HARD DRIVE: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson (Wiley: $22.95; 419 pp.). If ever there were a case to be made for a billionaire deserving his or her wealth on the basis of brainpower alone, it is Bill Gates. This is, after all, a guy who learned to rock his own cradle at age 1, who read the entire World Book Encyclopedia at age 7, who recited chapters 5-7 of the Book of Matthew from memory and without pause at age 11, and who fell asleep during a Greek exam at Harvard while still outperforming some classmates. Not surprisingly, not everyone working in the world's computer software industry, which Gates' Microsoft commands, is dumbstruck with admiration. One unnamed IBM official quoted here admits he would "like to put an ice-pick in Gates' head," so tortured is he that this boyish man of 34, who "never goes anywhere without his dandruff," as the industry joke goes, and who peppers his vocabulary with gee-whiz words such as "cool" and "super," would be the nation's second richest person.

For the most part, though, the authors, reporters at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, eschew the sensational to paint a fair and dutiful portrait of a man typical of the space cadets who make up America's younger computer company heads. When not tripping to Mars with a novel by H.G. Wells, the young Gates could be found in front of a VDT, firing his fingers for up to 36 hours at buttons with the focus of a gambler on rolling dice. Then he would collapse for 10 hours, wake up, scarf down a pizza, and go back to it. "Hard Drive" is hampered by a few grammatical mistakes (such as the increasingly frequent "could care less" for "couldn't care less") and by excessive technical detail (it's hard to get excited about Gates' "Traf-o-data" machine). But overall, this is an engaging, almost classic tale of a boy who finds power in gadgets and then won't let go. (Soon, though, he may have to: The industry has been trying to clamp down on Gates' dominance ever since a 1990 dinner when he tipsily announced that soon, he would rule all as, the authors write, "a sort of Microsoft uber alles.")

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