Book Review: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Co-Founder of Microsoft by Paul Allen

Idea Man:
A Memoir by the Co-Founder of Microsoft

By Paul Allen
Portfolio; 368 pp; $27.95


You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the jacket wrapped around Idea Man is truly baffling. Circling the head of a middle-aged man with receding hair and hipster glasses are images of a guitar, a football helmet, a spaceship, a computer, and a large brain. The back features blurbs from eminences such as Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, and Peter Gabriel. Is this a Costco (COST)-ready tome about a rocker-turned-cosmonaut-turned-fleeting-'80s-celebrity? Actually, it's the autobiography of Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft (MSFT).

Idea Man tells the story of one of the past century's more unusual business careers. It begins with Allen's high school buddy Bill Gates and charts their alpha-nerd friendship through Harvard disagreements, the co-founding of the world's largest software company, shouting matches (apparently with spittle), and Allen's resignation from Microsoft. It also details his sports franchise binge-buying and his extremely expensive fixations on Hollywood, a high-speed cable idea called Wired World, the search for alien life, the human brain, rocket science, and Jimi Hendrix paraphernalia.

Allen may be a scatterbrain, but he sure perks up when the subject turns to 0s and 1s and the behemoth he helped create. Aside from his much-publicized allegations that Gates and Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer's "mercenary opportunism" nearly diluted his Microsoft stock, Idea Man presents a foreboding picture of the software giant's future in the iHereafter. "It wasn't so long ago that Microsoft stood by the slogan that Bill and I followed at the start: 'We set the standards,'" writes Allen. "But there is no one in Redmond, speaking privately and candidly, who would make that claim today."

The company's biggest problems, Allen suggests, are its unwieldy size and its inability to let glory days go. Microsoft continues to overvalue its market share of yesterday's products rather than develop compelling new ones. This misplaced emphasis seems to be a long-standing Allen pet peeve stemming from the days when he was Microsoft's "ideas man" and Gates the brilliant executor. Still, Allen has evidence to back it up. In the '90s, Microsoft's early avoidance of the Internet—which it initially ceded to Netscape after failing to build a decent browser of its own—began slowly hindering the company's productivity and communications potential. While Microsoft was defending its right to an operating systems monopoly in the late '90s, and developing the Vista monstrosity, Allen says, "high-tech hellhounds"—Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) among them—were building "platforms that people associate with the future." Would things be different if Allen were still with the company? It's impossible to know—but try to recall someone ever saying, "I'll just Bing that."

The addiction to Windows prevented Microsoft from realizing how innovation in the consumer space can drive changes in technology—not the other way around. "Here's what the death knell for the personal computer will sound like: Mainly I use my phone/pad, but I still use my PC to write long e-mails and documents. Most people aren't there yet," Allen writes, "but that's where we're headed."

It doesn't take an alpha-nerd billionaire to explain why this is bad news for Microsoft. The company is nowhere on tablets, one of the fastest-growing segments of the PC market. In the meantime, Google is giving away its Android software to device makers while Apple has built iOS, an entirely new mobile operating system that debuted in 2007. "Microsoft cannot afford to be an also-ran in mobile platforms, which are rapidly becoming the principal delivery point" for computer users, Allen writes. "Brand loyalties are forgotten as a new platform shoves aside the old." When was the last time customers slept in line for a new suite of Windows products?

Allen admits that the company's new smartphone software is promising, even if it hasn't been widely adopted. He also notes that Microsoft has deep cash reserves, which is a polite way of implying it could buy its way back to relevance. However, he knows "mind share" can't be bought. Allen cites a Pew Research Center study showing that less than 3 percent of current technology articles are about the company he helped create. This "breathtaking fall from grace" brings out the wistful side of his scattered brain. "I left Microsoft a quarter century before Bill did, and we've both had our signal triumphs since then," Allen writes. "But in certain respects, neither of us has been quite as good alone as we were together." It's enough to leave a reader wondering if Allen would trade the guitar, the football helmet, and the spaceship for another shot at Microsoft.

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