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Book Reviews

How the Web Was Won

by Paul Andrews

The Silicon Boys

by David A. Kaplan

The New New Thing

by Michael Lewis

Depending on who you ask, the economy is either “booming,” “dangerously overheated,” or “a bubble about to burst.” There’s probably a bit of truth in all three descriptions, but the fact is this: we’re living through one of the most flatulent bursts of capitalist activity the world has ever seen. A primer for doing business in the late 1990s might read:

1. Start a company that hasn’t even the slimmest hope of turning a profit in the foreseeable future.

2. Tack “.com” onto said company’s name.

3. List said company on the NASDAQ.

4. Watch the billions pour in.

The two great forces of Western civilization – technology and greed – have fallen in love and are sharing an apartment in Silicon Valley. And everybody, publishers included, wants a piece of the action. Everywhere you turn this autumn, bookstore shelves are filling up with “inside stories” from the world of high-tech business.

But here’s the thing: the insane fortunes currently being made in Silicon Valley have precious little to do with business savvy or technological innovation and everything to do with being in the right place at the right time. David Kaplan understands this, and he turns it to his advantage in The Silicon Boys. The book begins with a brief history of the Valley, which is a little unusual, since Silicon Valley is a place with no respect for the past whatsoever. Buildings stand only until somebody with a fatter wallet decides his firm needs a new “campus.” Cars and jobs and companies are all infinitely disposable, and the only thing that matters is being part of the next hot startup.

But the place does have a history, and Kaplan is convinced that it used to have a heart, too. Telling the story of the early days of research labs at Stanford University and corporate R&D houses like Xerox PARC, he goes all misty. There are dozens of tales here: some, like John Bardeen’s and Walter Brittain’s invention of the transistor, are triumphant. Others, like the descent of semiconductor pioneer William Shockley into the bigoted lunacy of eugenics, are profoundly sad.

The recent history of Silicon Valley, however, is about geeks with ballooning stock options and not much else. To his credit, Kaplan doesn’t try to make an epic out of all the board meetings and IPOs; instead, he accords the new high-tech grillionaires exactly as much respect as they deserve. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are so wealthy because they’re ruthless corporate bullies. Jerry Yang is just some dude whose web site (Yahoo) happened to get a lot of traffic in the early days. Oracle’s Larry Ellison is a notorious womanizer. There are no shocking revelations here, just an irreverent look at the adolescent, macho vibe of the modern-day high-tech world. But the vibe is refreshing, and the writing sparkles with snarky wit.

How the Web Was Won, on the other hand, is a shameless exercise in corporate butt-kissing. Billing itself as “the inside story of how Bill Gates and his band of Internet idealists transformed a software empire,” it recounts a chapter in the history of Microsoft: the time when the company started to pay attention to the Internet.

As Paul Andrews tells it, the Microsoft of the early 1990s was a big, hulking beast of a company, totally focused on operating systems and applications. It made MS-DOS. It made Windows. It sold a bazillion copies of Word and Excel. Then the Internet came along, making wild successes out of a collection of new companies, most notably America Online and Netscape. Advertisers took to sticking @ signs any place they could, and Wired magazine used up a lot of neon ink proclaiming that the revolution was nigh. Meanwhile, Microsoft lumbered along, oblivious to the changes happening all around. Then, on Dec. 7, 1995 (the anniversary of the Pearl Harbour bombing, as Andrews dramatically recalls), Bill Gates announced that his company was going to make the Internet its number-one priority.

Getting a large company to stop doing one thing and start doing another is a challenge, and could make for compelling reading, but the truth is that none of this story is even slightly interesting. Andrews staggers from one yawningly dull anecdote to another, outlining in meticulous detail the internal processes that led to the creation of Internet Explorer and, ultimately, the infamous “browser wars” with Netscape. The pages are dense with the minutiae of the process, all talk about UNIX and proprietary Java implementations and the challenge of making Windows ready for TCP/IP. Along the way, Andrews never misses a chance to sing the Chairman’s praises. In case you were curious, Bill Gates is a visionary, a master strategist, and an unparalleled businessman.

The story of Microsoft and the Internet is brutal: a big, powerful technology corporation realized that there was a part of the high-tech world that it did not control, and then set about trying to crush its competitors. How the Web Was Won entirely ignores the larger issues – monopoly, greed, power – and concentrates instead on a few hoops that Gates and company had to jump through. The result is not just dull, it’s infuriating: the hardcover equivalent of the schoolyard sidekick who stands beside the bully and says “Yeah!”

The New New Thing is also reverential, but Michael Lewis at least has the decency not to drool on his subject. The book is a profile of Jim Clark, a hot-tempered entrepreneur who’s had the good fortune to be involved with three separate multi-billion-dollar startups.

Clark got his big-money start when he invented a computer chip he called the Geometry Engine, then founded Silicon Graphics Inc. to sell it. SGI thrived, and Clark’s shares made him a billionaire. But he clashed with the board and the management team, and he left in search of something else to do.

That something else, as it turned out, was Netscape. Hooking up with Marc Andreessen (who had written Mosaic, the first modern Web browser), Clark called in a few favours with Valley venture capitalists and another multi-billion-dollar company was born. Then he did it again, this time with a company called Healtheon. Neither Lewis nor Clark seems to have any idea just what Healtheon actually does, but both men seem convinced that it will reinvent the American health care system.

This is really the point of The New New Thing. Since his turn at SGI, Clark has never really cared much for actually running the businesses he helped found. Instead, he’s spent months fiddling with his yacht and dreaming up ideas for new companies on pieces of scrap paper. Through it all, Lewis does his best to portray Clark as a visionary, as a man with a singular knack for spotting trends and technologies.

It’s a good effort, but all the gassy prose in the world won’t change one fact: Clark is as arrogant as they come, a man so self-absorbed that he makes Donald Trump look humble by comparison. Still, with his greed, his short attention span, and his utter lack of interest in anything that’s not new, he is, in a sense, the ultimate Silicon Valley tycoon.


Reviewer: Bret Dawson

Publisher: Broadway Books/ Doubleday Canada


Price: $42.95

Page Count: 352 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7679-0048-0

Issue Date: 1999-11

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment


Reviewer: Bret Dawson

Publisher: William Morrow/HarperCollins Canada


Price: $40

Page Count: 358 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-68816148-0


Issue Date: November 1, 1999

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment

Reviewer: Bret Dawson

Publisher: W.W. Norton/Penguin Books Canada


Price: $36.99

Page Count: 256 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-393-04813-6

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: November 1, 1999

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment