Idea Man by Paul Allen

2 minutes estimated reading time

Self-described ‘Idea Man‘ Paul Allen was the technical foil to Bill Gates’ when he founded Microsoft. Much of the Microsoft story is the story of Bill Gates – partly due to the way the company’s PR machine built Gates up as a software superman. The wheels came off the wagon with the Judge Jackson trial video testimonial. Allen dropped out of the story despite being instrumental in many of the key early products; instead he became known as a local billionaire who liked to jam with rock star friends and owned some local sports teams. Now he is trying to reinsert himself carefully in Microsoft’s story with Idea Man.

Gates is now re-inventing himself has a modern-day Rockerfeller through charitable donations, trying to redefine his place in history as a convicted monopolist. With this change, Allen becomes even less significant. A cynical person may describe this book as Paul Allen’s attempt to write himself back into history, but without the Gates stigma. This view was reinforced by the books launch occurring round about the same time that Allen took legal action against many of the most successful technology companies for alleged patent violations.

A student of Microsoft’s history would recognised the flawed human portrait of Bill Gates who is portrayed  as argumentative, ruthless, driven determined and petty. So in many respects Allen doesn’t add much to the Gates canon; Allen acts as an apologist for Gates in many respects being exceptionally tolerant of his faults; a co-founder equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. Ballmer comes across as being a more decent human being, yet Allen’s accurate but unnecessary visceration of Microsoft’s performance feels as if it is aimed more towards liquidating Ballmer’s historic legacy.

What I didn’t get from the book was the sense of Allen the person, what is he really like? What drives him? What are his demons? In this respect, Allen is absent from his own memoirs and the book comes across as two-dimensional because of it.

There are sections on his relationships with famous musicians and sportstars, but it didn’t mean that much to me so I can’t comment beyond saying  that I didn’t find it that engaging.

If you are going to read any book that touches on Microsoft and the PC era; I would instead recommend Robert X. Cringely’s Accidental Empires or Jennifer Edstrom (daughter of Waggener Edstrom’s Pam Edstrom) and Martin Eller’s Barbarians Led By Bill Gates.