Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date.

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date. – book reviews

John Markoff

Robert X. Cringely. Addison-Wesley, $19.95. Who is Robert X. Cringely and what’s his gripe with William H. Gates, the cofounder of Microsoft Corporation?

That’s a reasonable question to ask of the author of a book with a title like this. Purportedly written in the style of Barbarians at the Gate, it claims to offer an insider’s account of the personal computer industry, but it’s not even in the ballpark. I finished the book with a sense that Cringely hadn’t found an insider’s view of anything.

The author seems jealous of Gates, whose paper wealth at Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, is heftier than the gross national product of many countries. But despite a number of low blows, and contrary to its title, the book never suggests there is anything accidental about Gates’ accomplishments since he set out to start a software company while a student at Harvard in 1975. The man who is undoubtedly the most influential person in computing today holds that position for a reason.

Cringely, whose real name is Mark Stephens, a reporter and gossip columnist at Infoworld, a computer industry trade magazine, should know that. He’s been around for a while, in various incarnations.

The name Cringely predates Stephens’ arrival at Infoworld. It has its computer journalism roots back in the early eighties when Stewart Alsop, an editor at another trade newspaper, Computer Business News (and the son of the Washington columnist), was looking for a name to use to defelect public relations firms hawking “news releases.” When one would call to pitch an unwanted story, the standard response would be, “Oh, that’s Cringely’s beat.” Of course, Cringely could never be found. When Alsop migrated to Infoworld in 1983, Cringely came along.

Although Alsop left Infoworld in 1984, Cringely stayed and became the alter-ego of Stephens, who brought his own brand of gossip mongering along. He eagerly admits that one of his telephone lines at Infoworld is dedicated to receiving bits of gossip from digruntled engineers and others in the know. His phone rings constantly, he boasts to the reader, and his access to the dirt in the personal computer industry is unmatched. With that promise, one might look forward to 336 pages of uninterrupted juice.

But little of what he writes is fresh. Many of his stories have already been told–and told better–in earlier accounts of the personal computer industry. These include Fire in the Valley, the first history of the industry, written by two former Infoworld reporters, Paul Freiberger and Mike Swaine, and The Big Score, a well-reported tale of Silicon Valley by former San Jose Mercury-News reporter Michael Malone. And in West of Eden, Frank Rose wove a compelling tale of Apple Computer’s growing pains in the mid-eighties.

Even more disturbing, some of the anecdotes Stephens presents as fact are modified and occasionally downright distorted. In one story, he tries to make fun of Gates by describing an incident in which the software wizard tries to “rap” with a group of young blacks on a street corner in Ann Arbor. This, he claims, represents Gates’–and thereby the personal computer industry’s–adolescence and arrogance. But the Infoworld reporter who was accompanying Gates at that time has told her friends that the incident was a minor one and Stephens has blown it far out of proportion.

When he isn’t taking gratuitous swipes at Gates, Stephens takes aim at others who figured prominently in the creation of the personal computer industry. He refers to Apple whiz-kid Steven Jobs as a sociopath and describes Lotus development founder Mitchell Kapor as guilt-ridden by his success.

Stephens does a reasonable job, however, of explaining personal computer technology, describing its origins, and placing it in context. Near the end of the book, he offers an intriguing analysis of IBM, describing in detail how Big Blue, the world’s largest computer maker, has sown fear, uncertainty, and doubt among its competitors and customers in order to control the computer industry. But he then goes off on an odd and unsupportable tangent, arguing that IBM will self-destruct on December 31, 1999. That is the date when much of the world’s COBOL software, the de facto standard for large corporate accounting and finance programs, is supposed to stop working because the date function wasn’t designed to operate past the end of the century.

It’s an interesting thought, but highly dubious. While some early versions of the software contian the date function, it’s far from universal. And for those that have it, it’s a problem that can be patched with proper programming.

In the end, Accidental Empires is a grumpy, mean-spirited book. Even the last clause in the subtitle is nasty–and wrong. GAtes, portrayed here as nerd supreme, reportedly has no trouble getting dates.

Given the book’s many problems, one can’t help but be intrigued by Stephens’ dedication: “For Pammy, who knows we need the money.” Pammy is Cringely’s fictional girlfriend, and readers of the Cringely column get a generous dose of the ups and downs of their relationships sprinkled amid the industry gossip. Is Cringely giving away why he wrote this book? Essentially, yes. It’s not that he shares the passion for technology and innovation that inspired so many of those he writes about. Rather, in his own words, he hopes this book will “help fund my retirement.”

That alone is enough to make a reader wary of contributing $19.95 to the effort. About 50 pages into Accidental Empires, Stephens implores his readers to “finish this book.” But we can’t help but wonder why we bothered to pick it up in the first place.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Washington Monthly Company

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