THE PLOT TO GET BILL GATES

An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man . . . and the People Who Hate Him

By Gary Rivlin

Times Business. 360 pp. $25

The computer industry, Gary Rivlin says, is "incomprehensibly vast" except at the top, about which one insider told him: "This is a small industry. Everyone knows everybody else." If they don't live and work in California's Silicon Valley, they live and work outside Seattle in Redmond, home base of the industry's 800-pound gorilla, Microsoft, and they travel back and forth endlessly between the two places.

What unites them, Rivlin argues in this informative and entertaining book, is their obsession with Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, possessor of an ever-growing fortune so vast as to defy the imagination. The industry is divided into two camps:

"On one side were Intel, Microsoft and two subgroups of software vendors hitching their wagons to Windows: those swimming in money and thus in love with Microsoft, and those equally flush but still resentful because success meant goose-stepping to Microsoft's orders. On the other side were the Internet browser manufacturer Netscape, Larry Ellison's Oracle, IBM, Sun Microsystems and a host of other companies, large and small. So closely aligned were these companies, at least in people's minds, that people had started referring to them jointly as NOISE (Netscape, Oracle, IBM, Sun--and Everybody else.)"

All of these companies and the people who own them--as well as many of the people who work for and own stock in them--are incredibly rich, but Microsoft and Gates are so much richer and so much more powerful that they are the focus of equally incredible envy and hatred: "It didn't matter if you were talking with [Silicon] Valley's top guns or its rawest would-be star, the connective tissue binding the area together was the preoccupation with Gates. They might have hated him, resented him, envied him, or maybe even respected him, but they certainly didn't ignore him; so deep was their feeling that it sometimes seemed as if they could talk about no one else. He cut an enormous figure in the industry, yet they only made him bigger."

As one woman put it, "Some very wealthy little boys are fighting each other," and the picture as Rivlin paints it is often no prettier than a kindergarten food fight.

Young men of amazingly narrow talents and interests have gotten obscenely rich in an astonishingly short time, and none seems to have bothered to grow up. Their primary impulses, by Rivlin's highly convincing analysis, are greed, rivalry and resentment; as one of Gates's henchmen puts it: "Competing with Microsoft is a perfectly fair and honorable thing to do. But there are people who take it so personally, and make it so personal an ego clash, that they're destroying their companies just like Ahab destroyed his ship."

That is only a slight exaggeration. In case after case, Rivlin shows the crew of Silicon Valley's Pequod pursuing Microsoft's Great White Whale so obsessively that its members lose fortunes at best, self-destruct at worst. Certainly it is true that Gates gives whole new universes of meaning to the word "predatory," but he must be held responsible only for his own actions and beliefs; those of his enemies are their own business, and they alone are at fault for the various misfortunes that have befallen them. It is exceedingly difficult to feel sorry for the spoiled young men at Sun, Oracle and all the other companies where Gates-hating is a form of Satan-worship.

But make no mistake about it, hating Gates is very easy to do. Rivlin, an investigative reporter whose books include "Fire on the Prairie: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race," probably musters as much sympathy for him as anyone outside Microsoft ever has, but the portrait he paints in "The Plot to Get Bill Gates" is utterly devastating. Gates is no "original thinker" but a "gifted imitator," greedy, "obstreperous and pushy," "arrogant," anxiety-haunted, humorless, abusive to underlings, devoid of outside interests, determined to crush--"kill" seems to be a favorite verb--all competitors. He may be a nerd and a dweeb, but this merely proves that wolves as well as lambs can go about in sheep's clothing; if there's anything genuinely admirable or likable about him, it doesn't surface here.

It is therefore pleasant and instructive to ponder the possibility--no, the likelihood--that Gates is no happier than any of those who are so consumed by him. Rivlin gives us the highly edifying picture of Gates responding to yet another Justice Department move against Microsoft: "His eyes watery and red, his reedy voice heavy and full, he'd ask pleadingly: 'Why does everybody hate me?' " Not merely does he have to live with that knowledge, but he'll never be able to hop off the competitive treadmill that, far more than money, drives and obsesses him. As we Randy Newman fans know, it's lonely at the top.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com