THE REAL BILL GATES STORY: TAKE ONE A lively biography offers the best account yet of the 37-year-old software titan who has become America's richest man.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Item: When Microsoft CEO and founder Bill Gates was a kid, he negotiated a contract with his older sister over the right to use her baseball glove. Item: In his company's early days, Gates and a colleague used to sneak into a construction site after hours and race bulldozers. Item: In 1979, two years before the launch of the IBM PC, Ross Perot offered to buy Microsoft -- and later kicked himself for not paying whatever price Gates could have possibly demanded. Item: When Gates's pals turned thirtysomething and started getting married in droves, he personally recruited strippers to perform at their bachelor parties. Item: When Gates was going out with Ann Winblad, a hypersmart venture capitalist, the couple invented what they called the virtual date: They'd go to the same movie simultaneously in different cities, then discuss it on their car phones. That's the kind of voyeuristic, anecdotal stuff that will make Gates (Doubleday, $25) by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews a hot read throughout computerdom. PC buffs who can't get enough gossip about the industry's stars or lore about its early days will find much here that is fresh and intriguing. Winblad, a pioneering software entrepreneur and self-made multimillionaire who had a serious romantic relationship with Gates, told FORTUNE that the book ''recaptures the youth, drive, intelligence, and serendipity that created the software industry,'' even though it ''leaves a lot of Bill undiscovered.'' Beyond this heady mix of talk and technolore, managers of all stripes will appreciate the book as a shrewd case study of the rise of Microsoft -- and the coincidental decline of its longtime partner, IBM. REPORTED AND WRITTEN in just a year and a half, the 534-page tome is what programmers call an ''amazing hack.'' The co-authors are technologically savvy: Manes, an ex-programmer, is a former columnist for PC Magazine and PC/ Computing. Andrews covers Microsoft for the Seattle Times. Their prose is . sprinkled with cynical, ironic, Tom Wolfe-ish flourishes (lots of exclamation points!) that go well with the quirky, smart-alecky ethos of the software developers they are writing about. Although Microsoft initially refused to cooperate, Manes and Andrews wound up getting an impressive 20 hours of interviews with Gates, followed by nine hours of wrangling with him over facts once Gates obtained a leaked copy of the galleys. They combed contracts and court documents to sort through some of the industry's mythology. (To be sure, their investigative reporting on Gates's chronic speeding violations is a bit excessive.) The good stuff starts on page one, when we learn that even Gates's name isn't what we think it is. The Microsoft CEO, nicknamed ''Trey'' as a kid and known as William H. Gates III in business, is really No. 4 in the patriarchal line. His father, the real Bill Three Sticks, switched to ''Jr.'' to look like more of a regular guy upon joining the Army. We go on to enjoy the crude color of the ''loose, wear-anything, say- anything, do-anything atmosphere of Microsoft.'' The company's lingo is rather graphic: We watch as Gates's employees, flush with windfalls from company-granted stock, take to wearing buttons with the initials FYIFV, for ''Fuck You, I'm Fully Vested.'' Young overachievers grind down their minds and bodies in ''death marches.'' Burnt-out souls who drop out only to return after ill-fated grasps for new lifestyles are ''lettuce pickers.'' The breed was named after a headstrong spreadsheet programmer who quit and went to work as a migrant farmer. After his backpack was stolen, he came back to Microsoft so he could earn money for food. Manes and Andrews seem to have talked or exchanged electronic mail with virtually everybody who's anybody in the PC business -- a rather witty bunch, as evidenced by the book's ample supply of killer quotes. Vern Raburn, a former Microsoft vice president who now runs the Slate software company, opines, ''Microsoft has been the single greatest beneficiary of inept competition in the world.'' Asked why there have been so few software company mergers, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor draws a comparison to his days as a Yale undergraduate: ''Every single guy thought about sleeping with every single girl, and all possibilities were examined, and it almost never happened.'' Gates wrangles with Apple's Steve Jobs over who has the right to filch innovations from Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. ''We both have this rich neighbor named Xerox, and you broke in to steal the TV set and found I'd been there first, and you said, 'Hey, that's not fair! I wanted to steal the TV set,' '' says Gates. Microsoft's stormy relationship with Big Blue plays a central role in the drama. The authors claim that Gates's blue-blood family ties helped land Microsoft its breakthrough deal to provide the operating system for the original 1981 IBM PC. Bill's mother, Mary, sat on the board of directors of United Way along with IBM President John Opel.

As Microsoft and IBM developed software together in the 1980s, the cultures proved an absurd contrast. Big Blue measured its programmers' progress by the number of lines of code they churned out -- an idiotic approach, the Microsofties thought, because good programs are as concise as possible. IBM threw bodies at projects, a method derided as ''masses of asses'' at Microsoft, which staffed its teams thinly. Gates hired away Mike Maples, one of IBM's smartest guys, but got him to accept a mere two weeks' annual vacation when he'd been getting six at Big Blue. Such is Microsoft's work ethic and frugality -- and Gates's sharp dealmaking. Manes and Andrews show that despite its contempt for IBM, Microsoft did whatever was necessary to keep Armonk's lucrative patronage, at least until it was ready and able to thrash IBM head to head in the marketplace. Despite this book's many virtues, it does suffer from a few shortcomings. Its failure to look ahead at Microsoft's prospects in the 1990s diminishes its value as a management study. More serious, it disappoints as a biography. Sure, Gates opens with about 50 pages on its hero's family background and youth and tacks on a 16-page epilogue that is something of a personality profile (what he thinks about religion, what he thinks about politics, etc.). And Manes and Andrews deserve credit for trying to show Gates's complexity rather than blithely simplifying him, as most previous profiles have done. BUT ALONG THE WAY, their dense play-by-play on products, deals, and events sometimes overwhelms the focus on Gates the man. While we get lots of interesting reportorial details, his inner world never comes alive to the reader. Most disappointing, Manes and Andrews fail to uncover -- or even seriously speculate about -- what really makes Gates tick, the mysterious sources of his astonishing motivation, energy, ambition, and competitiveness. What drives this extraordinary character? Twice the authors say, ''Gates didn't want to change the world, he wanted to rule it.'' Regrettably, that's about as deep as they get. Still, the story is far from over. Gates is, after all, only 37. So consider this book an extremely valuable first step toward the definitive biography, probably circa 2040.


EXCERPT: ''Gates, the corporate bigwig, would discuss Microsoft business over dinner with employees and then blithely split the check.''