Non-Fiction Reviews

The Microsoft Way

(1998) Randall E. Stross, Warner Books, 7.99, pbk, pp. ISBN 0 7515 2161 2

In this interesting book Stross looks at the history of Microsoft. He focusses mainly on the Windows era; those who want to hear about Gates' history, or the now famous deal he did with IBM, will have to look elsewhere. Here, Stross's concern is to place Microsoft's success in perspective by comparing its actions with those of historical analogues, and with those of its contemporaries in the software industry.

The book is divided into four sections: the first looks at Microsoft's culture, the second at the company's attempts to create a market for software intended purely for the home, the third on the "information highway", and the way in which the internet has become the de facto standard for that highway. The fourth section looks at the anti-trust suits that have dogged Microsoft in recent years. An epilogue contains some thoughts on Gates' fortune, and how we might assess its justifiability in terms of the good the software industry has (or has not) done for society as a whole.

Stross was apparently given free rein at the Microsoft archives, though he says he did not approach them until he was sure he could write the book without their co-operation if necessary. He certainly seems to have aimed for an independent view, so it is interesting that he has come out largely on the side of Microsoft in most of the controversies that surround the company. Indeed he notes that this will probably damn the book in the eyes of many readers.

However, if we take Stross at face value (and I have no reason to doubt his intentions) then he provides cogent arguments suggesting that many of the gripes against Microsoft are actually symptomatic of our more general fears about the future. For instance, in the first section, Stross suggests that Microsoft's elitist policy of recruiting only the very smartest goes against the grain of a culture where a "can do" attitude is perceived to be a sufficient criterion for success.

Not that Stross is 100% on the company's side: the last chapter in particular is critical of the idea that personal computers, and the "network society" in general have contributed to making our society a better place to live. Stross criticizes Gates' rather glib optimism on this score, and questions how much good even so great a fortune as Gates' can do to ameliorate the problems caused.

Overall this is an excellent book: whether or not you agree with its conclusions, you will find much to think about.

Matt Freestone

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