The subtitle of this new biography of William H. Gates, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corporation, may be long and cumbersome, but it accurately describes the book’s dual direction. Although in biographies of most famous people-and Bill Gates has indeed become famous-readers may be interested in the personal life behind the public persona, what inquiring readers really want to know about Gates is how he became a billionaire while still in his thirties. The answer lies in the other half of the subtitle: Gates has become so identified with the meteoric rise of the personal computer (PC) industry that to talk about the industry is to talk about him, and to talk about him is to talk about the industry. Microsoft Corporation’s disk operating system MS-DOS has always been the software brains behind IBM and IBM-compatible computers, and its graphic user interface, Microsoft Windows, is quickly becoming the favorite “look and feel” of those same computers.
Although many may think it is unusual that Gates became so wealthy so young, the fact of the matter is that in the beginning of the volatile computer industry, youthful millionaires were the norm. This business enterprise began as a boy’s passion- technologically oriented Tom Swifts tinkering with parts from Radio Shack. Yet while other boy millionaires, such as Apple computer originators Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, were playing around with soldering irons, young Bill Gates—only in the eighth grade at the time-was learning how to speak the first primitive language of the new machines: Beginner’s All- Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC. For Gates, as for many other young hackers, what began as a fascination with a new toy quickly became an all-consuming passion.
Gates and other computer enthusiasts initiated not only an industry but also a lifestyle. With his freckled face, shock of unruly hair, oversized glasses, and unkempt appearance, Gates practically invented the stereotype of the computer nerd. Not only has he graced the cover ofPeople and of Time, but he became as familiar a figure of parody in the Sunday comic section as he is in the business section-his greasy hair as recognizable as the protruding ears of Ross Perot. Despite his youthful, awkward appearance, Gates has proved himself a consummate, sometimes cutthroat, executive. Even when he had to order Shirley Temples at businessmen’s power lunches, he was able to take the starch out of the button-down collar professionals at powerful IBM.
Gates learned to program on large time-sharing mainframes when he was still in junior high in Seattle, Washington. Consequently, when the Altair 880O—the forerunner of all small personal computers-was introduced in the January, 1975, issue of Popular Electronics, Gates was ready for it. He and his friend Paul Allen contacted MITS, the small company assembling and selling the Altair in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and brashly informed its people that they had developed a full-blown BASIC program that would run on the primitive machine. It was the first, but not the last, time that Gates would promise something he did not have and then pressure himself and those around him to deliver it.
For those familiar with computers, Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews’ account of the origins of Microsoft is the stuff that hackers’ dreams are made of. Staying up all night repeatedly, filling yellow legal pads with assembly-language code, spending hundreds of hours at a keyboard, Gates and Allen finally put together a program that they could take to Albuquerque. Computer enthusiasts will appreciate the tension- filled moment in New Mexico when Allen typed in the memory size for the program-an impressive seven kilobytes-and the primitive teletype machine typed out “READY” Stunned that the program actually worked, Allen typed “PRINT 2+2.” When the machine clacked out the remarkable response “4,” the meteoric rise of Bill Gates from unknown nerd to best-known nerd in America had begun.
During Microsoft’s Albuquerque period, Gates, a mere twenty, hired programmers who were as obsessive as he was-willing to work overtime, live on pizzas and cokes, and compete with the boss himself; in short, he learned how to run what has become the most powerful software company in the world. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, as new personal computers were developed-many of which have since become outdated museum pieces-all of them needed a programming language, a set of instructions, to be of any value. Developing programs for Commodore, Apple, Tandy Corporation, and Texas Instruments, Microsoft grew fast enough that it was able to break away from the poorly run MITS, whose persistent hobbyist orientation made it unable to keep up with the rapid changes in...
(The entire section is 1950 words.)