Remember Kai-Fu Lee? He's still dishing on Microsoft

The founder of Microsoft's Chinese research group, who Microsoft sued in a failed attempt to prevent from joining Google, has just published an English translation of his Chinese book, "Making A World Of Difference."

book review There are few former Microsoft executives who have sparked the ire of the software giant as much as Kai-Fu Lee.

In 2005, Microsoft sued to block Lee, who founded Microsoft's China research lab in 1998 and moved to its Redmond, Wash., headquarters two years later, from joining nemesis Google.

Lee wrote a book about his life, including details of his Microsoft experience, called "Making A World Of Difference," that was published in Chinese two years ago with little notice in the West. He has just released an English version of the book, translated by Crystal Tai and available only as an e-book from Amazon's Kindle store, that offers details about his acrimonious parting with Microsoft.

Crystal Tai

Lee describes the litigation as the most harrowing period of his life. And he paints Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer as largely responsible for that pain.

"I touched the most sensitive, vulnerable part of Microsoft's ego," Lee writes. "Microsoft had been the dream company for software engineers, but Google was stealing its limelight. Over the past few years, Microsoft had lost several hundred people to Google. Microsoft and Ballmer could not accept that."

Microsoft declined to comment on Lee's book.

Lee is clearly a brilliant technologist. Sadly, he doesn't quite know how to tell a good story. The book is laid out chronologically, which is certainly orderly. But the juiciest details are buried in the middle of the book. It takes a fair amount of patience, wading through the details of Lee's upbringing and college days, to get to the good stuff. And there is plenty of insight there, particularly as Lee recounts his time working for some of tech's most important firms, including Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

The most dramatic moments come during his Microsoft tenure. Lee began his time at Microsoft with much fondness for the company. Hired away from Silicon Graphics, Lee launched Microsoft's research operations in China with the support and backing of the company's top brass. A speech recognition expert, Lee writes fondly of his relationship with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, particularly his technical chops.

Ballmer, not so much. Lee recounts the time shortly after Ballmer became chief executive, when the company was still mired in its antitrust battle with the Department of Justice. Ballmer, Lee writes, worked to change Microsoft's image through sloganeering, using such phrases as "open but respectful" and "integrity and honesty" to describe a new Microsoft. Lee recounts an executive meeting, when a senior leader told Ballmer he was "hopelessly ashamed" of some of the company's tactics.

"I felt as if he had spoken for me, saying everything I wanted to say." Lee writes. He notes that the room full of vice presidents broke into applause. Ballmer, though, was angry, according to Lee. The chief executive brushed off the comments, saying he'd talk with Gates, Lee writes.

The next day, Gates addressed the group, starting by discussing the "fish bowl" of his life. Then, according to Lee, he gave an emotional explanation of why he continued to work for the software giant.

"It's because I have to fight those who call us a selfish monopoly that takes advantage of users!" Lee recalls Gates saying. "For our industry, our users, and our company, I've sacrificed my private life and my family."

Lee writes that Gates become too emotional to continue, and cried. Ballmer joined his friend on stage and hugged him. But Lee sees the moment as contrived. He doesn't dismiss Gates' emotion. But he says its was "shrewd" of Ballmer to use Gates' soul-bearing moment to diffuse legitimate concerns.

There's little doubt that Lee has an ax to grind. He talked about the personal turmoil he went through during the legal battle, losing 15 pounds and countless nights of sleep. The court of public opinion turned out to be tougher than the courtroom, Lee writes. Critics condemned him for breaching his noncompete agreement with Microsoft.

"All the rumors about me on the Internet were harsher than any cross-examination," Lee writes.

It's jolting, then, when Lee writes at the end of the section of the book on the dispute with Microsoft that he harbors no ill will toward the company or its leadership.

"Now looking back, I no longer feel resentful toward Steve Ballmer for his taking me to court," Lee writes. "I've decided to hold no grudge against Microsoft."

The fact that he spends almost a quarter of the book criticizing Microsoft's tactics would suggest otherwise.

Lee's lived one of the more fascinating lives in technology. He worked for Apple, during its darkest hours, when John Sculley replaced Steve Jobs. During Lee's time in Cupertino, Calif., Sculley too was replaced, first by Michael Spindler and then Gil Amelio in the mid-1990s. He left Apple at its nadir, but not before getting a call from Steve Jobs, who was returning to Apple, asking Lee to stay.

Lee served as Google's China president and helped launch Google.cn. But he offers little insight into the company's January 2010 decision to stop censoring search results there and pull out of the country. He left the company four months earlier to start his own company, Innovation Works, that works with Chinese technology entrepreneurs.

"Looking back, I realize the Google China drama was the perfect manifestation of the never-ending China-America chasm," Lee writes. "These two great countries and their people are forever trying to understand each other but end up succumbing to stereotypes; hearing the other's words but not comprehending the meaning; endorsing each other in words but undermining each other in deeds; demanding the other to accommodate and empathize but remaining intransigent itself."

Lee has a fascinating perch from which he's observed and participated in key milestones in technology. The book's most interesting insights, though, come from Lee's personal battle with Microsoft.

 

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