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Book Review: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft by Paul Allen

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In the popular mythology of Microsoft, co-founder Paul Allen has been portrayed as something of a shadowy, behind the scenes character. Like his doppelganger at Apple, Steve Wozniak, Allen’s contributions were largely usurped by his partner’s force of personality. In Woz’s case it was Steve Jobs, in Allen’s it was Bill Gates. As is often the case with such byte-sized historical factoids, the reality of the situation was a little more complicated.

The origins of the company are really not in dispute. Gates was at Harvard, (where he met future Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer), while Allen was a student at Washington State University. They both dropped out of college to focus on the shared dream of starting a software company. Microsoft was initially located in Albuquerque, New Mexico — home of the first personal computer, the Altair 8800. This was in 1975, and the two initially thought they had already missed the boat on being the first to come up with a unifying BASIC platform for computers to run on.

As Allen freely admits, a fortuitous combination of drive, programming and luck all came together to make Microsoft the behemoth it became. The “micro-computer’s” rise from hardcore electronic hobbyist toy to ubiquitous business tool, to being today’s bedrock of communication seems inevitable now. Microsoft’s dominance of the industry was a long time in coming, however.

This is where the controversy surrounding Allen’ memoirs, Idea Man, stem from. While Gates’ determination to make his company the leader in software is without question, his personality is what drove Paul Allen to leave. The “official” story was that Allen’s departure was for health reasons. This was true; in 1982 Paul Allen was diagnosed with lymphoma — a particularly virulent form of cancer. He was only 27. The stark reality of the situation understandably led to some deep soul-searching, and to his eventual decision to resign.

There were more reasons for Allen’s departure than previously reported, though. The machinations Gates engaged in to get Allen to turn over (extremely) valuable cofounder’s percentage points in Microsoft come across as heavy-handed at best. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the conversation Allen overheard between Gates and Ballmer while he was recuperating from treatments, especially as they shamefully discussed ways to dilute Allen’s shares now that he was no longer contributing as much as he previously had. According to Idea Man, Allen burst in on the meeting and confronted them on the spot, and departed soon after.

Since that fateful day, the billionaire has become owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Seattle Seahawks, and founded the EMP — among many other ventures. These are all detailed in the latter third of the book, but the bulk of the story is in the fascinating history of his relationship with Bill Gates.

Like all autobiographies, there is a bit of self-aggrandizement to be taken into account. For example, there are numerous anecdotal stories of Allen’s own Vulcan Company’s ruthless business tactics that are never addressed. Still, Idea Man has a lot to recommend it. Paul Allen’s life is an intriguing one, and is told in a very reader-friendly tone. The fact that he and Bill Gates have long since reconciled is also a positive.

There is another point the book makes that I found interesting. As Allen notes, the future of Microsoft is hardly set in stone. A great deal of the graduating class of 2011 are using various smart phones as their main computing device. This is an area where Microsoft has been woefully inadequate in providing for, and could be a serious threat to the company in the coming years.

About Greg Barbrick