July 1999

Valley of the kings

By Po Bronson
By Kara Swisher
By Gary Rivlin
Review by
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This month, authors Po Bronson, Gary Rivlin, and Kara Swisher join in a seven-city journey aptly named the Silicon Valley Bleeding Edge Book Tour. In the high-tech realm, cutting edge won't do. Rather, innovation must run deep. It must draw blood. The tour opens in San Jose and ends in Austin.

Some 35 miles south of San Francisco sprawls an unremarkable expanse of low-slung buildings known as the Silicon Valley. It is the setting for an enclave of fertile minds dreaming up hardware and software for computers, fueling the burgeoning Internet, and invoking a synergy of creative spunk. It is also the backdrop for three new nonfiction books about Silicon Valley culture, high-tech competition, and the egomaniacal push to get ahead. Po Bronson's first work of nonfiction, The Nudist on the Late Shift: And Other True Tales of Silicon Valley, amuses with its physical descriptions and mesmerizes with its rendition of the technical mind.

The mountainous edges of the Silicon Valley, writes Bronson, rise up like the lip of a great big copper-bottomed frying pan of overpriced Revere Ware, and on the high heat of burning money everything and everyone in there melts into a boiling, spattering, frenetic stew. But what a stew! This is no amorphous clique of techno-nerds. It's a delectable blend of brainiacs, visionaries, and market-savvy moguls whom Bronson illustrates with color and verve. Bronson, best-selling author of The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, escorts readers through the synapses of Silicon Valley technical geniuses and then delivers the analogies that bring their visions home. And what of the nudist in the title? Local legend has it that a programmer on the late shift of a Valley animation company misread his office clock and, believing it was after 10 p.m., shed his garb. When he wandered down a hallway, members of the day crew were still hanging out and called security guards, who asked him to get dressed. Bronson tracked down the rumored nudist none other than David Coons, inventor of one of the first film-to-digital scanners, and anointed him the ultimate symbol of how Valley workers inject their personal values into the job. There was something innocent about his nakedness, writes Bronson, adding that the image was one of no distractions. Just a man, a computer, and a job.

While Silicon Valley set the tone for high-tech culture, America Online set the pace for dominance in the online industry. Kara Swisher charts the potholes on the road to success with How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web. The book reveals battles for control of AOL, including a heavy-handed bid by Microsoft. It details the difficult online outages, user access crises, and debates over cyberporn and censorship. It also unveils prescient decisions about the growth of the online industry and some shrewd affiliations including one with the fledgling Motley Fool, an investor site that would become wildly successful in its own right. The Motley Fool founders, brothers David and Tom Gardner, figured their AOL contract based on hours of usage would pay them about $25,000 yearly. A short time later, the site was earning the pair some $60,000 a month. The widely recognized You've got mail greeting to AOL users was accomplished in 20 minutes by a broadcast executive paid $100. Now, when he meets people, Elwood Edwards says people occasionally tell him, I've heard your voice before somewhere. And when AOL marketer Jan Brandt pushed a direct marketing campaign to mail free AOL disks to tens of thousands of prospective users, the strategy was deemed questionable. It turned out to be wildly successful, boosting AOL users to the million mark inside one year. When AOL finally went public in March 1992 offering two million shares at $11.50 each Case's own shares instantly were worth more than $2 million. (He's worth some $400 million today.)

A year after the initial public offering, directors of AOL's board were fending off a hostile takeover attempt by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, by then an independent businessman. When Bill Gates entered the fray, he warned AOL execs: I can buy 20 percent of you or I can buy all of you. Or I can go into this business myself and bury you. Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and the most talked-about figure in the industry, is the focus of Gary Rivlin's The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man . . . and the People Who Hate Him. Rivlin's descriptions of Gates, as well as of the battles waged against him, are unabashed. Here is Gates, twisted like a corkscrew, one arm wrapped around his midsection as if reaching for an itch on his back he can't quite scratch, the other arm flying spastically into the air, head tilted to one side, mouth working. And that's just in the prologue. Gates is ensconced in Redmond, Washington. But his industry dominance looms over the Silicon Valley, which, in turn, is populated by entrepreneurs who want to best him before he trounces them. Rivlin calls it Bill envy. There is Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, developer of database management systems. Ellison is a multi-billionaire in his own right. Nonetheless, Rivlin notes Ellison was obsessed with beating Microsoft. So determined are Gates's competitors that Microsoft's chief technology officer declared the existence of Captain Ahab's Club, with the charter member one Ray Noorda, CEO of the networking company Novell. Noorda, it seemed, had a terrible obsession with Bill not unlike Captain Ahab's obsession with Moby-Dick. Rivlin's investigation of Gates and the industry that is fixated on him grips the reader because of its precision, detail, and perspective. And while at times the light that Rivlin shines on Gates seems a tad harsh, it is a ray that shows no favor. It shines not just on Gates, it also clearly illuminates the people who hate him.

Loretta Kalb is a writer in California.

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