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Barbarians Led by Bill Gates Hardcover – August 15, 1998
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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
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
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There are so many quotes, private communication, meetings etc disclosed that I find hard to believe that this book is even legally out and people haven't sued each other (or may be they have). For example, authors describe in full detail how team sent a spy to record prototype of first tablet from competitor company GO and tried to copy it as Pen Windows product. It's tantalizing to know from a lead of Microsoft's little known Pen Windows that it's entire purpose was to put other company out of business and thereby eliminating threat to OS business. He also gives first hand account of meetings that describes how Bill Gates was obsessed with first Mac and was pressing hard on Windows 1.0 team to make Windows look like Mac even if it meant taking out features. There are lots of inside stories that I'd heard elsewhere but actually originated from this book like the time when Steve Ballmer intentionally called 9 AM meeting on Easter Sunday without any real agenda and threatened to take attendance just to see if the team was "committed". There are many of author's encounters with his manager Nathan Myhrvold which will remind many in software profession of similar personalities. From all these stories Bill Gates comes out as very normal guy, neither genius nor evil, who made tones of mistakes, blew millions of dollars on unnecessary projects, frequently hired incompetent people and gave no strategic directions when one was required. Authors have, however, prevented giving opinions most of the time and stayed focused describing first-hand account of on series of events with actual conversations that went on except in last few chapters. In any case I remain baffled why authors decided to have title and such an armaturish front cover that otherwise gives impression that this book is about typical anti-Microsoft and anti-Gates rants. Infect author defends Microsoft on many occasions and how Gates respected his agreements like one with Apple by forbidding developers on Windows 1.0 to take a look at Mac prototype until it was released.
This is by no means complete or rigorous account of early Microsoft. Stories are mostly limited to the groups that authors actually worked in and pretty good feel of how the characters such as Gates, Mundie, Myhrvold, Rikes etc worked. Author also gives pretty good taste of Microsoft small enough when author and Gates had offices on same floor to the times when there were several layers of management between them. There is not much of a detailed account of already popular events like Windows NT race, IBM divorce etc covered in other books (Hard Drive, Show Stoppers etc) but this book sets itself apart by holding its own where other books haven't ventured in parts of Microsoft's history. Highly recommended for all Microsoft enthusiasts.