If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Paul Allen, the Idea Man

Alongside a few colleagues, I started fiddling with personal computers (PCs) in 1987. The first IBM PC rolled out of a plant in a small town, Boca Raton in Palm beach, Florida in 1981 and soon became the industry standard. Later, only “IBM compatible PCs” would see the light of the day. These machines would reach our corporate office in a small town in India within a few years of their launch.

After having used the typewriter for many years, I found the new machine fascinating. Typing, correcting, editing, everything you could do by looking at a screen; you could chisel your language to perfection. You could store tonnes of text and take any number of clear prints. That was not all: A few hours of tinkering with a utility called dBase III, and you got a system that would do in one hour what an army of clerks would do in one week.

We, who used the machines, were the beneficiaries. The benefactors were many, who developed PC hardware and software on the other side of the globe, in the US of A. Paul Allen, 21 and Bill Gates, 19, were entrepreneurs who, with tremendous prescience, dreamed of putting “a computer in every home” at a time when computers were huge, unwieldy, monstrously expensive machines that were accessible only to governments and top research institutes. It was an arena reserved for scientists, where a few passionate hobbyists, aka nerds, sneaked in from time to time. Let alone common people, even commercial houses hardly used them in the 1970s.

IBM PCs and their clones changed it all. Originally known as microcomputers, they were first built around the microprocessor or microchip called Intel 8086. Subsequent models were based on Intel 8088 and Intel 80826. With every new avatar, we experienced exponential increase in data storage capacity and speed of computation. As users, we were a tiny part of a revolution that would later change the way people keep in touch, buy movie tickets, gather news, fall in love, in short, the way people live.

We saw these changes as audience in a grand theatre. Paul Allen’s autobiography, Idea Man, gives us a glimpse into what happened backstage, and in the greenrooms. The story is extraordinary and the book, particularly the first half (174 pages), which covers the two young men’s tryst with destiny and the setting up of Microsoft, is as riveting as the finest thrillers by Agatha Christie.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates were together at an exclusive private school (equivalent to public school in India) in Seattle. For them, it was a stroke of fortune that the school decided to install a terminal link to a General Electric mainframe computer at a distant location. The two friends used the terminal to teach themselves programming and begged borrowed and stole to get as much computer time as possible, wherever and whenever available. Before he was twenty, Allen had
“working familiarity” with ten computers, ten high-level languages, nine machine-level languages, and three operating systems.
A brilliant student and a rather conceited young man, Gates went to Harvard to study maths and got a rude shock to discover that he was not the smartest, but just one of the top students. One of his maths professors “got his PhD at sixteen.” He shifted to applied maths. Allen got a “dead-end job” nearby, but their obsession with programming continued.

In 1975, an unknown New Mexico entrepreneur Ed Roberts launched the MITS Altair, the world's first microcomputer. It was based on the microchip Intel 8080. But the world's first microcomputer was less than a fancy toy as strangely, Ed didn’t have a clue about the software that could run the machine. Allen and Gates, assisted by a freshman Monte Davidoff, worked like mad to write the software, technically known as “the interpreter” that would enable the machine to run programs written in the BASIC programming language.

The genius of Allen and Gates made it possible although they were at the other end of the continent and had no access to the Altair computer or even the 8080 chip. Their experience of working on a failed previous project helped.

The day Allen flew down to Albuquerque, New Mexico to demonstrate their software (Altair BASIC), he knew it might not work on the Altair machine. Also, he had forty dollars on him and no credit card. Ed Roberts had booked him in a hotel that cost fifty dollars a night. But in the knowledge industry about to change the world, what you had in your head was more important than what you had in your bank. The software worked, Allen bagged the contract and Microsoft (MICROcomputer + SOFTware) was born.

In 1980, when IBM was looking for an operating system (the basic software on which computer programs operate) to run its new personal computer, they approached Microsoft. Microsoft hadn’t developed any operating system earlier, but they didn’t let go the opportunity. A small Seattle based company had developed a rudimentary operating system, QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System). Allen bought it at a throwaway price and developed it into MS-DOS. It was not easy. The Microsoft team sweated blood and delivered. The rest is history: the IBM PC became the benchmark in an ever-expanding industry and DOS became its operating system. As is commonly said, with MS-DOS, Microsoft acquired a licence to print money.

Underneath the teamwork, there was tension. Bill Gates, a ruthlessly focused man who would reach his goals at any cost, was not an easy person to get along with. He could be rude and cantankerous. In their team, Allen was mainly the thinker and Gates, the doer. Allen did the research and scanned the horizon for new opportunities. Gates ran the business. Their partnership, which began as with a 50:50 sharing of profits, became 64:36 in favour of Gates in course of time. The greed or jealousy between the two men could have been between any two bania partners. Yet, the story of the friendship and competition between these two brilliant men is no less absorbing than the story of Microsoft itself.

After spending eight feverish years in developing Microsoft into a behemoth, Allen was down with Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 29. Although he recovered, he never went back to an active role in the company.
The remaining half of the book deals with the other half of his life till 2010. A 30% ownership of Microsoft meant he is an enormously rich man. He hasn’t used his wealth like any other eccentric billionaire. Rather, he has used his wealth like an eccentric billionaire who has a genuine, umbilical connection with science in particular and knowledge in general, and who has varied interests ranging from basketball to rock music to wild life.

Although being from the third world, one finds the idea of owning a seven-storey, longer-than-a-football-ground yacht ridiculous and put-offing (Paul Allen has got one), one cannot but bow to a man who spends millions to map the brain and the spinal cord and puts the findings in the public domain, and sets up libraries and museums, and funds SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Paul Allen is a brilliant entrepreneur who played a key role in a technology revolution which will surely rank as a watershed in the history of our civilization. He is also tremendously inquisitive about the frontiers of science, and wants to be a part of any project that might achieve a breakthrough into the future. And he says, “From my youth, I’d never stopped thinking in the future tense.”

Paul Allen - Idea Man, published by Penguin Books Limited, London, 2011


  1. The endearing, enduring friendship between Paul Allen and Bill Gates is quite touching. It displays their basic decency and maturity.

  2. Thanks. There are two distinct phases in the friendship between Allen and Gates. The first phase, when the two brilliant odd men were shaping themselves to become the dream they were dreaming together, was truly fascinating. The second, which was between two highly successful business partners had all the elements of meanness and jealousy that can be seen among ordinary mortals. Allen's autobiography is also valuable because it tells us that the most brilliant of men too are after all humans.


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