In the mid-1970s, Microsoft was little more than a couple of precocious uber-programmers. Only a few years later, it both defined and dominated the personal- computer market, changing the way the world worked while generating vast fortunes for its two founders.
Now one of them, Paul Allen, sheds his long-standing public reticence with a new memoir, “Idea Man.” In it, he recreates the spirit of those early days in all their energy and tumult, providing a fascinating look at what it took to build the Microsoft behemoth. And he offers a guided tour of the personal fascinations and foibles that have shaped his life in the almost 30 years since he stepped away from the company.
Most of all, “Idea Man” reacquaints us with his friend from boyhood, Bill Gates -- not today’s epic philanthropist, but the single-minded, chair-rocking, brilliant, sometimes ferocious visionary who built the fortune he is now so determinedly giving away.
This is the Gates who would occasionally doze off during all-night programming sessions, his nose touching the keyboard for a couple hours, then “open his eyes, squint at the screen, blink twice and resume precisely where he left off -- a prodigious feat of concentration.”
It’s also the Gates who was so socially maladroit he would eat chicken with a spoon, who would abuse subordinates and who most of all maintained a fearsome focus on crushing competitors and building Microsoft into the colossus it became.
In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, he and Allen, on a business trip to Tokyo, find themselves in a hotel elevator next to “a long-haired guy with Coke-bottle eyeglasses and a Japanese woman with curly black hair.” Allen, struck dumb until they leave the elevator, asks, “Did you see that? That was John Lennon and Yoko Ono.” “Really?” Gates replies. “Oh, yeah, you might be right.”
That was Gates, Allen observes: “thinking about the software business first, second, and third.”
The author’s self-portrait is in some ways nearly as unflattering as his portrait of Gates, albeit for very different reasons. The Microsoft-era Allen emerges in these pages as a passive-aggressive figure, beaten down by Gates’s bullying and nursing private resentment as his partner maneuvers to reduce his share of the company to 40 percent, then 36 percent. Only when, battling cancer, he overhears Gates and protege Steve Ballmer planning to dilute his holdings still further does he draw the line. Bursting in on them, he shames them into backing down, but the damage to his relationship with Gates and Microsoft is already done.
“I helped start the company and was still an active member of management, though limited by my illness, and now my partner and my colleague were scheming to rip me off,” he writes. “It was mercenary opportunism, plain and simple.” By 1983, he was gone from the company he helped build.
The Allen of the book’s later chapters, freed by his departure and wealth from the need to be passive-aggressive, sometimes seems just, well, passive -- a genuinely creative thinker lacking the Gatesian fire to impose his vision on the world around him.
Recognizing early the coming era of global connectivity -- long before the Internet, he dubs it “the Wired World” --Allen acquires a huge stake in America Online, then dumps it amid hostility from the company and potential competition from Microsoft, effectively leaving $40 billion on the table when AOL later merges with Time Warner.
He bets big on cable as a key component in his Wired World, but his Charter Communications spirals into bankruptcy amid poor decisions and management scandals. The leadership he installs at his National Basketball Association team squanders fan goodwill with a roster that earns the nickname “the Portland Jail Blazers,” while its arena ends up in -- you guessed it -- bankruptcy.
Allen’s scientific and philanthropic ventures have fared much better: funding cutting-edge research into how the brain works; backing the project that won the X Prize for building a private spacecraft; fueled by his Jimi Hendrix fixation, commissioning Frank Gehry to design Seattle’s Experience Music Project museum. With time, even his feelings toward Gates have mellowed; when Allen had another bout with cancer in 2009, Gates was “everything you’d want from a friend, caring and concerned.”
Given his track record, you might not want to invest alongside Paul Allen. But you might well enjoy working with him to catch a few of the sparks the “Idea Man” throws off.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is Bloomberg News’s technology columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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