by Charles H. Ferguson
Ferguson started the company that developed FrontPage, the web-authoring tool that's now a part of Microsoft Office. High Stakes, No Prisoners is the history of Vermeer from its initial conception through several rounds of venture capital, the first release of FrontPage, and its eventual sale to Microsoft. Along the way Ferguson assesses himself, his coworkers, and key computer industry figures in pretty harsh terms; this is interesting and eye opening, but Ferguson was clearly not a fun person to deal with during this period. In fact, in an important way this book is his attempt to explain and justify his actions and to get revenge on the many people who angered him while he ran Vermeer. Ferguson clearly took every slight personally. Still, his frank language cuts through an awful lot of bull and he believably portrays himself as being strongly ethical, at least with respect to protecting the welfare of his employees. He is rightly outraged by the ways in which developers and other non-management players in high-tech industry are regularly screwed over.
Ferguson was woefully naive with respect to the things it takes to run a successful and growing business when he started Vermeer. However, as a PhD in political science from MIT, he was certainly equipped with the tools that he needed in order to understand the various trends and forces operating in the computer industry. By understanding things from first principles he was often able to make the right decision to protect Vermeer's welfare even when he was ignorant of how things were supposed to have been done.
A theme that runs throughout this book is the tension between the welfare of companies and the welfare of consumers. For example, Ferguson makes it clear that the things about the internet that make it unlikely that a corporation could have designed it are the same things that make it vastly superior to the proprietary networks like CompuServe and Prodigy that it swiftly eliminated as it became commercially usable. Not long after pointing this out, Ferguson describes techniques embedded in Vermeer's strategy that would allow it to lure people into using FrontPage and then prevent them from migrating away to competing products. This issue is the source of a lot of irony.
Even if High Stakes, No Prisoners didn't tell a gripping story (which it does), it would be valuable for other reasons. First, it's a perceptive history of the early commercial internet and the rise and fall of Netscape. Second, in the final chapters Ferguson gives his views on the Microsoft antitrust issue. Although I don't agree with him in some ways, he has provided a lucid identification of the potential risks and benefits of a breakup and the reasons for and against it. I highly recommend this book.
copyright © 2000 John Regehr