Paul Allen's book an unabashed bid for computing industry credit

<b style="color:#900;">review</b> More than just ripping Bill Gates for allegedly trying to cut his Microsoft stake, Microsoft's other founder seeks recognition for his contributions.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
7 min read

review Much like Paul Allen's current publicity tour, his new book, "Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft," feels as though as Allen is yearning for credit he has yet to receive. He seems to want so much to be something more than "the other Microsoft founder."

Allen creates the construct early in the book, which hits bookstore shelves today. He was the guy who came up with the big breakthrough ideas, according to Allen's telling of the story. Gates' role in those early days was largely pushing Allen's thinking, refining his logic and honing his approach. "I was the idea man, the one who'd conceive of things out of whole cloth," Allen wrote. "Bill listened and challenged me, then homed in on my best ideas to help make them a reality."

At the dawn of the PC era, Allen writes about bringing innovative ideas to Gates, who would often shoot them down because the market didn't exist or the technology wasn't far enough along. Allen wanted to use BASIC, the simple computer language of the day, to program an Intel 8080 microprocessor. In hindsight, it was the breakthrough idea that launched the PC revolution. But when Allen first suggested it to Gates, he says that his friend shot him down because no computer existed to run it. "Come back and tell me when there's a machine for it," Gates said, according to Allen.


The book is full of those sorts of stories in which Allen repeatedly seeks glory that is either unattributed over the years or often attributed to others. At one point, Allen reprints a snippet from a 1977 interview with Microcomputer Interface, in which he describes a future, when computers are "connected to a centralized network by phone lines, fiber optics or some other communication system" that could be used to sell cars, shop for houses and check out the price of asparagus at a local market. "Fifteen years before the World Wide Web," Allen writes, "I imagined a computerized society that was far-flung yet intimately linked."

Allen also recalls a conversation with Apple's Steve Jobs in the early 1980s, shortly after Gates had signed off on Allen's proposal to start the Microsoft Hardware Group. Jobs was showing off an early version of Apple's graphical user interface, navigating with a one-button mouse. Allen wondered if a two-button version might be more useful, something he writes that Jobs dismissed as too complex. "Today, that extra button helps millions of Windows users gain access to context menus and a host of other convenient features," Allen writes, noting that Apple eventually introduced the multi-button Mighty Mouse in 2005.

Allen even wants credit for naming the company he and Gates created. "We considered Allen & Gates, but it sounded too much like a law firm," Allen writes. "My next idea: Micro-Soft, for microprocessors and software." Allen wants you to know that one of the most iconic brands in the world came from his brain.

It's not that Allen shouldn't get credit that he may well be due. It's just a bit unseemly for the multibillionaire, who has collected yachts, professional sports teams, and rare aircraft, to seek so desperately the one thing he can't buy: recognition. Because of that, Allen never really comes off as sympathetic in his book. Instead, all his yearning for credit makes him, well, a bit pathetic.

Much has been made in the last few weeks about Allen's allegation, revealed in a Vanity Fair excerpt of "Idea Man," that Gates and current Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer allegedly sought to reduce his 36 percent stake in the company shortly after Allen was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Allen claims he overheard Gates and Ballmer discussing ways to cut his share in December 1982 because he had become less productive, a result of his lymphoma treatments.

Allen writes that he burst in and shouted, "This is unbelievable! It shows your true character, once and for all." As he drove home that night, he thought, "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," Allen writes. "It was mercenary opportunism, plain and simple."

Allen writes that Ballmer visited him at his home that night to apologize. And Gates sent him a note a few days later, apologizing as well.

Microsoft and Ballmer have offered no comment on the book. Gates declined to be interviewed about the book. His only comment came after the Vanity Fair excerpt, in which he only vaguely rebutted Allen. "While my recollection of many of these events may differ from Paul's, I value his friendship and the important contributions he made to the world of technology and at Microsoft," Gates said.

The story is certainly the most dramatic in the book. But Allen throws plenty of other body shots at Gates, offering up anecdotes about his legendary temper. He says, though, that he never shared his feelings with childhood friend. "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,'" Allen writes.

For all his pent-up anger, Allen often portrays Gates with admiration, even deference. Allen marvels at Gates' code writing abilities in Microsoft's first days, when the duo were writing software for an Albuquerque, N.M., company called MITS. Allen recalls a time when Gates needed to complete some complex code before heading back to Harvard, where he was still a student. Gates checked into a local hotel with three legal pads and 10 pencils and emerged five days later with thousands of bytes of assembly language code. "Later on, as the company grew and his executive duties multiplied, Bill would get fewer opportunities for such high-wire creativity," Allen writes. "In a way, that was too bad--he had a rare gift for programming."

The book has plenty for the geek who wants to know the gritty details of the early days of computing. Much like the classic "Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented and Industry--and Made Himself the Richest Man in America" by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, Idea Man offers up charming details of the earliest days of computing and particular about Gates.

At one point in Idea Man, Allen writes about meeting Gates for the first time, describing him as "gangly, freckle-faced...all arms and legs and nervous energy." Allen remembers Gates' outfit--a pullover sweater, tan slacks, and saddle shoes. "You could tell three things about Bill Gates pretty quickly," Allen writes. "He was really smart. He was really competitive; he wanted to show you how smart he was. And he was really, really persistent."

Later, Allen writes about having Gates over for dinner one night when Allen was a student at Washington State University. Allen's girlfriend at the time made chicken and marveled at Gates' dinner-table etiquette. "He ate his chicken with a spoon," she told Allen after Gates left. "When Bill was thinking hard about something, he paid no heed to social convention," Allen writes.

The first half the book primarily covers Allen's Microsoft years. That's the best part of the book, mostly because of Allen's insights into Gates.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates in 1981, shortly after signing a contract with IBM to write software for their upcoming line of PCs. Microsoft

Much of the second half of the book are tales from Allen's post-Microsoft eccentricities. Allen writes about buying the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers and the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, his funding of SpaceShipOne, a manned rocket that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition as the first privately financed rocket to fly to the edge of space. He writes of his love for Jimi Hendrix and of playing guitar on "Satisfaction" with Mick Jagger and Bono.

For my tastes, Allen spends far too little time in Idea Man on his bad ideas, particularly his disastrous Wired World investment strategy. Seven years ago, Allen spoke with me at length about his investment missteps, which drained $12 billion from his portfolio, for an article I wrote for BusinessWeek. His candor in those interviews made him far more likeable character than his book does. "Over the last couple of years, we drank some castor oil," Allen told me (a quote that Allen cites in the book). "It doesn't taste good going down. And you don't really relish drinking any more."

In Idea Man, Allen only shares the smallest bit of insight about his failed investments. Allen opens up most about Charter Communications, his money-hemorrhaging cable play. He wrestled to get his cable holdings under control for years, firing two CEOs and his longtime investment adviser along the way.

"With the clarity of hindsight, I could say that I took the wrong people's advice in plunging into Charter," Allen writes. "I needed savvier, more experienced executives to assess my risks and to run the company, and I didn't have them until it was too late. But the fact remains that the investment was mine, and I made serious miscalculations."

But Idea Man isn't really about those missteps. It's about Allen's attempt to claim his spot among the legends of technology. Allen's bid for more credit, though, isn't likely to alter perceptions. In the end, Idea Man does nothing to change the fact that Allen remains Microsoft's other founder.