In "The Road Ahead," Bill Gates disappointed both fans and the curious who had hoped the world's richest man might depart from the usual script and lift the veil on what makes him tick.
So when my reviewer's copy of "Business @ the Speed of Thought" arrived, I opened the book wondering whether the real man might at last peek through the pages. Alas, I have to report that, in his second try as author, Microsoft's chief executive is still missing in action.
In 440 pages of uninspired prose, Gates retreats behind his carefully cultivated image as high-tech guru to pass along words of wisdom he's picked up along the way. But the "CEOs, other organizational leaders and managers at all levels" that Gates wants to reach will need to work awfully hard to mine any nuggets.
Reading at times like a latter day McGuffey's Reader, "Business @ the Speed of Thought" rehashes familiar themes from old speeches -- Web work style, information at your fingertips, digital nervous system -- to drive home a larger point: Computer technology is forcing management to think faster and execute better.
Now why didn't I think of that?
It's become fashionable for the high and mighty of the business world to put their thoughts to paper and Gates clearly wanted to emulate one of his heroes, Alfred P. Sloan, the legendary head of General Motors who retired to write one of the best business memoirs of his century.
And what with the advent of the Internet and its attendant challenges, executives could surely use a helping hand from one as accomplished as Gates. Unfortunately, the book's stilted style and insipid assertions -- my favorite is "the middleman must add value" (and the sky is blue!) -- all too often mar the tome. Gates may know how to make money but he can't write worth a lick. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that Gates' "collaborator" (i.e., ghostwriter) is a former company flak named Collins Hemingway -- no relation of Ernest, and it shows.
Too bad Gates didn't consult with Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca or real estate mogul Donald Trump before starting out. These two fellow members of the business elite at least knew how to tell an entertaining tale. Faced with the prospect of rereading this book, I would rather have my brains ripped out by a plastic fork.
Joel Klein, anyone?
Those of you who thought about heading straight for the index, hoping to find out what Gates really thinks about David Boies and the rest of his persecutors at the Justice Department, will be disappointed. Keeping to the task he sets for himself at the outset, Gates ignores Microsoft's rivalry with Netscape as well as the landmark antitrust charges brought last spring by the government.
The closest we get is Gates' recollection of the company's -- relatively late -- push into the Internet:
"On December 7, 1995, we held our first Internet Strategy Day, where for the first time we publicly previewed the array of technologies we were developing to integrate Internet support into our core products. Within a year of those announcements we had 'Internet-enabled' our major products and delivered a number of new ones focused on the Internet. Now we lead in several major Internet areas and have a growing number of people using our browser. No one company will dominate the Internet, but Microsoft has come back to play an important role."
Oh, and did I mention that he loves the flag, motherhood and apple pie?
The biggest disappointment is that, after reading two of his books, we still don't know how Bill Gates became Bill Gates. I'm not asking him to go on Oprah and bare his soul -- his on-air appearance with Connie Chung was painful enough -- but Gates would make a more lasting contribution by dipping into his personal RAM bank and sharing some of the lessons -- as a businessman and as a person.