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War of the Geeks

By B S Prakash
November 11, 2005 18:15 IST
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I will bury them. I have done it before, I will kill them, he said. He was not finished, however. He threw a chair across the boardroom in sheer frustration.'

Where is this from? A Hollywood film starring Michael Douglas? A supari transaction in Dubai where a bhai is venting his anger against a rival gang? A meeting in the Command HQ in central Baghdad?

No. It is actually from a court testimony concerning -- hold your breath, as they say -- Microsoft's Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, the man next only to God in the computer corporate hierarchy, next only to the omnipresent and omniscient Bill Gates.

Who is this rage directed against?

Hold your breath again… in case you have let it out in the meanwhile. He is talking about Eric Schmidt the chief of Google, the enfant terrible of the computer industry.

This column is not really about business bigwigs, computer complexities or even about Microsoft versus Google, a battle of epic proportions that is shaping up and about which I read everyday here in San Francisco, close to the heart of Silicon Valley.

I follow the story with curiosity though my knowledge is rather cursory. But I am fascinated by the drama at different levels: the technological, the financial, the mental and as with all things human, the moral. My attempt here is to give a peep into some of these.

But before delving into the layers, in fairness I must first give the background to Steve Ballmer's eruption which has been narrated in court. The facts summarised and simplified run thus: One Kia-Fu-Lee, who in my mental image, I see as one of those Chinese wizards with mathematics, comparable to Kung-fu-Lee in martial arts, was a senior employee at Microsoft till recently.

As with all corporate giants these days Microsoft is focused on the Chinese market and Lee was to play a stellar role. But Lee had made it known that he wanted to leave Microsoft and join… horror of all horrors, the new kid on the block who has acquired a swagger and is a thorn in the well padded flesh of Microsoft.

Why? In management theory some contend that Microsoft has become too big, too profitable, and too bureaucratic to sustain creativity. Lee wanted to join Google which has been bamboozling the best and the brightest in the computer universe. 'You too Brutus,' is what Bill Gates might have said if he is inclined to quote Shakespeare. But we don't know that.

Instead what we do have are the eyewitness accounts of what Steve Ballmer, the second man said in an explosion of anger. To finish this part of the story, Microsoft has gone to court in the US trying to stop Google from hiring Lee, but without success.

At the technological level, the looming battle between the two companies is as exciting as computalk can get for nongeeks like me, interested but not involved. As you know (or should know) Microsoft and Bill Gates have changed the world with 'Windows,' which I use as I write this and you use as you read this.

Windows is ubiquitous and in the process Bill Gates has emerged as the richest person in the world with a wealth of fifty five billion dollars according to Forbes magazine. Can't get a hang on that figure? Never mind, think of Gates making $300 a second in his working life. As the joke goes, it is not worthwhile for him to bend to pick up a hundred dollar note lying on a street as he gets to work, because he will be loosing $800 in the three seconds it would take him to do that.

How do they get their money? Simple. Virtually every computer (with some exceptions) that is in use has 'Windows' and it is through these windows that we enter any computer. Think of 'Windows' as doors and it is as if someone erected a door before our eyes and ears and a fee had to be paid before you saw, heard or did anything. Should people with such reach and command ever worry?

Apparently, yes. Others before have tried to compete with the Microsoft monopoly, but to no avail. 'They have been buried' and in Silicon Valley the giant is feared for what they do to their competitors. In this scenario, envisage Google, with oodles of energy started by some bright youngsters in 1998. (Microsoft is ancient in comparison. They started in 1975.)

Google is not a fraction of the size of Microsoft yet, but its growth and spread has been astounding. How does Goggle do it? Through its phenomenal 'Search' engines, thousands of them. Its approach is different altogether from Windows as Goggle uses the Web as the base: it is as if all the roads were free, there was no fee to enter, but you paid indirectly through the advertisements from the shops on every (internet) highway.

Enough of this technological stuff. From matter and money to the mind. What motivates people like this, I have wondered: money, the work itself, the passion to win and its converse -- to vanquish the 'other', or something more esoteric beyond all this?

Management is not my area but I am curious. My enquiries and encounters reveal that it is perhaps a mix of all this and going beyond, the mystique of what is perceived as success in the American ethos.

To start with work, obviously at this level work is not just a job and is not for salaries alone. Work for these people is obsessive -- compulsive and Silicon Valley is full of stories of young people sleeping at their computer desks, of surviving on stale sandwiches, of being software geniuses and social nerds.

Is work its own reward, then? Not really, not in America, at least. The way the system has evolved has also made it inevitable that you are judged by the marketability of work and the profitability of the product.

Money is important as a motivator but equally obviously Bill Gates does not need any more money for himself or for tens of generations of Gates, if he is inclined to think that way and I suspect that he is not.

It is interesting that Gates is giving away money for worthwhile causes through a Foundation headed by his father the Gates Senior, a reverse paradigm of the money being passed from one generation to the next! Gates today is one of the biggest givers in the world.

Google, the new entrant too has announced that they have earmarked a billion dollars for pure philanthropy.

If money in its basic sense is not the motivator, it is still a crucial signifier. This is not something new either. The great American philosopher George Santayana, a profound observer of character wrote about a century ago in Materialism and Idealism in American Life:

'The American talks about money, because that is the symbol and measure he has at hand for success, intelligence and power… the most striking expression… is his singular preoccupation with quantity.'

How rich you are and how much was made or lost in the last year (actually the last quarter), determines the place in the pecking order, the ranking in the scale, the net worth in the value chain. It is a determinant of where you are and where you are headed.

Some of this is universal, but some of it, I guess, is uniquely American. Is this good or bad? It would be silly for me to be facile and judgmental on these fundamentals. It is enough to ogle at Google, to peep through Windows and to wonder at the different approaches to life that diverse cultures still manifest, all the talk about globalisation notwithstanding.

B S Prakash is India's Consul General at San Francisco and can be reached at His earlier articles can be seen at here.

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