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

May 2, 2011 at 10:55 AM

Review of Paul Allen’s revealing “Idea Man”

There’s something for almost everyone in Paul Allen’s new memoir, “Idea Man.”

There are chapters on the Seahawks, the Trail Blazers, space travel, billionaire vacations, brain research and Jimi Hendrix.

Woven throughout are anecdotes and sometimes catty asides about the amazing parade of people Allen met as he worked his way up and partly back down the list of the world’s richest people.

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This makes it the most revealing book yet about lifestyles of the software tycoons living along the east shore of Lake Washington.

But “Idea Man” provides only a partial view of the rise of Microsoft and the modern tech industry. Allen played an important role in the early days and clearly feels his contributions are underappreciated. That’s fine, but the book’s insistent portrayal of Allen as a visionary compromises its documentary value and pushes it toward the category of public relations.

The first third of the book describes how a geeky Wedgwood kid discovered computers, fell in with Bill Gates and eventually suggested they start a company making software for the first microcomputers.

Allen drops names left and right — teachers at Lakeside, woolly programmers from the early days and celebrities he schmoozed with after joining the billionaire club.

As in a movie, some of the best lines were revealed in the previews. Excerpts published in March included most of the juicy bits, where Allen describes Gates’ abrasive style and how Allen overheard Gates and Steve Ballmer “scheming to rip me off” by diluting Allen’s Microsoft stake.

It turns out the book is less a vendetta than an effort to shape and polish the legacy of an unusual man whose technical skills and vision launched Microsoft at the dawn of personal computing. I’d put it on the same shelf as the $625, 2,400-page cookbook that former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold published last year and the authorized Steve Jobs biography that’s being released in early 2012.

Allen’s biggest business lately seems to be real-estate development. But he’s put renewed effort into defining himself as a tech visionary after brushes with death in 2009, when he received a pacemaker and fought a recurrence of the cancer that precipitated his resignation from Microsoft in 1983.

While writing the book, Allen simultaneously sued Apple, Google, Facebook and other major tech companies. He alleged they were infringing on patents from a research lab he funded before the dot-com crash. The suits describe the lab as “one of the preeminent technology firms” and Allen as “one of the earliest pioneers of personal computer software.”

Allen never says so directly, but the book leaves the impression he’s resentful or jealous of Gates’ fame, accolades and reputation. Several “told you so” passages drive this home.

When antitrust investigations of Microsoft were peaking in 1997, “I advised Bill to temper his stance,” but Gates insisted he could bundle a browser or other features to his products, Allen wrote.

He also claims to have foreseen the importance of Google: “Years before Google became the goliath it is today, I repeatedly asked Bill how Microsoft was going to catch up in search, or whether the company might consider buying Google instead. Bill was unimpressed by his then much smaller rival. ‘In six months we’ll catch them,’ he kept saying.”

Allen also takes a few jabs at Jobs. He recalls being appalled by Jobs’ berating an employee in a meeting, and another incident where Jobs rejected Allen’s suggestion that a computer mouse would be better with two buttons, rather than the single mouse button Jobs planned for the Macintosh.

“In time I’d be vindicated,” Allen wrote, noting Windows became the dominant PC platform, the second button helps millions of users and Apple began offering its multi-button Mighty Mouse in 2005.

Tech leaders aren’t the only ones skewered. Allen gets in several digs at his former investment manager, executives at the cable company where Allen lost $8 billion, and Bob Whitsitt, the former Sonics manager Allen hired to lead the Blazers and the Seahawks.

The gentlest rebuke is given to his beloved mother, for selling Allen’s childhood collection of science-fiction books 25 years after he had moved out of the family house. She proudly told him a man paid $75 for the lot.

“It was hard to forgive her for that, but an old photograph saved the day,” Allen wrote. “After enlarging the picture, I was able to make out the titles on my old collection’s spines. I had copies tracked down and retrieved almost all of them.”

“Idea Man” is the recollection of one person and not a transcript of history, of course. It’s not journalism, and some controversies are skipped over.

Prurient readers will be disappointed the book isn’t as candid as promised on its front flap. There are no juicy stories from the $10 million parties the guitar-playing bachelor hosted on yachts and in exotic locales for friends and celebrities.

There’s no mention of Allen’s relationship in the late 1990s with tennis champion Monica Seles, who is half his age. Allen talks about his ill-fated investment in the DreamWorks movie studio, but he doesn’t mention an earlier production company he bankrolled until the co-founder accused him of sexual harassment.

Also missing are details of Allen’s reincarnation as a real-estate mogul.

It’s still fun and enlightening to peek behind the curtain that Seattle’s most colorful billionaire has pulled around his life. Even if you’re only seeing a stage carefully filled with Allen’s favorite things.

Comments | Topics: Bill Gates, Billionaire techies, blazers

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