The Magazine


Oct 6, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 04 • By DANIEL SELIGMAN
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WHY DOES BILL GATES wear his hair in bangs? This question had never previously infiltrated the left hemisphere of my cerebral cortex, where the big issues get pondered, and I am not even sure I was conscious of the Gatesian hairdo until just the other day. That is when I found myself staring at his boyish visage on the computer screen, watching his lips move soundlessly. The absence of sound reflected problems with the CD-ROM that came bundled with The Road Ahead, Bill's huge-selling book.

The CD-ROM includes various hypertext gimmicks you can fool around with. One option, which I instantly exercised: "Join Bill Gates for a discussion of how technology will shape our future." This brought up a screen in which you can choose from a number of softball questions -- e.g., "What has been your key to success?" -- and then watch Bill himself, responding animatedly. Sometimes I could hear what he was saying, but usually there was no sound, and I am no lipreader. So naturally I called tech support, where the technician began by asking whether I had a yellow disk. I said, yes, my CD was yellow, and he then stated that the yellow ones are defective. He is sending me a new one.

Meanwhile, I have succeeded in actually hearing the key to Bill's success. The answer he serves up is in part a genuinely interesting capsulization of the strategic thinking that allowed him to get Microsoft out front, in part a klutzy and unconvincing effort to cast himself as a humble participant in "a great success story that it's been incredibly fun to be part of." Zheesh.

I bought The Road Ahead for serious business reasons. Main reason: As a vendor who occasionally sells prose materials to Microsoft, I was looking to gain insights into a major anomaly in our dealings. The anomaly concerned the company's payment practices. Microsoft is widely viewed as one of the best- run companies in human history, but this view is not always clove to by folks dealing with its Accounts Payable Department. AP is in truth a major menace to those of us doing business with Microsoft's webzines.

Normally, when you sell an article to a "zine, be it of the web or maga variety, you cut a deal with the editors about length, subject matter, time of delivery, and pay. The deal may or may not be in writing, but either way, the transaction is reasonably simple. At Microsoft, it is complex and bewildering. The paperwork goes on and on, and getting a check out of Accounts Payable is a very big deal indeed. (To be slightly fair about all this, I should mention that Slate, Michael Kinsley's Microsoft webzine, has been an honorable exception.) But why is Microsoft's Accounts Payable so dreadful to deal with? It sounds counterintuitive, but the answer I come up with is that this institution has failed to grasp the potential of computers.

As a recent reader of The Road Ahead, I know a lot about this potential. A major theme in the book is the personalization of information. The new technology enables giant corporations to "customize" -- to treat people as individuals, even when dealing with millions of them. The mass production we grew up with made it possible to produce millions of shirts in a number of different sizes. The new deal, Bill Gates tells us, will feature shirt-making machines that follow different instructions for every customer. Also approvingly cited is the work Levi Strauss & Co. is doing on custom-made jeans for women, which allow for any of 8,448 different combinations of hip, waist, inseam, and rise measurements. Fantastic, eh?

So why doesn't any of this carry over to Microsoft's own Accounts Payable, which still acts as though every last vendor has the exact same hips? Why does a chap trying to write articles in his study have to fill out an NSQ (new supplier questionnaire) that would be appropriate to a contractor erecting an office complex in Redmond, Washington? Why must he wrestle with the question of whether he is a "small business concern" as that term is defined in Section 3 of the Small Business Act? Or answer questions about the number of Subcontinent Asia workers on his payroll? Or about whether his organization is a Historical Black College? And, when each article is finished, why must he submit an invoice formally requesting payment?

And why do they keep changing the specifications for "a proper invoice"? The last time I tried to submit one, I was told to hold off and wait for instructions about new procedures being implemented by the AP operations manager. These turned out to include demands for an invoice number (you just make one up), a purchase-order number, a vendor ID number, and a Microsoft contact. And after you have done all this, as my own contact mentioned, it ordinarily takes four weeks or so to get paid.