BOSTON — A FEW weeks ago William Gates stepped up to a microphone in a Boston convention hall to address a few hundred members of the Boston Computer Society. His unassuming air and casual attire made him look more like a technician testing the microphone than America's richest man and the chief executive officer of what is arguably the computer industry's most influential company.
What followed was a question-and-answer session in which the "bits" and "bytes" of computer jargon flew faster than some in the audience could keep up with.
Mr. Gates seemed to relish this banter with fellow software programmers, but beneath his boyish appearance and nasal voice he was also displaying the hard-driving salesmanship and shrewd business sense that has brought his Microsoft Corporation from obscurity to dominance.
The company is being closely watched for antitrust violations by the Federal Trade Commission. Tomorrow, barring a last-minute deal, the FTC is expected to consider seeking a court injunction against certain Microsoft marketing practices. Some executives at rival software companies say Microsoft should be broken in two. They argue that its commanding lead in operating systems, the basic software on which other "applications" such as word-processing programs run, gives it an unfair advantage in writing ap plications. Analysts do not expect dramatic action by the FTC. Microsoft came to dominate the operating-system market for personal computers after IBM Corporation chose the fledgling Redmond, Wash., company to write the ground-level code for its first PC. While IBM has lost market share to clones, virtually all PCs now run on Microsoft's MS-DOS.
Against the backdrop of industry rancor comes a biography of Gates that offers in-depth background on the man who did much to shape today's computer industry. "Gates," by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews (Doubleday, 463 pp., $25), draws on numerous interviews to portray the man in both flattering and unflattering terms.
In the book, Ross Perot, who in 1979 offered to buy Microsoft for several million dollars (the company's market value now exceeds $23 billion, of which co-founder Gates holds about a third), praises Gates for being in touch with his business: "Most corporate executives in the United States don't understand their product: They're all financial men, they're lawyers, you name it. Bill Gates is a guy who knows his product. He can get right down there on the floor with his best programmers and mix it up."
That ability was notably on display in his recent "town meeting" in Boston. Gates held forth on his vision of "information at your fingertips," wherein simpler and more functional computers gain easy access to far-flung databases. He also acknowledged the manifold challenges in the industry.
Also on display was his impatience with uninformed discourse. He bashed one questioner with a comment similar to his oft-quoted line, "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard."
This "may not be charitable," notes a source in the book, "but it's efficient" for Microsoft. This hard edge is part of Gates's drive to be both a skillful programmer and a business success.
The book traces Gates's introduction to computers, his playing hooky while at Harvard University to work on software products (he never graduated), and his interest in genetic, as well as computer, code. "Someday they're gonna unravel this and we'll actually be able to put people onto chips," he is said to have mused. The authors adopt a sprightly writing style, but the book is somewhat heavy going for the general reader.