`Road Ahead': Gates And Our Pc Future


Bill Gates is scheduled to appear on "Nightline," tomorrow(KOMO, 11:30 p.m.); "Talking with David Frost," Friday (KCTS, 10 p.m.); "The Today Show," (KING, 7 a.m.) and "Late Night With David Letterman" (KSTW, 11:35 p.m.) Monday; and "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," Tuesday (KCTS, 6 p.m.).

If you are wondering what this fabulous and mysterious thing called the Information Superhighway is, and what wallet PCs and digitized artwork and interactive TV are all about, then Bill Gates has a book for you.

If you already have a working knowledge of this stuff, you will gain little from "The Road Ahead" (Viking, $29.95 with CD-ROM), Gates' new 276-page primer on the future as Gates knows it today. The book goes on sale Friday.

For me, having followed the PC revolution and Gates himself for several years, reading "The Road Ahead" was a little like hearing Glenn Gould play a medley of "Chopsticks." Or watching Ken Griffey Jr., at bat in the ninth with the game on the line, lay down a bunt.

Gates, a man of enormous intellectual zeal and incendiary competitiveness, has written a readable and comprehensive but ultimately tame treatise. Nothing is bad about "The Road Ahead." It touches all the digital bases, explains concepts quite well, and even provides occasional human glimpses into the fabled Gates persona.

It would make a perfect Christmas present for my dad, or my sister, or the neighbor up the street who was asking me about e-cash the other day. As for my immediate circle, they'll tear this thing to shreds.

Most books have this kind of "audience" issue. There are two kinds of people in the world today: those who like computers, and all the rest. Although the logical audience for "The Road Ahead" is the former, the book actually aims at the latter.

It contains an obligatory historical overview ("Lessons from the Computer Industry"), which for the most part avoids being self-serving. One slip occurs when Gates awards Microsoft Word "killer app" status for the Apple Macintosh. Although he co-credits PageMaker, Gates might get an argument from Aldus co-founder Paul Brainerd about having to share that particular stage.

A chapter on "Friction-Free Capitalism" is as good a summary as I've seen on money in the Digital Age, while "Education: The Best Investment" ably covers a subject Gates cares much about. Like his late mother, Mary Gates, a schoolteacher before entering her stellar career in community service, Bill Gates appreciates the role good teachers and learning play in human development.

A lesson from lemon drops

Gates even provides occasional glimpses of his human side, such as when he talks about how video-linked PCs that let you see what you order will help avoid the mistake his grandmother made one time while Bill was at summer camp. She ordered 100 lemon drops; the young Gates received 100 bags of drops. He gave most away, an act that made him popular until everyone got canker sores. No comment about whether the drops had a lasting impact on his often dour expression.

Gates draws on his irritation with a particularly long traffic light near Microsoft to explain how online communities can form. Post a gripe on a newsgroup, and you soon find lots of other people with the same complaint. Get them to e-mail City Hall, and you can bring about real change.

And, in perhaps the book's strongest chapter, Gates gives a virtual tour of his Lake Washington estate, describing how it will work and act and offering detailed insights into the design and construction process. It may well be Interplanetary Headquarters for Bill & Co. more than a house, but Gates has pulled its pieces together nicely.

Occasionally Gates' predilection for dry understatement shines through. Discussing how e-mail knits the corporate structure at Microsoft, Gates discloses that "when my wife, Melinda, and I were first going out, we took advantage of it." Yo, Bill! Tell us more! Unfortunately, the observation that "people are less shy about sending e-mail than communicating on the phone or in person" is all we get.

Much of the book features prose written at the 14-year-old literacy level favored by mass-market publishers. Sometimes it dumbs down to subterranean levels. From a team featuring the world's richest individual, Cambridge-trained physicist Nathan Myhrvold and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Rinearson, the reader expects something more incisive than, say, the following:

"IBM's position was more like that of the leading runner in a marathon. As long as the leader keeps running as fast or faster than the others, he stays in the lead and competitors will have to keep trying to catch up. If, however, he slacks off or stops pushing himself, the rest will pass him by."

