THE SAGA OF HOW THE WEB WAS WON A BUNCH OF OUTLAW ENTREPRENEURS GOT A HEAD START IN THE RUSH TO CONQUER THE INTERNET. THEN BILL GATES RODE INTO TOWN.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Three years ago Netscape Communications shipped its first web browser. Since then the rise of the web has brought with it a burst of new companies, dizzy dealmaking, and supercharged change. Now two new books help us make sense of it all.
In Architects of the Web, author and venture capitalist Robert Reid uses the real-life stories of internet pioneers to explain how this promising industry got to where it is today. Well written and rich with detail, the book starts with the intriguing tale of Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen. Reid had a front-row seat during Netscape's first year, when he was the manager at Silicon Graphics responsible for relations between the two companies. He sketches a picture of a startup that combines an almost religious zeal to make the web accessible to all with a techie's sense of humor: Early on, some Netscape employees wanted to name its browser InfoSuck.
If Netscape succeeded during the early years through zealotry, one of its partners, Yahoo, grew to prominence through smart blocking and tackling. Reid explains that Yahoo stands out from other search companies because it has a clever editorial product, compiled by real people, rather than just a coldly technological engine to search websites. "Yahoo is like the sole table of contents in a book with many indexes," he writes. Another secret of Yahoo's success so far is its strategy to build the web's biggest database of what users really want. With this kind of content on hand, Yahoo hopes to eventually become a full-fledged media company.
Reid's book will probably come to be viewed as the definitive early history of the eight companies he profiles, including CNET, Marimba, and Progressive Networks. But there's a big problem with its overall vision of the web itself: It almost completely ignores Microsoft.
It's true that Microsoft wasn't, technically, an architect of the web. Bill Gates lacked Andreessen's early insight into the internet's possibilities. But he woke up fast, and he has so souped up the company's ubiquitous software products with web capabilities that now Microsoft has become a dominant player. So James Wallace's new book, Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace, is an apt companion volume--even though its prose and reporting are vastly inferior to Reid's efforts. While Reid clearly spent hours talking with his subjects, Wallace seems to have depended heavily on clips from periodicals.
Wallace, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, does do an impressive job of organizing a dauntingly complex tale. It's not just the story of how Gates belatedly woke up to the importance of the web. The book also tells us all the amazing things that have happened to Microsoft in the past three years: the launch of Windows 95, the successive federal investigations into possible Microsoft antitrust violations, and the company's lengthy negotiations with cable television companies as it sought to provide software for interactive television.
Wallace is no friend of Bill Gates'. His previous book on Microsoft alleges a litany of anticompetitive acts by Gates and his lieutenants. It was cited by a federal judge who briefly delayed Microsoft's antitrust consent decree with the Justice Department. As the self-appointed historian for the company's opposition, Wallace devotes vast amounts of space in his new book to criticisms of Microsoft's greed and venality, downplaying, for the most part, the fact that Gates is the driving force behind the nation's most promising new industry. For instance, to capture Microsoft's cutthroat nature, Wallace quotes Jeff Lill, a top developer of the Microsoft Network who later left the company: "A competitor comes in and does something interesting, then we...basically clone it...[and] then relentlessly make it better over the years. That's our strategy. And it has worked damn well."
Bottom line, the book is flawed by its tendentiousness. But today only willfully naive business people can afford not to learn all they can about Microsoft.