Paul Allen’s “Idea Man”: his inside story of the founding of Microsoft

April 26, 2011

By James Ledbetter
The opinions expressed are his own. The piece first appeared in The Washington Post.

Memoirs from technology executives are almost universally bad. Loaded down by jargon, they are typically more self-serving than self-aware. Paul Allen’s “Idea Man” is broader and more engaging than most, yet it is still hampered by its own quirks and blind spots.

Americans seem never to tire of start-up stories, and few are more compelling than Microsoft’s. Two boys — Allen and the younger Bill Gates — met in the computer room at a private Seattle boys’ school in the 1970s, where they shared a mutual passion for programming. A nerdy love blossomed, and thanks to hard work, programming skill and some plucky tricks to get access to nearby mainframes, they earned enough contract jobs to give them a taste of what a programming career might look like. Their first joint venture, a company called Traf-O-Data, which provided analysis of local traffic patterns, failed. But Allen and Gates had learned enough about making software to imagine a multitude of future enterprises. One of them, which modified the BASIC language to allow non-specialist users to take advantage of microcomputers, was called Micro-Soft.

Allen’s book provides an inside account of these early years, but at its core “Idea Man” is a story about the betrayal of that initial love. Allen manages to convey a certain level of respect for Gates while simultaneously portraying him as essentially maniacal. Allen calls Gates “an edge walker” and provides a string of examples to demonstrate his reckless behavior and temper: Gates repeatedly being pulled over for speeding; Gates sweeping chess pieces to the floor after a loss; Gates staying up for days at a time, fortifying himself by eating Tang out of the jar; Gates trying to seize controls of the jetway to get a plane he’d missed to return to the gate (it did, but only after airline staff intervened).

According to Allen, Gates eventually turned on him, too, progressively squeezing him out of the business, first to a 60-40 split, then 64-36, and later the final betrayal: hiring Steve Ballmer and giving him more of Microsoft than Allen had agreed to.

Allen takes these blows with a conspicuous passivity. “I’m a stubbornly logical person,” he writes, “and I tried to consider Bill’s argument objectively.” And therein lies the biggest limitation of this nonetheless fascinating book: Allen thinks he can be objective, when clearly he can’t.

There is an excellent chapter devoted to the weaknesses of Microsoft’s business: Why did it not see the Internet “tidal wave” until it had broken? Why did it fail to develop a search engine for so long? But even there Allen resists providing any explanation of where these flaws come from, beyond obvious comments about how difficult it is for large companies to maintain focus.

Allen is reasonably candid about how many of Microsoft’s blockbuster products — particularly Microsoft Word — were largely developed elsewhere. Even its very first commercial success — their version of BASIC — was an adaptation of the program they’d used back in school. Yet he seems uninterested in the broader intellectual and ethical questions raised by Microsoft’s massive profits off the work of many who saw little or no reward for their invention. (His reticence may be inevitable, given the litigation minefield that is the U.S. software industry; many sentences of this book begin with phrases like “As I later said in a deposition. . .”)

At 29, Allen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and this seems to have provided the cover he needed to end the relationship with Gates (although his Microsoft stock ensured that he would do so as one of the world’s wealthiest men). The later chapters too often read like a stock Hollywood film in which a little boy comes into vast wealth and spends it lavishly on childhood fantasies: owning a professional sports team, jamming with famous musicians, building rockets and searching for extraterrestrial life.

The sections that deal with Allen’s post-Microsoft businesses, particularly the disastrous $8-billion soaking he took with Charter Communications, add up to little more than a gambler’s table of wins and losses. It’s left to the reader to conclude that having Paul Allen as the “idea man” is no guarantee of business success. As with many partnerships, functional or dysfunctional, it seems that Allen needs someone like Gates to ground his ideas in reality.

James Ledbetter, author of “Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex”, is the editor in charge of Reuters.com.

Photos, top to bottom: Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen and Gate’s wife Melinda Gates chat courtside during the NBA game between the Seattle SuperSonics and the Portland Trailblazers at Key Arena in Seattle on March 11, 2003. Allen owns the Trailblazers and the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL. REUTERS/Anthony P. Bolante; Paul Allen waves during lunch at the Allen and Co. conference at the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho July 12, 2007. REUTERS/Rick Wilking


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    "James Ledbetter is the former op-ed editor of Reuters. He is the author, most recently, of "Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex," published in January 2011."
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