Mr. X -- Coupon King Bill Gates And Other High-Tech Tales

Late one night, billionaire Bill Gates stood in line at a grocery store, digging in his pockets for a 50-cent-off coupon. As his butter pecan ice cream began to melt, other customers fumed.

"Here," said the next shopper in line, throwing down two quarters.

Gates took the money.

"Pay me back when you earn the first million," said the shopper.

That night in 1990, Gates was worth more than $3 billion.

This and many other stories are told by Robert X. Cringely, the pseudonym of the gossip columnist for InfoWorld, a computer-industry newspaper read by 500,000. Cringely will not reveal his real name, but he does set out to reveal Bill Gates in "Accidental Empires: How the boys of Silicon Valley make their millions, battle foreign competition and still can't get a date."

Cringely says his book is accurate, based on interviews with more than 200 industry veterans, including Gates. The coupon story came from an InfoWorld reader in line that night.

Cringely, in town to promote his book, says Gates denies this anecdote. But the author says he believes his source, in part because the story fits Gates' known behavior.

Cringely says Microsoft tried to block release of the book, claiming the entire book was inaccurate. Microsoft first complained to InfoWorld, he says, then to publisher Addison-Wesley, which prints many software books. Cringely claims Microsoft threatened to stop cooperating with Addison Wesley on future books.

"Microsoft wasn't asking for changes. They just didn't want the book to appear," says Cringely, who acknowledges receiving an advance in the low six figures to write the book.

Microsoft spokesman Marty Taucher said he called Addison-Wesley to detail how the book is "90 percent fabrication. The rest is rumor and innuendo." But he said he made no threat to the publisher, which remains a part of the Microsoft-book program.

"We're very practical," says company spokeswoman Monica Harrington. "We understand it's a free press. People are going to write and that's fine."

Harrington said she didn't know about the coupon story.

"It would be sorta nice if it were true. Bill's like any one of us who'd be caught short in a grocery line," she says.

The highly readable book about the computer industry is stuffed with goodies - tales of dirty deals, brilliant product innovations squandered by poor management, oddball behavior and wretched excesses of all sorts. It's not all dirt. There are tales of smart people doing what others thought impossible.

Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Jim Manzi and other computer czars today preside over a $70 billion industry that radically changed business and society. The leveraged buyout and the rise of junk-bond king Michael Milken would not have been possible without personal computers tracking vast amounts of numbers, says the author.

The underlying drive of these computer nerds, says Cringely, is to get back at people who were not nice to them during childhood.

"The game was started to satisfy the need of disenfranchised nerds like Bill Gates who didn't meet the macho standards of American maleness and so looked for a way to create their own adolescent alternative to the adult world and, through that creation, gain the admiration of their peers. This is key: They did it (and do it) to impress each other," writes Cringely.

Cringely calls the rise of personal computers one of the great success stories of American business, but "one, it all happened more or less by accident; two, the people who made it happen were amateurs; and three, and for the most part, they still are."

Many characters occupy the 324 pages of this book, but the largest figure is Gates, who emerges as having the appeal of a barracuda with bad hygiene.

Gates is somewhat of an exception to Cringely's thesis. Gates goal was always to make money. And he has no trouble getting dates.

As Cringely describes him, Gates doesn't bathe often; has greasy hair; tries to take advantage of people and competitors at every opportunity; goes out of his way to punish those who disagree with him; sells products with flaws or without features claimed by the company; bullies employees; surrounds himself with yes-men; has no women vice-presidents; and cultivates an image of his knowing everything.

"There's only one reply to that," says Harrington. "People within Microsoft respect him tremendously. In terms of him bullying us, he brings out the best in us. If you are prepared to answer Bill's questions, it means you've done your homework and thought things through."

Among the casualties of Gates' business tactics is Paul Brainerd, Aldus Corp. chief executive.

In 1988, writes Cringely, Aldus had developed a prototype of a word-processing program called Flinstone. Gates showed Brainerd a Microsoft program that would compete with Flinstone and said it would be released in six to nine months.

"Afraid of going head-to-head against Microsoft, Brainerd canceled Flintstone," Cringely writes. The competing product came out two years later, which would have allowed Aldus plenty of time to establish Flintstone. Aldus lost out in a multimillion-dollar market that is still growing, with Microsoft the leader.

An Aldus spokeswoman declines to comment, saying, "We're going to stay out of that situation."

Cringely does find some good things to say about Gates, whom he describes as a positive force in U.S. industry. With more than half its sales in foreign markets, Microsoft is good for the balance of trade and key to keeping the U.S. a technology leader.

Cringely compares Gates with Henry Ford, who wasn't known as a nice person but was a fierce competitor. But Ford left his company on the brink of collapse. Cringely says Microsoft inevitably will decline, but that's at least 10 years off.

Ford Motor Co. didn't stumble until Henry Ford reached his later years and insisted on selling cars the public didn't want. There are no signs that Gates, 36, has lost his marketing talent; indeed he is the dominant force in setting trends.

As it happens, Cringely wrote the book using Microsoft software. Even there, Cringely was on the look out for flaws.

"I found a few bugs," he says.