BOOK REVIEW / Brainy nerds with a greedy passion for chips: 'Accidental Empires' - Robert X Cringely: Viking, 16.99 pounds

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THE AUTHOR of this boisterous history of chips and keyboards reckons that the personal computer industry, which in 1990 recorded sales of pounds 70bn, is the fourth-biggest business in the world, behind cars, energy and, of course, illegal drugs. That's not bad for a gadget only 15 years old. But Robert X Cringely resists the temptation to write pious hymns to the wild energy and far-sightedness of the brainy Californians who introduced us to the special pleasures of staring at a small screen, wondering what the hell's going on in there. On the contrary, he is here, he says, to point out three things:

1. It happened more or less by accident.

2. The people who made it happen were amateurs.

3. And for the most part they still are.

Cringely is a gossip columnist for the US magazine Info World, so it would hardly become him to be in any way reverent. But although the top layer of his book is a fertile mulch of rude and juicy anecdotes about nerdish billionaires, there is serious stuff underneath.

Some of it is optimistic. The software industry - clever swots in T-shirts with ponytails and milk-bottle glasses - is one game that Japan is not about to win. It's too fast, too individualistic and too undisciplined. Nineteen out of 20 start-ups fail, the technology leaps forward every six months or so, and programmers don't like singing company songs. So the born-in-the-USA software industry is going to stay right where it is.

And that is as far as Cringely's all-American cheerleading can go. The big companies in personal computing have lost their reckless creative innocence, and their arteries are being hardened by the fatal sclerosis of corporate life. The suits have moved in, and the talk is all of price points and market penetration. What was once an adventure has now become just a job. WordPerfect Corp, the leading word-processing software company, has an office in Utah where 600 telephonists sit waiting for calls from baffled customers, most of whom ring at least twice. The gaggle of programmers who built the company found themselves having to manage a gigantic chatline, which was never mentioned in their fantasies of business superstardom.

There's something sad about the vision of all these ditzy software types struggling to become big corporate cheeses. Take Mitch Kapor, the head of Lotus 1-2-3, the super-successful spreadsheet program. In his first year he budgeted to make dollars 4m ( pounds 2.25m) but ended up earning pounds 57m - a bit embarrassing for a product touted as a knock-em-dead financial planning package. A few years later, when the company had to start 'rationalising', he stepped aside. 'Why be worth pounds 100 million and still have the job of giving people bad news?'

The mighty IBM, Cringely points out with some glee, has always been like this: 'IBM people are a little smug, a little slow, and slightly overweight. They are folks who drive Buick Regals and take them to the car wash every Saturday, paying extra to get the hot wax.'

Cringely's rudeness takes on a certain zappy bravado when he predicts that IBM's days as a computing superpower are coming to an end. With dazzling chips pouring out of Asia, anyone can make the machines. IBM will fall on the sword of its sluggishness in the fast-moving world of software development, which is where the action is these days. Cringely is offhand about the idea that the big computer companies will start collaborating rather than competing ('think of dogs sniffing each other'); but he is sure that the days when hardware ruled the roost are numbered.

The book's two software princes are Steve Jobs of Apple ('the most dangerous man in Silicon Valley') and Bill Gates, the notorious leader of Microsoft, whose operating software, MS-DOS, has become pretty much a world standard. Cringely's gossip column comes in handy here: he describes Gates holding up a supermarket queue to rummage through his pockets in search of a 50-cents-off coupon for butter pecan ice-cream. In the end someone behind him throws down two quarters. Gates accepts them. At the time he is worth dollars 3bn.

This sounds apocryphal, but Cringely finds it instructive: 'What kind of person wouldn't dig out his own 50 cents and pay for the ice-cream? A person who didn't have the money? Bill Gates has the money. A starving person? Bill Gates has never starved. Some paranoid schizophrenics would have taken the money, but I've heard no claims that Bill Gates is mentally ill. And a kid might take the money - some bright but poorly socialised kid under, say, the age of nine.

'Bingo.'

We might think that it is all too easy to giggle at a mega-rich brainbox who, wait for it . . . doesn't wash his hair] We might even feel that Gates, who, after all, has spent his life pushing chips around, has every right to wear a few on his shoulder. Cringely's blithe sarcasm, we suspect, glosses over some important truths.

But his book remains an exemplary account of an amazing modern phenomenon. It belongs to an increasingly common and likeable literary form: the energetic, first-hand description of professional life, given depth by a lightly worn special knowledge, and sharpened by a spirited satirical edge.

Novels have not proved all that good at getting their arms round people's jobs, perhaps because modern business ethics kick over the decorous moral furniture that fiction likes to lounge in. Cringely begins by looking through his work - 'and danged if I can't find a moral in there'. The fidgety and competing ambitions of his nerds are offered as a spectacle, not as a drama. He gamely tries himself out as a character - 'I can program (poorly) in four computer languages . . . I have made hardware devices that almost worked.' But mostly, and wisely, he stays on touchline, shrieking and bawling, throwing up his arms every time the guys score an own goal.

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