This is the definitive investigation of the most important business story of our time. In riveting style, Pride Before the Fall uncovers the truth behind the headlines -- including the hidden roles of Silicon Valley's most powerful men in shattering Microsoft's aura of invincibility and the climate of fear that held an industry in its thrall. Heilemann's groundbreaking book is based on extensive and exclusive interviews with Bill Gates and his second-in-command at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer; the Justice Department's then-assistant attorney general Joel Klein; chief government counsel David Boies; Intel chairman Andy Grove and other leading high-tech executives; and scores of lesser-known but pivotal players. Heilemann details exactly how the high-tech kingpins whose companies Gates tried to destroy or strong-arm (Netscape, Apple, Sun Microsystems, even Intel) worked behind the scenes to help the government bring Microsoft down. And he explores the lasting damage that the trial has inflicted on the first great empire of the new economy.
John Arthur Heilemann is an American journalist for New York magazine, where he mainly covers US politics. Previously, he was a staff writer for The New Yorker, Wired and The Economist. He is the co-author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Game Change Obama and the Clintons McCain and Palin and the Race of a Lifetime, about the 2008 US presidential campaign. Heilemann is also a political analyst for MSNBC.
This surprisingly sober account of the diminishment of Bill Gates and Microsoft ought to be required reading for anyone (probably most of us) who has often tuned out the unending stream of news accounts covering the same territory. Heilemann, formerly a never-dull political writer for HotWired and then a staff writer for the New Yorker, walks us through the story admirably. He had amazing access to the principal figures in the recent court battle between the U.S. Justice Department and Microsoft, including two interviews with Gates himself, and it shows.
The trial ended dramatically when U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson found that Microsoft was indeed a monopoly, and last June 7 ordered it broken in two. Jackson knew an appeal was coming, and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will hear arguments on Feb. 26 and 27.
It was brave of Heilemann to rush into print with a book during the interregnum between the June ruling and the appeal -- which could change everything -- but he's performed a service in doing so. The tale he tells has much to show us about the computer industry, and about our times.
Heilemann understands technology well enough to navigate even some of the murkier areas covered in the trial, but -- much more important -- he has a great feel for Washington and the ways of U.S. politics. He understands, as Gates and his sycophants in Redmond, Wash., never seemed to, that the successful effort to paint Microsoft as a monopolist was as much political as it was legal.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein, the man who led the charge against Gates and his behemoth, always saw the fight this way. The point was not just whether Microsoft's Windows operating system enjoyed a monopoly, or even whether it had abused its monopoly power by seeking to wipe out any potential competitors. The point, Klein knew, was also whether a case could be made in the realm of public opinion that Gates was arrogant and out-of-hand enough to make government scrutiny appear appropriate. It could. He was.
The theme of arrogance gives the book its flavor, and also something more. One does not have to start with a blanket distaste for rich white men who think they are smarter than everyone else to take a certain satisfaction in reading about Gates, back at Microsoft headquarters, crumbling as the trial makes him look worse and worse:
"His voice quavered; his body quaked," Heilemann writes of a board of directors meeting. "And where Gates in full lather was normally condescending and sometimes cruel, now he was seized by unbridled self-pity. The DOJ was demonizing him. The press hated him. His rivals were conspiring to take him down. The political establishment was ganging up on him. His enemies were legion; his defenders, mute. How had this happened? What could he do?"
Does the charge of self-pity sound extreme? There's more:
"Gates' eyes reddened. 'The whole thing is crashing in on me,' he said. 'It's all crashing in.'
"And with that, the richest man in the world fell silent, and began to cry."
Gates is human after all. But as Heilemann makes very clear, it would not have taken much for Gates to avoid finding himself in such a soul-crushing position. He built a world-changing company, and staffed it with the smartest people he could find. They all adored their exalted leader, and no one has ever questioned Gates' acumen as a business leader.
Where the story turns bizarre is in making clear Gates' almost petulant unwillingness to consider a larger world than the Microsoft campus in Washington state. He spectacularly flubs the PR battle with a series of blunders and missteps that any fool would take as a wake-up call, but seems never to engage in any real soul-searching, just self-pity.
It's a deeply disturbing portrait of one kind of people who rise to be titans of industry, especially at a time when a new industry is rapidly reshaping old assumptions. Gates thinks that since he knows technology, he knows everything. But lying is still lying -- and the deposition Gates gives in the case provides videotape of him doing it.
Heilemann illuminates all this territory with a sure hand and the solid insights of someone with a great nose for a weak argument. No one can see Gates or his company in the same way after reading this book. Outsized pride is one thing, but the king of the geeks repeatedly seems gripped by a much nastier, more petulant strain of arrogance. When a Gates deputy rants to Heilemann about "sub-50-IQ people" daring to oppose Microsoft, it's clear this sort of thing starts at the top.
In fact, one of the few objections to the book would be with Heilemann's otherwise first-class reporting. He writes lucidly and at some length about Gates' arrogance -- but, so far as we can tell, he never comes out and asks Gates during their two-plus hours of face time if the billionaire was ever guilty of arrogance. This stands out only because Heilemann is clearly a fearless interviewer who pushes Gates often, and does ask him if he has any regrets about Microsoft's handling of the trial. (He has none, of course.)
These are quibbles. The rules of engagement in an interview with someone of Gates' stature are notoriously nettlesome. But it does need to be mentioned that the book, which started out as a long article in Wired magazine, does have a certain bloodlessness to it. Heilemann was deliciously Hunter Thompson- esque at times when he covered the 1996 presidential race for HotWired, and he drops in phrases like "blind s--house luck" here, but so infrequently that the departure from his deft, calm, businesslike tone counts as a small shock. He was no doubt right to take the straight road in dealing with such weighty goings-on, but a little more of that savage, bent wit of his would have been appreciated.
Steve Kettmann lives in Berlin and writes regularly for Salon and other publications.
An interesting account of the Microsoft trial, which everyone my age will remember as being "a thing" in the news for a while. But then, like many "a things," it just sort of went away, didn't it? The story vanished off the front page and then, years later, occasionally nerds like myself would wonder, "wait, didn't Microsoft lose that case? Weren't they supposed to be broken up? Why didn't that ever happen?"
The book itself is good; Heilemann's writing style is enjoyable enough to liven up courtroom proceedings, which are often not the most fascinating affairs (John Grisham's entire bibliography and all Law & Order versions notwithstanding). Ultimately, though, this book is harmed by its publication date. There's no real aftermath, no depiction of what happened next. Of course, at the time it was written, that's because we didn't yet know what would happen, but at the time of this review, it's been 15 years. Would an afterword from the author have been too much to hope for?
In the end, if you're looking to immerse yourself for a bit in the recent history of computers in the 90s, there's enough information here to sate your hunger. But you'll probably want more than this book offers, given how far we've come since then, and sadly, it seems like an update is not forthcoming. But the bones of the story are still good; if nothing else, it's fun to see the "who's who" mention from some of the big names in software at the time, including the occasional cameo from Steve Jobs, who hadn't yet completed his reformation of Apple. Interesting stuff.