May 18, 1999

Business @ the Speed of Thought
A Book Review by Jerry Thomas (TMFCheeze)

Business @ the Speed of Thought
Using a Digital Nervous System
Bill Gates with Collins Hemingway
470 pp. New York
Warner Books

"Business is going to change more in the next ten years than it has in the last fifty."

With that bold statement, Bill Gates launches his new book, promising to dazzle the reader with tales of transformation frenzy. Gates mostly fails to deliver on that promise, although the book does work as a survey of the many emerging applications of digital technology, of which Gates's Microsoft is the leading purveyor. The book is not really about innovation. Instead, it examines the elaboration of existing technologies, with a special focus on the opportunities now available thanks to the happy arrival of the Internet. Business readers will find the book useful as an idea starter, though not, as Gates seems to hope, as a magic talisman for the sudden metamorphosis of human thought.

It is surprising how much of what passes for innovative thinking in this book will seem routine, even mundane, to regular readers of The Motley Fool. Those who have used our online resources to research their investments, or who have pooled their contributions with those of the thousands of others visiting our Fool message boards, are already quite conversant with the potential these new digital technologies have for leveraging human effort.

In that sense, Business @ is slow on the uptake. How odd it seems to the net-savvy reader that Gates finds it necessary to spend as much time as he does explaining the advantages of so ordinary a concept as e-mail. He spends a full chapter rhapsodizing over the virtues of "the paperless office" -- a concept that is just old. If Fortune 500 CEOs are really poring over these pages to study such prosaic insights as these, one wonders how they managed to become CEOs in the first place. Gates casts his vision forward to yesterday and boldly predicts a future that has already happened.

Still, this book is not without its charms. Gates is perhaps the one person in the world best qualified to catalog the burgeoning array of technical applications now poised to revolutionize the way business will be done. The sudden emergence of the Internet and its capacity -- at least in theory -- to link digital devices to a common network everywhere on the planet has vast implications for all business, never mind the multitudes of hyperventilating "dotcoms" crowding today's headlines.

You can really feel Bill's enthusiasm for the possibilities. Build yourself a digital nervous system, says Gates. Bring all the aspects of your organization -- your managers, your sales force, your factory workers, and even your customers -- into one fluid, functioning whole, and you will find exciting new efficiencies that will have you adding value at every streaming moment.

Gates illustrates this vision with dozens of examples from Microsoft's global roster of front-rank corporate clients, and it is in citing these instances of real-world applications of digital technology that this book is at its best. Consider Coca-Cola's smart vending machines that transmit sales data via cellular telephone channels, alerting the local bottler when it's time for restocking. Or Dell Computer's efforts to "touch the customer directly" by providing interactive resources online to let users act as their own sales support staff, cutting Dell's costs significantly while creating a better-informed consumer.

Then there's Jiffy Lube, which can almost instantly react to business trends by analyzing the data uploaded nightly to the company headquarters by all of its franchises nationwide. Or Saturn Corporation, which is able to achieve impressive levels of quality and productivity in its automobile manufacturing thanks to the communication among its workers made possible through the application of digital technology.

The mass of example heaped upon example works against readability -- yes, your eyes will, at times, glaze over. Evidently, when it comes to crafting the well-formed English sentence, Bill is still pretty good at slamming code. But this glacial mass of largely undifferentiated detail does serve to make a larger point: that a new wave of digital innovation is coming and that managers everywhere had better be up to Speed on the implications of that change.

The tsunami is on the horizon, and while it will take some time before this wave arrives to devastate the shore, one can imagine the panic welling in the bellies of the slow-thinking managers who are only now being introduced to the concepts in the pages of this book.

Business @ the Speed of Thought has already been criticized by some as little more than a sales brochure for the software systems Microsoft builds for the corporations of the world. Why that should be a matter for complaint is unclear, because the book works brilliantly on this level. You would never know from its pages that Microsoft's competitors even exist -- there is no hint that there is anything to the software universe beyond Microsoft and its products and services.

The book presents a world without Oracle, without Sun, without Apple or Linux, without even a Department of Justice honing its antitrust litigation. This is a realm that Microsoft dominates unequivocally, without rival, a universe where the latest cycle of business innovation moves through Microsoft like a wave moves through water. The phones in the sales offices of Redmond must be ringing off the hook right about now.

The presumption in all of this is that there are still some corporate leaders out there who have still not had their requisite aha! experience in response to the screamingly obvious utility of the new digital technologies now available. Those who have had that epiphany already may scan this book with some pleasure in search of an occasional insight or two. The rest of the world may rightfully ask if there is enough real insight here to save them.


Excerpts of Business @ the Speed of Thought may be read at www.speed-of-thought.com.

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