Acts of total war by the software pontiff


June 13, 1997

The successful takeover of the Roman Catholic Church by Microsoft proved to be a spoof - one requiring official denial from Redmond, Washington rather than from the Holy See. Had such an offer been made it would have presented the Pontiff with a terrible temptation, shares worth billions and a senior vice presidency in one the most aggressive and expansionist forces since the Goths sacked Rome. Making such a deal would have been mercilessly tough, if the accounts of other negotiations provided by James Wallace are to be believed.

Overdrive is the successor to Hard Drive by the same author and Jim Erickson, and joins a growing shelf of books on Microsoft. The United States Department of Justice has, like popular opinion, shifted its investigations from IBM to Microsoft. This book reinforces the case for breaking up Microsoft under US anti-trust legislation - which, in narrowly defined legal and economic terms, seems all but unanswerable. The two books portray an acquisitive corporation which knows few limits. James Wallace describes Microsoft as an aggressive competitor who prefers to take no prisoners. To him, Bill Gates shows little mercy to his opponents who end up often as terminal casualties on the information superhighway.

In the wider political scheme of things, Microsoft is the global leader batting for America and this position must be protected. It is held that IBM suffered from the decade-long anti-trust investigation, that it became less competitive, damaging the US economy and disadvantaging individual investors; something not to be repeated with Microsoft. If smaller firms and entrepreneurs suffer, this is an acceptable price for continuing national dominance. However, optimists (though not Wallace) believe that the technological changes make for the sure and certain hope that Microsoft will one day falter, fade and ultimately pass away.

We are by now accustomed to the rise and fall of companies in all sectors and especially so in computing where, with the exception of IBM which is again growing, corporate structures have proved transient. The implosion of Wang Labs, the collapse of Sinclair Computers, the troubled partnerships of Groupe Bull and the continuing genteel decline of Digital Equipment Corporation, are part of this story.

In Overdrive Bill Gates is shown to be utterly determined to avoid anything which might slow the inexorable growth of Microsoft, despite the dangers of operating in a world of rapid technological evolution, where innovation in a distant laboratory can create rivals and successors. Unlike many other company bosses, Gates does not intend to rely on existing products or internal resources: he will happily move into areas created by others using the financial muscle and marketing clout of Microsoft. Like the great power that it is, Microsoft fights battles on several fronts at once - on operating systems, server software, application software, Internet browsers, anywhere there is software to be sold. Recently it moved into Web television and satellite-based Internet access.

Bill Gates made a major change in the mid-1990s, in that he began to focus his considerable resources on that other Washington, the drained swamp infested by politicians and lobbyists. For all this effort, many people do not like Bill Gates. They see few redeeming features in him, little which might give rise to sympathy and feel only envy and spite.

If I have one criticism of Overdrive, it is that it almost never leaves the shores of the US beyond a couple of passing references to the Competition Directorate of the European Union. Yet Microsoft is a global concern and the effects of its brutal approach to competition have been felt far from Redmond.

Ewan Sutherland is a lecturer in informatics at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace

Author - James Wallace
ISBN - 0 471 18041 6
Publisher - John Wiley & Sons
Price - £16.99
Pages - 284

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