Microsoft competitors looking for schematics of the Gates master plan will be sorely disappointed. Gates does disclose for the first time that he offered to sell 30 percent of Microsoft to IBM in 1986, but, too bad for Big Blue, it turned him down. The offer is not likely to be repeated.

He also notes that Microsoft deliberately hires some managers with previous failures (artful advanced technology marketer Craig Mundie is a prime example) on the assumption their mettle and experience will prove valuable. But that is well-known.

In terms of where the company is headed, Gates plays things very close to the vest:

"Once, when I referred to a bank's back-end databases as `dinosaurs,' a reporter wrote an article saying I thought banks themselves were dinosaurs and we wanted to compete with them," Gates relates in the money chapter. "I have now spent more than a year going around the world telling banks I was misquoted."

The problem is that, without explaining what he meant by the database reference, his repudiation seems specious. Besides, even the misquote was right. Banks in many ways are dinosaurs. Both Gates and the financial industry know this. But as Gates observed on another occasion having to do with a different industry, "This time, the dinosaurs are alert," and he has no desire for a Godzilla footprint on his bespectacled nose.

Incongruously, I found Gates' observations on the Internet weakest of all. The World Wide Web receives just four index citations and is treated as a functional appendage of the Internet (rather than its driving force), and both come off as a subset of the Information Highway, a term Gates uses with abandon despite its disfavor among digerati.

Although Gates addresses potential pitfalls of online commerce and communications in a chapter called "Critical Issues," his observations that the Information Highway will increase global wealth and "stabilize" the world, and that the "gap between the have and have-not nations will diminish," come off as undeveloped and glib.

Who pays?

Who will pay for this vast technological infrastructure? The question that Gates, with his unimaginable accumulated wealth and business savvy, should be best able to address does not even get raised. Nor does the computer's role in addressing the critical environmental traumas that ultimately may have a lot more to do with the road ahead than home shopping and movies on demand.

Several factors may explain the studied blandness of "The Road Ahead." As chairman of Microsoft, Gates cannot reveal anything meaningful about the company's, or even his own, real strategy for the future lest he face recriminations from the board and shareholders.

And were he to go into any depth on his subject, the book would become a) too long by today's publishing standards, and b) too technical for a book aimed at a mass market.

Then, too, one must consider Gates' models. Two of his favorite books, as mentioned in "The Road Ahead," are Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" and the bestselling romance, "Bridges of Madison County." Both use a spare, conversational style similar to Gates', but Hawking's volume is laced with intellectual wit and a supernatural ability to make quantum physics understandable. By contrast, "Bridges" is the work of a business-school teacher with suspect literary skills.

For those with Windows computers (Macintosh owners are out of luck), the CD-ROM is chock-full of Bill videos and other multimedia clips related to the book's contents. The full text of "The Road Ahead," with hyperlinks for more detail on key people, terms and concepts, also is included.

Unfortunately, one of the videos crashed the disc and an error message soon displayed, informing me of an "illegal operation" I should contact my "vendor" about. I somehow doubt Viking can be of much help in the matter. (The disc worked fine the other times I used it.)

Perhaps "The Road Ahead's" real ghostwriter was Microsoft Bob, the cutesy smiley-face interface developed by Microsoft for computerphobes. Dismissed as lame and condescending by computerists, "Bob" also found little favor among new buyers reluctant to purchase simplifying software for a $2,000 PC advertised as easy to use in the first place.

We can hope this is not Gates' last book. Perhaps in a sequel, say, "The Road Less Traveled By," he can let loose with both barrels. Till then, at least the Bobs of the world have a book to slake their curiosity.

Paul Andrews, a Seattle Times staff reporter and columnist, has written about high technology for nearly 15 years. He is co-author, with Stephen Manes, of "Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America" (Doubleday, 1993).