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All plugged in - now the hard part

Mischevious critics of the Seattle software giant Microsoft use a somewhat derogatory term for its products: bloatware.

Bloatware describes the hard-drive consuming programs produced by Microsoft for many years - software that gets the job done but is much larger and more complicated than it needs to be.

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Even the boss, Bill Gates, acknowledged the problem a couple of years ago - and the need to design smaller programs - in a memo sent to all Microsoft employees during an attempt to make the company more responsive to customer needs.

It's a shame he didn't follow his own advice when he wrote "Business @ the Speed of Thought." Like bloatware, the book gets the job done (in an often fascinating way), but it is so long, so wordy, and so dense in some points that it comes close to spoiling an otherwise thoughtful contribution to the issue of how technology will shape the way we do business in the next century.

Gates's thesis is that most companies only realize about 20 percent of the potential benefits of any technology they use. These companies will prosper and grow, Gates argues, if they operate with a 'digital nervous system' that unites all systems and processes under one infrastructure.

Gates believes that almost everything that we do at our jobs, or that happens in our offices - as well as the ways we deal with our customers - can be done in a digital form. Companies that think this way, he says, will energize their dealings with their customers and enjoy tremendous savings.

Gates is his most engaging when he talks about changes made at Microsoft that reflect this belief in the idea of a digital nervous system.

He detests paperwork, and he put his money where his mouth is: Almost all of the forms, purchase orders, employee benefits, you name it, have been digitalized at Microsoft. From a onetime high of over 1000 pages, now only 60 pages of company forms are in print - the rest are on the company intranet. The result, Gates says, is improved response time to employee concerns, greater accountability, and substantial monetary savings.

Gates's also champions the use of e-mail for almost every type of communication - a position he might not be so comfortable with now, considering how the Justice Department used his own e-mail to undermine Microsoft's case during the recent antitrust hearings.

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But what he writes makes a lot of sense. For instance, at Microsoft, meetings are held only to make decisions about information that has already been circulated via e-mail - no long, drawn-out meetings of endless presentations, but shorter meetings where ideas are discussed and decisions made.

The book slogs down in Gates's inability to know when enough is enough. Much of the material in this book was already discussed in his previous book, "The Road Ahead." And while the examples used in "Business @ the Speed of Thought" are often illustrative of Gates's philosophies, they are often too long and repetitive. The book could lose 100 to 150 pages and still be a good read.

Some might argue that "Business @ the Speed of Thought" is really just a 450-page ad for Microsoft products - they are mentioned rather frequently - but that would be a mistake. For business people, companies, or even individuals who want practical advice from an industry leader about how they might move forward in a changing environment, Gates's latest effort is well worth reading ... even if you have to cut through some datasmog to get to the real nuggets of information.

*Tom Regan is the associate editor of the Monitor's Electronic Edition. Send e-mail to

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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