The Bill Gates Kool-Aid Test

Joe Nocera and Kara Swisher

The Bill Gates Kool-Aid Test

Joe Nocera and Kara Swisher

The Bill Gates Kool-Aid Test
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Aug. 26 1999 2:09 PM

Joe Nocera and Kara Swisher

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Dear Kara,

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Sorry to get such a late start today. I find when I'm starting out on a new story--as has been the case the last couple of days--I have a hard time even reading the newspapers, much less absorbing the information contained within. I'm too preoccupied, too panicked. I always feel as though I'm starting way too late, and I'll never be able to pull it off, and that this will be the story that finally exposes me for the fraud that I really am. My wife thinks this is an utterly absurd way to go through life, for which I can offer no defense but a helpless shrug. I used to think that I would get over this feeling; now I know better.

Anyway ... I did want to pick up on two threads from your message this morning. First, on the question of Bill Gates, it strikes me as completely unarguable that his "living icon" status has been a tremendous asset to Microsoft--or at least it did until the antitrust trial began. First, he's a founder who is much more a businessman than a technologist--he doesn't like to hear that, but it's true--so he gets to command the respect that founders command within companies, while also having the set of skills, rarely seen in founders, that are required to manage very big companies. It helps--a lot--that his employees will follow him over a cliff. The classic example was when he woke up one day and decided that Microsoft needed to devote all its energies to the Internet. The entire company had to shift on a dime and promising projects, which people had devoted years to, were scrapped because they didn't relate to the Internet. At a typical big company, there would have been enormous resistance. But at Microsoft, there wasn't so much as a whisper of complaint. Everybody simply got with the program, because, by God, that's what Bill wanted. Competitors like to say that Microsoft employees "take the Kool-Aid," but they probably all wish they had at least a little of that Kool-Aid themselves.

During the antitrust trial, though, you could see the problem with that lack of independent thinking. Gates' deposition was a true abomination--he was churlish and evasive--and precisely because he is so clearly the embodiment of his company, he hurt Microsoft's cause a great deal. But no one at Microsoft could admit that obvious truth. (Instead, they blamed it on the Feds for asking "bad" questions, and the press for writing stories that simply said out loud what we were seeing with our own eyes.) And most of the subsequent Microsoft witnesses brought to the trial the same set of characteristics that were so vividly on display during the Gates deposition: defensiveness, arrogance, an unwillingness to say anything straightforwardly. Fairly or not, they all looked as though they had something to hide, just as Bill had. It's such an insular culture, ultimately, that Microsoft people have trouble even grasping questions that are posed from a non-Microsoft point of view. The great virtue of Ken Auletta's New Yorker piece on the trial is that it really illustrated that point wonderfully. Ken would constantly ask Gates simple, sensible questions--and would get an uncomprehending rant from Gates in return. Sigh.

Speaking of abominations, the Waco disclosure certainly ranks as one, on so many levels. Not long after the event, an old Texas friend of mine, Dick J. Reavis, went to work on a book about it. He was convinced that the government had behaved badly--an attitude I foolish wrote off as part of his generally anti-government bias. Boy, was I ever wrong, and was he ever right. Over the years, it has become increasingly clear that Waco was a disaster that should never have happened. It gives solace to the "off the grid" crowd. It's scary that the FBI will tell lies for six years--six years!--before someone with firsthand knowledge is willing to tell the truth. I can't stand people who play to those who view the government as one giant, secret conspiracy (Oliver Stone, for instance). But at moments like this one, it is hard to argue with them.

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Oh, and one other thing: Isn't this just another reminder that Janet Reno ranks among the worst attorneys general of all time? Sure seems that way to me.

Joe Nocera is an editor-at-large for Fortune magazine who lives in Northampton, Mass. Kara Swisher covers Silicon Valley for the Wall Street Journal and is the author of aol.com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web (clickhereto buy the book).