CAPTAIN AHAB'S CLUB
Back in 1993, a halcyon time when it was still possible to read through an entire magazine without coming across the name Bill Gates, Novell CEO Ray Noorda and Gates engaged in one of those public sneering matches that both antagonists might come to regret, but only later, long after the verbal stilettos had done their damage. The Utah-based Novell had devised a clever means of connecting groups of freestanding personal computers so that coworkers could share printers and computer files. This was in the early 1980s. Since that time, Novell had been drawing billions of dollars from this single product in a market that Microsoft had never quite managed to crack.
Life was torture for the Microsoft team charged with conceiving and then marketing a rival product to Novell's. First it was Microsoft Net; then, after five years of futility, it was LAN-Man (LAN for "local area network," Man for "manager"). Gates used the carrot with his minions and also the stick. Microsoft rallies were held and milestones celebrated--and then when that failed, as inevitably it did, Gates would scream. "I've never met a stupider, more inept group in my fucking life!" he'd yell in a tweedling whine. "How fucking hard can it be?" Despite everything, Microsoft could barely dent Novell's market share. By the early 1990s, Novell would rank fourth on a listing of the largest high-tech companies, behind only Microsoft, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard.
Twice Microsoft approached Noorda about buying his company; both times Gates later claimed a change of heart. Not without reason, Noorda felt taken--felt that Gates and his minions were cozying up to Novell only to learn what they could with the kimono open. Noorda could live with Gates's yearly boasts at COMDEX (the computer dealers' trade show) that this would be the year Microsoft overtook Novell. Long ago he had made his peace with Microsoft's penchant for bad-mouthing Novell in meetings with Novell's largest customers and its practice of offering deep discounts on other Microsoft products if a big company would switch to LAN-Man. But what Noorda believed were phony merger talks proved to be too much. Noorda told anyone willing to listen--fellow computer execs, federal investigators, and eventually journalists working for the country's top business publications--that the boy wonder was really a monster in the making.
The first Noorda quote that got everyone's attention appeared in Business Week in 1993. "To have a heart-to-heart," he said when asked about his short-lived merger negotiations with Gates, "you have to have two hearts." In response, Gates puffed out his concave chest and charged that Noorda was growing "increasingly paranoid." Gates's number two, Steve Ballmer, a bull of a man with a megaphone voice, decried Novell as a "dirty" competitor selling a packet of "lies" to the press. And from there the fight escalated. "Bill Gates's behavior is an insult to the industry and to the world," Noorda said in another interview. He dubbed Gates "Pearly" and Ballmer "The Embalmer" and then proudly explained his little joke to anyone who asked. Gates was Pearly because he promised you heaven, while behind the scenes Ballmer prepared you for burial.
Noorda organized meetings with executives from Lotus, WordPerfect, and other companies selling software products so successfully that Gates seemed to take it personally. "We're all a bunch of sissies," Noorda declared. "Let's stand up to that little squirt!" Feature articles about Noorda, a man well into his sixties when most of his counterparts were still in their thirties, tended to use terms such as "avuncular" and "grandfatherly" to describe him, but Microsoft let it leak to the press that it tended to call old Ray the "grandfather from Hell."
Noorda has gotten so personal, Microsoft's executives would cluck. They'd shake their heads and talk about the toll Noorda's outbursts were taking on Gates. Poor Bill, they'd say to one another with tight frowns. Business is one thing, but saying Bill has no heart? That's just plain cruel. Ballmer is Gates's best friend, but it was Nathan Myhrvold, the company's chief technology officer and Gates's alter ego, who turned to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick during a high-level Microsoft staff meeting, hitting on a metaphor that allowed the group to transcend the sting of Noorda's insults.
"Sometimes I think Nathan sees his job as making everyone laugh inside our meetings," says a top chieftain who has witnessed countless episodes of the Bill-and-Nathan show. Another Microsoft employee described the relationship between the two as "an old and complicated marriage that no one outside the relationship can hope to understand." The two make an unlikely match. Whereas Gates is a furrowed-brow pessimist, Myhrvold is the cheery optimist. Myhrvold is so well rounded it's almost frightening, Gates so monomaniacal about business and technology that it makes one shudder. Every time Gates loyalists hailed his ability to discuss a wide range of topics, not just technology and business, I'd press them for examples. They would mention genetic engineering, physics, world economics, artificial intelligence, satellite technology--every example offered fell under either the hard sciences or business. Myhrvold is every bit Gates's intellectual match, but by contrast he's an accomplished chef (with a first-place finish in the worldwide barbecue cook-off held in Memphis, Tennessee), an amateur photographer, a fly fisherman, a race-car driver, and a bungee jumper.