December 3, 2023

Paul Allen: Microsoft and Me

Allen works hard in the pages of “Idea Man” to prove Coach Carroll’s point that he is a tech visionary. He was in the 10th grade and Bill Gates in the 8th when they met in the computer room of the Seattle private school both attended. A few years later, in the mid-1970s, the two were eating pizza when Allen speculated about the possibility that one day people would read a newspaper via computer. Gates, Allen tells us, dismissed the idea as lame-brained. Ouch.

There are a lot of moments like this in a memoir that isn’t so much Allen’s life story as an extended brief arguing that Paul Gardner Allen deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of pioneers who gave us our wired world — to prove, as Wired magazine once said of him, that he is not just the “accidental zillionaire.”

Allen spends chapter after chapter arguing (sometimes convincingly) that he was as critical to the founding of Microsoft as his legendary former colleague — but the more he stays with the topic, the more plain it becomes that Microsoft would have been nothing without Gates. Recovering from Hodgkin’s disease but mainly just sick of fighting with his more forceful partner, Allen abruptly quit in 1983 to venture out on his own. Somehow Microsoft managed just fine without him.

The book reads well. (Allen writes in the acknowledgments that Jeff Coplon, a seasoned ghost writer, “helped me to realize the book I had envisioned.”) And there’s a refreshing candor to the prose, too. Allen spends the better part of one chapter demonstrating how a meddlesome owner can foul up a basketball franchise; in another, he shows that being too smart by half can mess up a professional football team. He confesses to losing $8 billion investing in cable companies in the 2000s. And then there was his decision to sell the large stake he had amassed in AOL in the early 1990s. He kicks himself for letting Gates convince him that a pipsqueak like AOL stood no chance against Microsoft, but he also shares the colossal size of his blunder: selling, it turned out, was a $40 billion mistake.

Yet bum advice and lapses of vision are hardly the worst Allen has to say about Gates. The Silicon Valley way had always been to divide ownership in a new startup 50-50, but Gates, the son of a prominent lawyer, had his own ideas about what was fair. Allen had the original idea for Microsoft. The two worked the same breakneck schedule in those feverish weeks when the company was born. Yet Gates wrote the program that served as Microsoft’s first product, whereas Allen did the less glamorous work of creating the tools Gates needed to do his job.

Gates insisted on a 60-40 split; Allen passively agreed and then limply went along when Gates later proposed a 64-36 split because he had “done most of the work” and “gave up a lot to leave Harvard.” These and other similar anecdotes have been picked up by the business press, but Allen’s book is not nearly as bitter-sounding as those accounts suggested. He doesn’t seem mad so much as resigned to having been outfoxed by a junior titan who makes even Mark Zuckerberg look like a slacker.

Reading Allen’s book one almost feels sorry for him, though not because of an unfair partnership agreement that ended up costing him billions. Is it possible to be beside the point in your own memoir? Allen, nondescript and conventional, pales next to Gates, who comes across here as more peculiar than repellent. Allen’s Gates, awkward and gangly, walks around with chronically orange hands because he licks Tang from his palm whenever he needs a late-night sugar high. His Gates guzzles a dozen cans of Coke a day, eats chicken with a spoon and seems to enjoy nothing so much as singing Sinatra’s “My Way” in full throat. Even Allen tacitly admits he himself is not nearly as interesting as those populating his world: he devotes all of two sentences to the startup he created after he had ventured off on his own, yet gives us page after page of how much better Microsoft might have fared had people there listened to his advice.

And the author practically disappears in the last two-thirds of the book. He’s like Forrest Gump in his own autobiography. There’s Jagger chatting about gardens and Bono cajoling Mick to join in on a jam. But who’s that bland-looking bespectacled fellow in the picture? Oh, it’s his boat, his guitars. Allen is never so interesting as when he’s quoting others. He has only just met Paul McCartney but reports Sir Paul as saying, “Everyone wants to talk about John, John, John. You know, I wrote some songs, too.” That might have been a moment for the author to delve into his own psyche (“Bill, Bill, Bill, but I wrote some code, too, you know”). The book is supposedly a “memoir” — the word is right there on the cover — yet the author reveals almost nothing about himself. Peter Gabriel, he tells us, is the kind of person who will offer you a spot of afternoon tea. But after 350 pages, it’s not clear what kind Allen might be.

“Idea Man” describes Allen as a “billionaire technologist and philanthropist.” There’s precious little philanthropy in this book, though, beyond the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a research facility he bankrolled shortly after his mother began struggling with dementia.

On the philanthropy front his “partner in crime,” as he calls Gates, has bested him again. Allen mourns the old science fiction collection his mother sold for $75 so he creates the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. He has adored Jimi Hendrix since childhood — so he spends $250 million building a Hendrix museum he names the Experience Music Project. Gates might have played his old high school chum at the birth of Microsoft, but at least he is trying to do good with all those extra billions that ended up in his pocket. Allen, in contrast, is the accidental billionaire who reveals himself to be little more than an overgrown kid playing with his money.

Gary Rivlin, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of “The Plot to Get Bill Gates.” His most recent book is “Broke, USA,” an investigation of businesses that cater to the working poor.

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