Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Accidental Empires, by Robert X. Cringley

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date, by Robert X. Cringely

Accidental Empires tells of the rise of software and the downfall of hardware. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Aldus, and Adobe as well as products such as Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and IBM’s PC family all have their histories told in varying degrees of detail. Those sections are both engrossing and informative. However, when Cringley talks about the individuals involved (especially Gates and Jobs) he comes off as a bit angry; for instance, Gates’ poor personal hygiene and Jobs’ megalomania are often ridiculed—I suspect the intent was humorous but instead it seemed snarky. The book really goes off the rails, though, in the sections where the narcissistic tendencies of the author are in full force. We get Cringley’s opinions on what makes a company succeed or fail and advice for entrepreneurs. We hear many times of the greatness of InfoWorld (Cringley’s employer at the time) and which software luminaries ask Cringley for advice. We even learn his draft number for Vietnam and the fact that he wears cotton briefs instead of boxers. While I’m sure the author’s family was impressed, I wasn’t.

Last updated in 1996, this book is badly dated. NeXT is presented a viable platform, Novell “absolutely controls the PC networking business,” open computing is equated with client-server architectures, and Y2K is predicted to utterly destroy the mainframe industry. Hmmm. (The most unfortunate quote has to be, “Think of Bill Gates as the emir of Kuwait and Steve Jobs as Saddam Hussein.” Considering today’s common perception today that Microsoft is evil and Apple is visionary, this is particularly ironic.) To be fair, I imagine a book written today about current events will appear to be out-of-date in ten years so it is hard to complain too much, but it was a bit distracting.

I picked this up because I liked the subtitle: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date. The style implied by the cover doesn’t disappoint; I found the tone to be funny, informal, and irreverent. If you are interested in a broad overview of the history of the modern software industry, this is an excellent read. If you don’t like smug commentary, though, you might want to look elsewhere.

First Sentence:
Years ago, when you were a kid and I was a kid, something changed in America.

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