How has Microsoft been able to crush its competition every step of the way? The company's own version of history ascribes it to something like "really great technical innovation." Barbarians Led by Bill Gates presents a harsher and messier history, sharply questioning Microsoft's ethics and corporate wisdom while underscoring its fierce will to compete.
The authors present a history of Microsoft from the early '80s to the present, covering the big projects, both successes and failures, that defined the company's direction. It's a difficult story to tell, filled with complex technology and a large cast of characters who are rarely in the public eye.
Perhaps the most surprising thing to emerge is how many Microsoft ventures were mismanaged and how many opportunities were missed. The best-known of these is Microsoft's near-catastrophic failure to see the arrival and success of the Internet. The book also details the unplanned success of Windows 3.0, the demise of Pen Windows (which annihilated GO Corp. and its promising Penpoint operating system but little else), and the compromised design and slow success of Windows 95. A final chapter tackles the Netscape-Microsoft Web-browser war and Microsoft's head-on collision with the Justice Department.
Both authors are, in different ways, Microsoft insiders. Jennifer Edstrom is the daughter of Pam Edstrom, Gates's long-time PR chief and spin doctor. Marlin Eller is a 13-year veteran Microsoft developer who has worked on DOS, early versions of Windows, and pen computing. Both stand open to the charge of having an ax to grind, and the reader senses a lot of personal animosity at work. Yet anyone who has followed Microsoft for any length of time will recognize most of the war stories from other sources, and most of the new information presented has the ring, at least, of probability. Indeed, the value of this book is not so much in presenting new information as in marshaling it to paint a portrait of a company that has largely escaped this sort of scrutiny. --Thomas Mace
Barbarians Led by Bill Gates is a timely but uneven behind-the-scenes peek at the software-industry leader, Microsoft Corp. Although individual incidents, such as Microsoft's foray into a pen-based interface, are worth noting, they don't add up to a substantially new perception of the company. It's a story we've heard before. Perhaps Barbarians loses focus precisely because it tries to adopt such a broad perspective toward its subject. The book's prose doesn't help; the wooden writing is obvious from the resounding thud made by jokes such as "Beware of geeks bearing gifts." -- Upside
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Although readers not particularly enamored of computer culture will be bored silly, for those interested ... Edstrom and Eller dish up the dirt.... While the book can be entertaining, the sound of large axes being ground becomes quite noticeable. -- The New York Times Book Review, J.D. Biersdorfer