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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices