Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Microsoft and the fight of its life

WORLD WAR 3.0: MICROSOFT AND ITS ENEMIES. By Ken Auletta. Random House. 436 pages. $27.95.

Ken Auletta's mammoth chronicle of one of the most important antitrust cases of modern times, World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies, reads like one of those lingering movie deaths where the evil ruler, cornered and bloody, slumps over, stumbles, trips, gasps, then expires. The difference here is, the ruler is Bill Gates, and when the book wraps, Microsoft's head is on the chopping block and its public relations team is on the courthouse steps saying, Have no fear, just a minor setback.

But a glance at the latest headlines on the software giant and its two-year fight with the Justice Department suggests that the company may win something of a reprieve. At the end of Auletta's book, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson has ordered the breakup of Microsoft. But since its publication, federal appellate judges have suggested that Jackson's remedy was too severe, and his harsh public comments about Microsoft - particularly the ones in this book - were unseemly for a judge.

Maybe it was the line about his dream remedy: Make Bill Gates write a book about Napoleon. “I think he has a Napoleonic concept of himself and his company,” Jackson tells Auletta. “An arrogance which derives from power and unalloyed success, with no leavening hard experience, no reverses.”


Like all great reporting, timing is everything, and World War 3.0, written in chunks and long paragraphs filled with thousands of details and quotes to back up the quotes, has the immediacy of the longest newspaper article you've ever seen. It feels, and at times reads, like it had been written in one long sitting. It's an explosion of clarity about a deeply complicated subject, with a lot of pit stops for balance and nuance.

However, all of this is a good thing, because, as Auletta writes, “Antitrust trials are not like Perry Mason courtroom dramas.”

Instead, he continues, “It is drip-drip-drip, the slow accretion of irrelevant fact piled on relevant fact, often without indication of how to distinguish between the two.”

Auletta's work is the antithesis of that. Slow, steady, and exhaustive, he pulls the focus of this epic in and out - a segment on the trial, a segment on one of the chief players, a contextual look at how Microsoft operates, more on the trial, and so on - and presents both sides and explains how both could believe they are without fault.

It's the work of a reporter so close to his subjects they could bite his nose - something Gates might have wanted to try.

In 1992, Auletta landed the “Annals of Communication” beat at the New Yorker magazine, just as the rise of Bill Gates looked unstoppable. It was the right job at the right moment at the right magazine. In the book's wonderfully prescient prologue, Auletta finds himself seated next to Gates at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, where Auletta had been host for a conference on monopolies and technology. Gates thought Auletta had let Microsoft exec Nathan Myhrvold get raked over the coals at a panel discussion, and he let Auletta have it.

“Gates sat huddled over,” Auletta writes, “his arms folded across his chest, his brown hair parted, unwashed, and combed straight down like a boy's.”

He rocked back and forth. “Suddenly, his voice rising to a shrill pitch, Gates proclaimed, `Neither Nathan nor anyone from Microsoft will ever appear again on such a panel!” Needless to add, Auletta writes that their lunch continued in silence.

It's a tremendous moment, the cracks in Microsoft not only showing but growing. By the end of World War 3.0, however, a dour feeling overwhelms the text. It looks as though Auletta has written a courtroom drama, but by the end you see the book as a eulogy for Microsoft - one more devastating because not only is the body still warm, but the patient seems aware he can't stop the spread of the disease.

The computer business is moving too fast for Microsoft to keep up with, Auletta contends. It's one of Bill Gates' points, too: How can the company have a monopoly on computer code, an infinite resource? There are Palm Pilots, Sony PlayStation2s, America Online - it's too much, too fast for one company. After all, steel and oil barons couldn't keep their monopolies for long, and, try as it may, Microsoft does not own the future.

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