal wealth (he says money matters). And it captures the excitement of being at the epicenter of a technology shift that's changing the way business is done. Through Clark, we get a billionaire's-eye view of the thrill of IPO day and the pell-mell rush to be the first company to make something of the Web.

While Clark isn't obsessed with Microsoft, he doesn't hold back his criticism of it, either. He accuses Microsoft of withholding vital technical information from Netscape, of browbeating personal computer makers into dropping Netscape's browser, and of pricing its own browsers and other Internet software at zero--with the express purpose of putting Netscape out of business. All of these charges Microsoft denies. Clark also warns about the dangers that Microsoft poses to the information-technology industry. He believes that its heavy-handedness is stifling innovation. Young companies are afraid to cross the giant for fear they'll be squelched in the same way Netscape was.

It was Clark who blew the whistle on Microsoft. In June, 1995, his lawyer sent a letter to the Justice Dept. that ultimately resulted in Microsoft's antitrust trial--which is now awaiting a judge's ruling. Clark says that he became alarmed after a meeting with Microsoft, when, according to the Netscape side, Microsoft execs offered to divide the browser market and threatened to withhold vital technology info if Netscape didn't comply. Microsoft denies it did anything illegal, calling it a routine discussion of potential cooperation.

Clark did not attend the meeting, so we don't get a definitive look at the crucial session in his book. In fact, Clark's account of the early interactions between the two companies evokes a complex relationship--and one whose fitful communications could be open to interpretation. Clark both feared Microsoft and saw it as a potential ally. Six months before the June meeting, in a moment of concern about his company's durability, Clark had even called up a Microsoft executive and offered an alliance that would have included an equity investment in Netscape. "I was frankly exhausted and completely strung out," Clark explains. In the end, nothing came of the flirtation. The two companies became enemies, and Netscape went down in history as Microsoft's punching bag.

Netscape is no longer on the ropes. It was sold to America Online Inc. in March. But Clark believes that it's not too late to save other promising startups from the same fate. His remedy is to break Microsoft up into three pieces: a company for operating systems, one for productivity applications, and another for Web sites such as its MSN portal. And he warns against timid half-measures. "If, by the time you read this, the process of breaking up Microsoft isn't yet under way, as my mom used to say, `You're in for a heap of trouble."'

In Clark's admittedly partial account, Microsoft is unrelentingly malevolent. But for Seattle journalist Paul Andrews, Gates and his software empire are anything but evil. Andrews' new book, How the Web Was Won: Microsoft from Windows to the Web, portrays Gates and his cohorts as "Internet idealists" who are intent on bestowing the blessings of gee-whiz Web software on the computing public. And for free, at that. The book sets out to prove that Microsoft's executives--and a fraternity of gung ho engineers--foresaw the importance of the Web even before Netscape was created and planned to develop browser technology and embed it into the Windows PC operating system.

Andrews ignores most of the charges Justice has leveled against Microsoft. In his foreword, he says that examining the "other side of the story" would miss the point of his book--"which is to explore the inner workings and consciousness of a company grappling with a new marketplace and defending itself against the threat of extinction in a highly competitive, ceaselessly evolving industry." Geez, he almost makes you feel sorry for Microsoft.

Indeed, Netscape is the bad guy in this telling of the story. At one point, Andrews suggests that Netscape may have stolen intellectual property from the University of Illinois--where several of its founding engineers created the breakthrough Mosaic Web browser. Ultimately, though, he appears to agree with most observers that no larceny took place. (In his book, Clark scoffs at any suggestion that Netscape cribbed.) At another point in the book, Andrews hints that Netscape copied an idea from Microsoft--its provision for so-called plug-in software from other developers to extend the features of its Navigator browser. Netscape denies it.

The bottom line for Andrews is that Netscape's executives were a bunch of crybabies. Soured by their experiences at such Microsoft competitors as Apple Computer Inc. and Go Corp., they misinterpreted the software giant's every generous word and gesture. He notes sympathetically that Microsoft executive Dan Rosen had his feelings hurt by Netscape's charges that Microsoft withheld crucial technical information. Said Rosen: "I think, if anything, as a sign of good faith, we did more for them than we did for anybody else."

If you believe this, you're going to love the rest of Andrews' book, too. He pieces together scraps of evidence about Microsoft's plans and internal discussions to make the case that it had an elaborate, clear-eyed vision of its role in the Internet, starting in early 1994--and maybe even earlier. Microsoft exec Steven A. Ballmer wrote an E-mail message about the Web in late 1993, Andrews points out. Gates and his lieutenants debated the importance of the Internet at a retreat in May, 1994.

Microsoft As Devil--and Angel
Microsoft As Devil--and Angel

It doesn't matter to Andrews that the paper trail of memos and E-mail falls far short of establishing Microsoft as a bona fide Internet pioneer with a grand plan. And he quickly dismisses the fact that in Gates's 1995 book, The Road Ahead, Microsoft's chairman mentions the Web only in passing. Throughout Andrews' book, he discounts or ignores any hint that Microsoft wasn't on top of things or may not always have had the purest motives. Meanwhile, he insists that Netscape and its allies had nothing positive to offer. They were just trying to tear Microsoft down. "It was negative energy versus positive flow," Andrews writes.

After a few chapters like this, you start to wonder if you've entered the Twilight Zone. Has Andrews been hypnotized by Microsoft's public-relations department? My advice is to skip it. It's simply not a very good book; Clark's is much better.

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