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Accidental Empires

It’s summer again, and all respectable publications have reviews of books that would be appropriate for summer reading, whatever that is. I’ve never found that one season was necessarily any better than another for reading, but I’ve found a book that reads well any time of the year.

Robert X. Cringely, InfoWorld’s pseudonymous rumor columnist, has dipped into his vast store of industry knowledge and anecdotes to produce "Accidental Empires: How the boys of Silicon Valley make their millions, battle foreign competition, and still can’t get a date." You may not always be able to judge a book by its cover, but Cringely’s flip subtitle gives a pretty good introduction to what is in many ways an insightfully flip book.

Like several other books, most notably Steven Levy’s "Hackers," which covers a period of time somewhat prior to where Cringely picks up, "Accidental Empires" presents a history of the computer industry. I specifically say "a" history, since I suspect that some people disagree with Cringely’s version of various events. No trouble there – eminent historians seldom agree completely on the specifics either. "Accidental Empires" has a more narrow focus than Levy’s "Hackers" in that it aims more directly at the business end of the industry, rather than looking at the machines or the people. Cringely does zero in on a number of people, but primarily the larger-than-life figures in the industry like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

In the end, though, three things set "Accidental Empires" apart from the rest of the industry corpus. First, Cringely may be flip, but I found his writing a joy to read, an uncommon occurrence in industry works. His style includes an engaging level of self-deprecation that tempers many of his harsh comments about various industry figures. This is evident from the start, when he notes the three groups that will hate this book, the people mentioned in it, the people not mentioned but would like to be in the first group, and the people who don’t "give a damn about the other two hate groups and will just hate the book because somewhere I write that object-oriented programming was invented in Norway in 1967, when they know it was invented in Bergen, Norway, on a rainy afternoon in late 1966." So if you fall into one of these groups, Cringely is ready for you.

Second, I think Cringely sees the industry as driven more by personality and ego than anything else, and as such he spends a fair amount of time analyzing the major figures, presenting his usually justified opinions of what makes them tick and why. For instance, about Gates, Cringely says:

Young Bill Gates is incredibly competitive because he has a terrific need to win. Give him an advantage, and he’ll take it. Allow him an advantage, and he’ll still take it. … Those who think he cheats to win are generally wrong. What’s right is that Gates doesn’t mind winning ungracefully. A win is still a win. It’s clear that if Bill Gates thinks he can’t win, he won’t play.

Cringely’s view of Steve Jobs carries an equal amount of insight:

The most dangerous man in Silicon Valley sits alone on many weekday mornings, drinking coffee at Il Fornaio, an Italian restaurant on Cowper Street in Palo Alto. He’s not the richest guy around or the smartest, but under a haircut that looks as if someone put a bowl on his head and trimmed around the edges, Steve Jobs holds an idea that keeps some grown men and women of the Valley awake at night. Unlike these insomniacs, Jobs isn’t in this business for the money, and that’s what makes him dangerous.

Third and finally, Cringely does what few other chroniclers attempt and makes suggestions about how things might be done better. I find this delightful, especially in this day and age of dour economic and competitive predictions. Cringely claims, perhaps correctly, that mainframes will die on January 1st, 2000. That’s because all those mainframe programs that cut paychecks and pay taxes and track inventory were programmed years ago when no one thought that the same program would do its duty without modification in the year 2000. Cringely maintains, and I suspect he’s right, that much source code was lost or destroyed long ago. If that’s true, many of these programs will cease to work, and the age of the microcomputer will truly begin. At that paradigm shift, he suggests, software will truly become all-important and we will need a new model for publishing it. Companies cannot afford to build the infrastructure each time, so Cringely offers the idea of the software studio, based on the movie and TV industry in which the studios create the infrastructure, and the players – programmers in this case – all work on contract and are free to move on afterwards. It’s an intriguing idea, and only putting it into practice would prove its efficacy one way or the other.

Whether or not you agree with Cringely’s assessment of the industry and suggestions for its future, I recommend that you find "Accidental Empires" at a bookstore or library soon. Among the numerous books in my computer book collection, I think "Accidental Empires" is one of the more enjoyable and more elucidating. It’s hard to beat that combination, whether the weather is sultry or frigid.

As an aside, "Robert X. Cringely" is a pseudonym, and one that a recent BYTE review of the book theoretically revealed. I don’t necessarily place much faith in that report, and frankly, I don’t give a damn. I think there’s too little mystery in this world as it stands, and not knowing who writes those columns is a thoroughly trivial and pleasant mystery. Also, I hear from reliable sources that the same person has written the column for quite a few years so Bob Cringely is not some collective alien being. You can even send him mail on the Internet at <[email protected]>. Anyone who reads email can’t be all bad.

Oh, and if you consider yourself a rabid Macintosh user who cares little for the rest of the industry, don’t worry. Despite the broad-based view of the industry, including notes about IBM, Microsoft, and Sun, followers of Apple will find plenty of juicy reading, and besides, it’s good to get out and look at the rest of the world. Finally, don’t feel left out, I have it on good authority that Cringely himself uses a IIcx and Word.

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