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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

March 31, 2011 at 9:35 AM

Paul Allen’s book: Shaping legacy with a chainsaw?

Paul Allen’s trying awfully hard to be sure he’s remembered as a technology visionary and not just a quirky billionaire.

But perhaps Allen’s trying too hard to shape his legacy.

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Building edifices such as the Experimental Music Project was just the start — though it’s now looking like an apt symbol of Allen’s melting relationship with Bill Gates, whose new foundation headquarters has risen across the street.

Allen’s aggressive new approach began last year, after he fought back a recurrence of cancer. In July he publicly pledged to give most of his fortune to charity. Then in August he sued Apple, Google, Facebook and other tech companies, arguing that they copied ideas hatched long ago by his research ventures.

Now Allen’s releasing an autobiography — “Idea Man” — to tell his remarkable story.

But the reception to excerpts of the tell-all suggests his re-branding effort may backfire.

The excerpts reiterate that Allen made key contributions to Microsoft’s genesis and ended up with a smaller share of the company than Gates, a story that’s been told before.

What’s newly revealed is the depth of Allen’s resentment over his dealings with Gates.

It’s so catty, Allen risks going down in history as the world’s richest disgruntled employee — the guy who stomped out of the building with $20 billion, thinking he deserved $25 billion.

I’ve followed Allen for more than a decade and talked to him a number of times. He’s always been polite, except for the time his security guard shoved me aside, the night Washington voters agreed to fund a stadium for his Seahawks.

Whenever I asked about Gates, Allen talked up their friendship. Here’s what he told me in June 2008:

“We have dinners regularly. We love to see movies together. The thing I always tell people about Bill that they may not know is, he’s really a lot of fun to hang out with.”

Allen continued:

“We used to go to movies a lot together. We would predict what’s going to happen in the movie. If something funny happened, then we would just crack up. We still to this day have a lot of fun just hanging out and talking and brainstorming about future things.”

Something must have changed. Maybe he was frustrated at being overshadowed by Gates all these years, or just had to get things off his chest. Still, nobody expected Allen to vent so publicly.

Gates was a brutal boss and a crafty negotiator. He’s a ruthless businessman who once aspired to be a lawyer like his wealthy father, who helped set things up. Allen’s an eclectic, music-loving son of a University of Washington librarian. Given these backgrounds, it’s impressive that Allen ended up with 36 percent of their startup.

Another sore point is the cut Gates gave to Steve Ballmer, to convince his Harvard pal to join the company in 1980.

Allen, who attended Washington State University, writes that he and Gates decided to give Ballmer 5 percent of Microsoft. But when he left on a business trip, Gates gave Ballmer 8.75 percent, “considerably more than what I’d agreed to.”

Allen wasn’t the only one miffed by Ballmer’s hiring package. It caused a “personnel disaster,” according to “Gates,” a 1993 biography by Paul Andrews and Stephen Manes. They didn’t say much about Allen’s feelings at the time, but said there was widespread resentment after Ballmer’s offer was tacked onto the office bulletin board.

The ones to feel sorry for are Microsoft’s early clerical workers, with whom “Gates had been tightfisted beyond the bounds of the law,” Andrews and Manes wrote.

While Allen was grousing about dilution, the clerks had to file a complaint with the state to extract back pay for overtime that Gates owed them.

We’ll have to see what the rest of Allen’s book says, and whether people are as interested in his life before and after Microsoft. There’s some irony in the book getting its initial burst of attention because of its candid view of Gates.

Hopefully “Idea Man” is more than a vendetta. That would be a shame because Allen’s otherwise providing fascinating new details from his front-row perspective on the birth of the PC industry and a company that dramatically changed the Seattle area and the world.

For better or worse, Microsoft is like a natural element. Much of the world runs on its software, and it may be the most profitable business ever created anywhere.

Allen left Microsoft when it was really just getting started, more than a decade before Windows 95.

Early employees who thought they knew the man don’t know what to make of his book.

“I’m taken aback,” said Jon Shirley, who became Microsoft’s president the year Allen left and served with him on its board.

Shirley said he’s been getting calls from very early employees, talking about the excerpts.

“I think everybody’s sort of in the same situation I am — it’s very hard to understand,” he said.

Shirley said the book probably won’t alter the general perception of Microsoft, which was more affected by antitrust cases.

“Microsoft is no longer Bill and Paul,” he noted.

Gates and Allen have also changed, presumably.

“How the world wants to view the interchange of these two very young men — when they were young men — I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to decide whether you accept this story or not. It’s shocking to me — it doesn’t sound like Paul.”

Or maybe there’s a lot more to Allen than everybody realized.

Comments | Topics: Bill Gates, Billionaire techies, idea man

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