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Microsoft Corp. 2.0: a kinder corporate culture

Even a genius can mess up.

Bill Gates was a brilliant technologist when he cofounded Microsoft, but as he guided it to greatness in both size and historical consequence, he blundered. He terrorized underlings with his temper and parceled out praise like Scrooge gave to charity. Only the lash inspired the necessary aggressiveness to beat the competition, he thought.

Just how wrong he was became clear when the government brought antitrust charges against Microsoft in 1998.

Barraged by negative media coverage, much of it inspired by his own haughty evasiveness as a witness, Gates's public image went from the Edison of his age to a rapacious robber baron who had whipped his company into a monopolistic frenzy.

A guilty finding was overturned on appeal, and the government settled with the company, imposing restrictions on its business practices. The resulting introspection persuaded Gates to stand aside as chief executive in favor of Steve Ballmer, who would be his partner in remaking the company.

If Microsoft had soared on the wings of technology, the new mantra would be: It's the business, stupid. And, to use a clich author Robert Slater favors, the new Microsoft would be a kinder, gentler business.

This is the scenario Slater offers in ''Microsoft Rebooted," about the company's rebound from the humiliation of the antitrust suit. Long a reporter for Time magazine, Slater got interviews with Microsoft employees (Gates and Ballmer included) and access to corporate memos.

His conclusion: ''Although the rebooting of Microsoft was about a number of things, it was especially about being more open and being more respectful of others in the outside world; and it was about communicating what the company was doing in a way that others would understand and appreciate."

His explanation of this aspect of the new Microsoft is the most interesting part of this otherwise dry book. The old company, before the government's lawsuit, was very different from its reputation, Slater reports. Yes, Microsoft was geek Shangri-La, a place where gifted technologists worked fanatical hours, fueled by soda and an all-consuming competitiveness.

But Gates created this milieu not so much out of arrogance and a desire to be an industry hegemony but the opposite impulse: a paranoid insecurity that ruin was just around the corner, at the hands of some competitor prepared to work harder and be better.

Slater quotes one man who worked at the company for 10 years beginning in 1989. In each of those years, Microsoft's stock price went up. Yet every year, ''We thought it would go down," the man recalls. ''We were nervous that the Internet would kill us."

The new Microsoft has encouraged its workers to lighten up. It hires more employees with children as opposed to the monastic nerds who cloistered themselves at work 24/7 in the old days. While still determined to make great products, the company has taken baby steps toward cooperating with competitors on such matters as the development of industry standards.

For a slender book, ''Microsoft Rebooted" is padded with digressions and repetitious information. There is too little show and far too much tell -- interminable, unenlightening quotes from Microsoft execs that cry out to be pruned and paraphrased. This is a potentially dramatic story, but Slater's inventory of dramatic anecdotes is pretty thin; Bob Woodward he's not.

The title also oversells what's between the covers. As of today, Gates and Ballmer haven't ''reinvented" Microsoft but rather have begun to try to reinvent it. Slater himself acknowledges as much, quoting competitors in his concluding chapter who say that the changes so far are largely cosmetic. He presents reform as a work in progress, not a fait accompli.

This could become an interesting story. Meantime, you can safely delete ''Microsoft Rebooted" from your summer reading list.

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