Outlet for grudges untold

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am


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Idea Man: A Memoir by the Co-founder of Microsoft
by Paul Allen

Despite its breezy title and whimsical cover shot, the memoir by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen oozes resentment. The bitterest episode in Idea Man comes one 1982 evening when, racked by cancer, he overhears fellow Microsoft titans Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer plotting to dilute his equity in the light of his illness-related drop in productivity. Normally low-key and logical, Allen bursts into the room where they are 'scheming to rip me off'.

'This is unbelievable!' Allen screams. 'It shows your true character, once and for all,' he says, addressing both technocrats, but eyeballing Gates.

In the book, Allen frames the alleged Gates-Ballmer plot as 'mercenary opportunism, plain and simple'. Forbes now values Gates at US$56 billion. Allen, who left Microsoft in 1983 to reboot and pursue a free-format career in adventure while maintaining a company stake, is worth less but still plenty: US$13 billion.

Allen lives on Mercer Island in Washington state. His assets include hi-tech mega-yacht Octopus, which holds two helicopters and a submarine. He owns American football team the Seattle Seahawks and professional basketball team the Portland Trail Blazers. Plus, he co-owns the Seattle Sounders pro-soccer team.

Apart from sports, Allen plays the guitar - he has jammed with Mick Jagger and Bono. His high-powered hobbies include brain science development and a search for extraterrestrial life. He even funded the first non-government spacecraft, SpaceShipOne. Move over, Richard Branson.

Three music gurus play up Allen's swaggering, boundary-buster side. 'Paul is a true adventurer in every sense of the word,' Dave Stewart says. 'His ideas have helped shape the world we live in, and witnessing the way his mind works is like watching a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo: you have no idea how he does it, but it blows your mind.'

Peter Gabriel and Bono are equally reverent. Gabriel paints Allen as a kind of cosmic Jacques Cousteau fired by insatiable curiosity.

Bono says the digital world that Allen envisioned when he co-founded Microsoft in 1975 is now the very fabric of the 21st century. Adding that Allen is 'brilliant' and 'humble', Bono praises his intellect and 'generosity of spirit', which critics contest.

The main attraction of the book is voyeuristic - the window it gives into the mind of the young Gates. In one early episode, Allen and Gates randomly board the same lift as John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Gates fails to notice the distinctive couple, apparently too deep in thought about Microsoft's future.

During marathon programming sessions, Gates nods off onto the keyboard. Then, he opens his eyes, squints at the screen, blinks twice and resumes just where he left off.

Gates comes across as obsessive and brilliant but human. At university he was cowed by some rivals' near-superhuman ability to juggle abstractions. 'When it came to higher mathematics, he might have been one in a hundred thousand students or better,' Allen writes. 'But there were people who were one in a million or one in 10 million, and some of them wound up at Harvard.' Gates knew he was never 'the smartest guy in the room', but he easily compensated through his drive that could border on mania.

Allen cites several rash acts that form quite a 'rap sheet'. In one alleged episode, Gates tries to wrest the controls of an airport boarding bridge to make a plane he has missed return to the gate, which it does after airline staff help out. Other alleged misdemeanours include sore-loser chess tantrums and speeding offences that force him to hire the top traffic lawyer in Washington state.

Gates seems a fiery taskmaster unrecognisable from the shyly smiling weed dwarfed by the bear-like Allen in photos. Of their fruitful but fractious time in Microsoft, Allen writes: 'It was like a failed romance. Parts of the relationship had been wonderful, but I remembered the negatives, too.'

The verdict on the book has been negative. CNet tech veteran Jay Greene calls it 'an unabashed bid for computing industry credit'. Greene elaborates: 'It's about Allen's attempt to claim his spot among the legends of technology.'

The Daily Beast simply summed up the memoir as 'a bitter book about Bill'. Allen's current 'cast of thousands' lawsuit against Google, Apple, eBay, Yahoo, Facebook and other web giants fuels the suspicion that he may have a mean streak.

He skips over post-Microsoft missteps, such as his doomed Wired World broadband network. Still, the accidental zillionaire, so called because Microsoft took off after he quit, is hard to hate. Aside from his enduring battle with cancer, Allen is a philanthropist who claims to have given more than US$1 billion to good causes. Besides, as Silicon Valley types say, and his projects prove, he is a visionary. In 2007 and 2008, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Although on his memoir's cover he looks unprepossessing, nobody could call the part-time guitar hero dull.

One of the most amusing episodes in Idea Man is when he and his partner ponder calling their start-up Allen and Gates. Fearing that they would sound like a law firm, they scrap that idea. Give Gates credit - he, rather than Allen, dreamed up Microsoft.