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Book Review: Paul Allen’s “Idea Man”

Posted by on May 4, 2011 at 7:17 pm

In their college years, Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded an outfit in the dusty hills of Albuquerque called Micro-Soft. They were to be the first to provide operating systems such as BASIC and FORTRAN to the first minicomputers. Before Apple and Commodore, home computing required a mail-order kit and plenty of solder. As they became more successful, getting into IBM’s first PC and creating an industry with their name on it, the two founders eventually fell out of alignment and a harsh Gates made Allen miserable. While we know Gates’ story because of Microsoft’s success, Allen’s has always been a bit elusive. Here, we see the whole thing from his perspective.

For many of us youngsters (I was born in ’84) we tend to forget that there was that evolutionary gap of computers between the time they were the size of buildings and the time they wound up in the palm of our hands. The picture above is a 13-year old Bill watching over Paul Allen – three years his senior – inputting code into a teletype. This was back in an era where computers were still large, remote things not quite ready to fit into homes, when even a harsh footstep would force a head crash on early hard drives. Paul Allen was radical thinker, tempered by Gates’ business-oriented cynicism. (He later reveals that an institute he developed decades later to focus exclusively on research produced no feasible products or money at the cost of $300m of his money, reinforcing the point of Gates’ foil.)

In his last days at Microsoft, Allen brought in their first version of Word and the idea of a mouse-oriented GUI from Xerox’s PARC lab, the same place Apple got their idea (Allen includes an astounding anecdote where Steve Jobs railed on a programmer when their Macintosh prototype wasn’t working). In his last days, though, Paul and Bill were often at each others throats, in part because of ownership of Microsoft:

Under the circumstances, I felt that our 64-36 partnership split was out of whack.[…] Now it was time, I thought, to augment my share. A modest adjustment in the ratio seemed only right. But when I made my case, Bill would have none of it. “I don’t ever want to talk about this again,” he said. “Do not bring it up.”

But then,

Too angry and proud to make an emotional appeal, I never went in and told Bill, point-blank, “Some days working with you is like being in hell.”

So now on your own, what do you do having just beaten cancer and now flush from cash after co-founding the most important software company ever? You do whatever you want, of course. Half-way through “Idea Man”, Allen makes a harsh ninety-degree turn from a post-mortem on his time at Microsoft and the tech industry at large to his interest in basketball and purchase of the Portland Trailblazers. While he’s spent a lot on personal effects, like his $200m yacht, the Octopus, he’s also spent a lot of time changing the world in his own unique way. For example, purchasing event tickets online? That was him after he bought Ticketmaster and convinced its CEO that they could build a secure system to do it all through the web.

When customer number one had completed the first transaction, our Web people called him and said, “Congratulations, you just bought the first concert ticket in the history of the Internet! Can you tell us why you decided to buy online?” The man said, “Because I don’t like talking to people, and I don’t like talking to you.” And he hung up.

He went on to fund a new studio called Dreamworks, scan the human brain, and bring Scaled Composites’ X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne to life. Reading “Idea Man” is like reading some fantasy where you’ve applied your immense wealth to the benefit of mankind, rather than hookers (I’m staring at you, Charlie). To follow Allen’s ventures is to follow his dreams and while it comes off as a jumble of subjects in the back half of the book, you ultimately see how and why life was so much better for him after he left Microsoft, slipping away from that bright Windows and Office-tinged spotlight.

9/10 FleshEatingZipper

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