While fumbling to find his 50-cent coupon to buy butter pecan ice cream at a convenience store near his home in suburban Seattle, Bill Gates so exasperated those in line that a shopper behind him slammed the two quarters on the counter.
As Mr. Gates left, the unknowing philanthropist shouted, "Pay me back when you earn your first million."
The other shoppers knew Mr. Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corp., had already made his first million. In fact, on that night in 1990, he was worth something more than $3 billion.
Robert X. Cringely swears that this anecdote, along with the one about how Mr. Gates tried in 1984 to buy Lotus Development Corp., is true.
Cringely is the nom de plume for a weekly gossip columnist on the back page of Info World, a weekly newspaper that is viewed as the Variety of the personal computer business. "And the Lotus offer, which was more than seven years ago, was told to me by Jon Shirley," a former Microsoft president.
The gossipy, often funny stories are part of a highly personal, breezy and irreverent book called "Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition and Still Can't Get a Date." Now in its third printing, it is a best seller in San Francisco.
"The reason they can't get a date is they never ask," chuckled Cringely over lunch recently at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass. He claims to have interviewed more than 200 people for the book.
"Accidental Empires," which conveys the helter-skelter growth of the PC industry, also has its critics -- led by Mr. Gates, who insists most of the stories about him are untrue.
Microsoft officials, who acknowledge that Mr. Gates has not read the book except for the chapter in which he stars, also claim it is filled with factual errors and half-truths -- views bolstered by the co-author of a forthcoming book about Mr. Gates.
"There are literally dozens of errors in his [Cringely's] book," said Stephen Manes, a columnist for PC Computing, a monthly magazine. He cites an inaccurate chronology of the events that led International Business Machines Corp. to adopt Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system, along with misspellings, wrong names and some revisionist history.
Mr. Manes and Paul Andrews, a Seattle Times reporter who has covered Microsoft, spent a year independently researching a book about Mr. Gates and Microsoft that will be published this fall.
Mr. Gates was reportedly so annoyed at the unflattering references in Cringely's book ("a pencil-necked billionaire with greasy blond hair and bratwurst skin," for one) that he memorized whole sections of the chapter entitled "Chairman Bill Leads the Happy Workers in Song," according to the author.
And how does Cringely know that?
"I spoke to his girlfriend, make that former girlfriend," said Cringely.
Cringely also gets material from whistle-blowing engineers, electronic mail, telephone calls and from items Info World reporters do not use. And this Cringely -- the third in seven years -- is a former Stanford University journalism professor who, at 39, has spent 4 1/2 years chronicling the amusing revenge of the computer nerds.
In Boston to promote the book and talk to editors at Worth, the Fidelity Investment magazine, about an article on the software industry ("They want to pay me $2 a word for 4,000 words"), Cringely is a tall, lanky professorial-looking man with wire-rimmed glasses and a Goofy watch that runs backward.
In chronicling the all-male-led PC revolution, Cringely describes how through some bumbling, luck and strong personalities, the personal computer industry was born.
"There was no urge to fly, to see the world, to win a war, to cure disease or even to get rich that explains how the personal computer business came to be or even how it runs today," writes Cringely. "Instead the game was started to satisfy the needs of disenfranchised nerds like Bill Gates who didn't meet the macho standards of American maleness and so looked for a way to create their own adolescent alternative to the adult world, and, through that creating, gain the admiration of their peers."
Although Gates stands out as the crown prince of software, he shares the podium with Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. and NeXT Inc. ("the most dangerous man in Silicon Valley"); John Sculley, Apple's current chairman ("a smart man, but an incredibly bad judge of people"); and Mitch Kapor, co-founder of Lotus ("has a $6 million house on 22 acres in Brookline, (Mass.) a $12 million jet and probably the world's foremost collection of vintage Hawaiian shirts").
Cringely also claims that Mr. Gates, through Microsoft's public relations group, tried to stop the publication of the book.
But nothing was put in writing.
"We never received any official notification about anything from anyone at Microsoft," said Jess Brallier, director of marketing for general books at Addison Wesley in Reading, Mass.
As for his own finances, Cringely acknowledges he made one memorable error. During the early Apple years when Mr. Jobs was developing the Apple II and needed a technical writer, Cringely signed on, insisting on cash rather than Apple stock.
"I got the $600 for my work, but I recently calculated that if I took the stock Jobs offered, it might be worth about $600,000 today," he said with more than a little exaggeration.