Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft

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Release Date: 
October 29, 2012
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In the Information Age, the sacred bonds of tech hookups trump the holy vows of matrimony.

And yes, it’s always a guy thing, those geek bromances of Palo Alto and Seattle, where digital passions rival the analog variety of, say, Tristan und Isolde.

Though Hewlett and Packard may have been their era’s Ozzie and Harriet for blissful longevity, their progeny couldn’t pull off the same trick. The two Steves—Jobs and Wozniak—conceived the Apple II, but Woz went his own way after 10 years and Steve J. became the legend.

Similar nuptial vows were pronounced at Microsoft. Paul Allen coded the breakthroughs in operating software while co-founder Bill Gates worked the business strategy and contracts. Eight years later—kaput. Want to guess who’s the household name today?

But fame doesn’t get you a place in heaven, and no man is hero to his jiltee—which is the nub of Paul Allen’s Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft.

Mr. Allen’s narrative is as apple (non-Jobs)-pie as a day without rain in Bellevue, Washington. He portrays himself as one of a long line of American inventors and entrepreneurs, and there’s no denying his place in the pantheon. Son of a librarian and teacher, he exhibited his math talents early, joined the school techie brigade, but also checked off the normality boxes with guitars and girls.

But programming was his passion. Mr. Allen’s set-piece descriptions of writing software code should convince all quill-and-paper Luddites that such work is every bit as creative as carving marble, singing bel canto, or writing book reviews.

At its best, Idea Man provides new insights into the dawn of personal computing and Allen is one of its founding fathers: His 21 instructions written in 1975 for the Altair 8800 computer are as seminal as Bell’s first telephonic cry to Watson for help or Allan Ginsberg’s Howl for the Beat era.

The rise and fall of industry pioneers like Ed Roberts and DEC; Steve Jobs’s meltdown during a botched demonstration of the Macintosh; war horse PCs like the Commodore and Tandy TRS-80—all are etched in loving detail.

And if Mr. Allen has scores to settle with his one-time partner, one can sympathize. After all, Bill Gates is our era’s Andrew Carnegie—the marketplace raptor turned philanthropist, clawing for epiphany before Judgment Day.

Insecure, aggressive, the Bobby Fisher of software—he is, according to Mr. Allen, the brilliant weenie who drives maniacally, a 90-lb. weakling trying to prove he’s the tough guy by sliding down banisters head first.

Blessedly scruple-free, Gates plotted to dilute Allen’s equity in the company while his partner was undergoing chemotherapy—prevented from doing so only when Allen overheard the plan and confronted him.

But Mr. Allen ultimately departed Microsoft on his own terms and embarked on his life’s Act II. With all the money in the world, he has spent it for fun, profits and posterity—buying sports teams, investing in tech companies and funding brain research.

Yet, despite the long list of personal and business adventures, there is something missing from this otherwise useful memoir once the Microsoft years have passed.

Mr. Allen is a little like that hyperactive neighbor who shows you endless photos of his vacation. Behind the brio of competing for the aeronautical X-Prize, dropping billions in cable TV, or buying Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster, one suspects a more complex figure exists than the one we find here.

Nevertheless, Idea Man reminds us that though America’s short-term economic prospects are poor, its long-term prognosis is bright. Innovation is imprinted on our nation’s genetic code, and Paul Allen, who prides himself on being able to “look around the corner,” is one of its exemplars.

Happily, he provides a useful and much-needed guide that reminds us how industrial breakthroughs occur: a combination of calculated gamble, mucho capital, and zero remorse when playing the odds.