The life of a man with big ideas

The life of a man with big ideas
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First Published: Thu, Dec 01 2011. 08 47 PM IST

Jayachandran/Mint
Jayachandran/Mint
Updated: Thu, Dec 01 2011. 08 47 PM IST
Idea Man is the autobiography of “the other guy” of Microsoft. Paul Allen met Bill Gates, two years his junior, in a Seattle school in 1968: they were computer geeks, they bonded. In 1975 was born Micro-soft (named by Allen, they dropped the hyphen soon after). Allen quit in 1983.
Jayachandran/Mint
One had always heard that Allen and Gates were very different personalities, but it’s fascinating to read a first-hand account of their sinusoid-on-crack ride (another similarly enthralling autobiography is Life by Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones: most highly recommended for his views on Mick Jagger, and much else). Allen-Gates is a story of chalk and cheese brought together by some roll of the dice at the cusp of enormous technological change.
From Day 1, Allen was the visionary and Gates the hard-nosed businessman. As a schoolboy sitting in a pizza parlour, Allen wondered: “What if you could get the news by reading from a computer terminal instead of buying a newspaper? You could even programme it to find articles on whatever you wanted, wouldn’t that be great?” Gates scoffed, using economic logic, which was perfectly correct in those days of punch-card-programmed monitorless computers. In 1977, 15 years before the World Wide Web, Allen spoke to a magazine about home terminals connected to a centralized network, so one could put one’s car up for sale or look for a house or check the price of a stock. There is nothing in Allen’s memoirs to suggest that Gates ever spent much brain time on anything other than Business. When they set up MS, Gates insisted that ownership should be 60-40, since Allen had a day job while Gates was still a student. Later, when Gates decided to drop out of Harvard and devote himself fully to Microsoft, he demanded that the stakes be made 64-36, since he was forsaking his degree.
In 1980, after the Allen invention SoftCard propelled Microsoft into the big league, Allen suggested he deserved more than 36%. “I don’t ever want to talk about it,” responded Gates. “Do not bring it up.” “In that moment, something died for me,” writes Allen. “I saw that Bill’s self-interest overrode all other considerations…I thought, OK…but one day I’m out of here.”
In 1982, Allen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he had to spend more and more time away from work for his treatment. But one day he overheard Gates and Steve Ballmer bemoaning Allen’s lack of productivity and discussing how they could dilute Allen’s equity by issuing options to themselves and others. He confronted them. Gates pleaded with him to stay on, but when Allen remained firm, he offered a cut-rate price to buy back his shares. Allen refused -- his Microsoft holdings and subsequent investments, in time, made him enormously rich: he is currently estimated to be worth $13 billion.
Since leaving MS, Allen has bet billions on futuristic technologies—and won and lost in equal measure. Fascinated with space travel from childhood, he funded the creation of the first aircraft that could go to the edge of space -- 100km above earth -- and which forms the core of Richard Branson’s space tourism initiative Virgin Galactic. But many of the projects he funded through his think-up-the-future firm Interval Research, were way ahead of their time -- like 3D TV, interactive video, numerous applications built around broadband connectivity, the WebPad (precursor to the tablet computer). Allen finally shut down Interval Research, but by that time, the company already owned 300 patents, some of which may, when the time comes, be game-changers.
Perhaps his most important investment -- and it’s not for profit—is the Allen Institute for Brain Science, whose super-ambitious mandate is a complete atlas of the human brain. The atlas would link genetics and anatomy, with maps of switched-on genes overlying the brain’s three-dimensional structure. The potential is staggering -- once the atlas is done, scientists would be able to isolate genes that trigger brain ailments with laser precision and target them therapeutically. While the atlas is being worked on, all data being generated is available free online for researchers. You don’t even have to register.
What would Microsoft be like if Allen had not left? Would it be less successful? Maybe not. Allen swung the third-party deal that got Microsoft to meet IBM’s impossible deadline to deliver MS-DOS, which gave MS unimaginable dominance in PC software. Allen suggested that Microsoft charge individual licence fees for its software, an idea that Gates rejected initially, but which earns the firm billions of dollars every year. What is certain is that if Allen had been around, MS would not have been so laggardly in responding to the Internet, and now, mobile computing. In the new world, MS is strictly an Old Economy company. The New York Times referred to it last year as “the No. 1 wholesale seller of plumbing supplies”.
But this is a pointless exercise. As Idea Man makes clear, Gates and Allen could never have had a lifelong partnership, like Hewlett and Packard, or—in spite of their bitter fights—Jagger and Richards. Through some vagary of cosmic law, they met and created something extraordinary, but they had to part. And it is amazing that both have achieved their dreams, if not in full measure, then very substantially.
Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.
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First Published: Thu, Dec 01 2011. 08 47 PM IST