On April 25th, “idea man” Paul Allen discussed his life and work at the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mt View, CA. In 1975, Mr. Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. He is currently the chairman of Vulcan Inc. and founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He was interviewed by multimedia journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas.
This event was part of the CHM 2011 lecture series celebrating Revolutionaries, featuring conversations with and about some of the most distinguished thinkers in the computing field. The Revolutionaries lecture series complements the launch of the Computer History Museum’s permanent exhibition, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing (which this author has toured and highly recommends). This particular event was co-sponsored by Kepler’s book store, which is selling Mr. Allen’s Idea Man book.
The interview was more a life story of a renaissance man than a look back at the early days of Microsoft. Nonetheless, Mr. Allen offered a few talking points about that time. Moderator Vargas started the interview with a great lead in question: “What was your biggest surprise?” Mr Allen replied that it was being able to complete writing his book, despite fighting cancer. “Meticulously going through drafts, edits, changes. The book gives everyone a sense of what iit was like (in the early days of Microsoft). I was able to tell it like I experienced it in an untarnished way.”
Mr. Vargas followed up that theme: “There’s a lot of dirty laundry in your book. It seems that your work at Microsoft went from a highly productive partnership (with Bill Gates) to loathing at the end. Did you talk to Bill Gates or Steve Balmer about the book?” Paul replied that he didn’t talk to Gates, but he did talk to Balmer who told him, “The book portrays everything you knew about Microsoft (at the time), but we deny it.”
Mr. Vargas next made reference to a “1974 Popular Electronics*” magazine article about the Altair PC, which he thought might have inspired Paul Allen and others at Microsoft. The article described the Altair Basic MITS using the Intel 8008 microprocessor. Many say that machine was the first PC. One would have thought that article would’ve caused Microsoft executives to believe that PCs would be widespread. Instead, Mr Allen stated, “We had no idea of how fast the PC market would take off. When the (Intel) 8080 microprocessor came out, Bill said let’s wait for someone to build a computer using it. At that time, we thought that, maybe, someday, Microsoft would have 35 employees.”
*Author’s Note: According to Wikipedia: “The (Altair) computer in the January 1975 issue of captured the attention of the 400,000 or so readers of Popular Electronics.” There is no reference to a 1974 article about “PCs in every home” as the moderator stated. In fact, Microsoft didn’t exist in 1974!
The CHM web site states: “Allen and Gates had no access to an Altair when they wrote their BASIC programming language interpreter for it. They debugged the program on a DEC PDP-10 timesharing computer using a simulator of the Intel 8008 microprocessor that Allen had written.” But during the CHM interview, Mr. Allen remarked that “Bill Gates was programming using IBM 360 and Univac mainframe computers.” Paul stated that his job in the early days of Microsoft was to “look at what will be coming next.”
The moderator asked: “Did Microsoft recognize the effect of Moore’s law at the time?” Paul repled that they were aware that (microprocessor) chips were getting much faster and cheaper, but he could not quantify what the implications of that might be for the computer industry and specifically for PCs.
Paul continued, “Bill (Gates) was an amazingly shrewd business person. We worked shoulder to shoulder writing initial code (at Microsoft).” He said the nature of their friendship was very important in starting the company. Paul was attracted to new technologies, while Bill looked after the business and marketing side.
Mr. Vargas asked, “What advice do you have for young technology company leaders, like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook?” Paul responded: “You hve to be eternally vigilent and aware of new platforms coming down the pike. If they evolve rapidly and are accepted, they could replace the technology your company has.” It’s also important to have and retain great people, he said. “You also have to see new big things coming. For example social networks, which both Google and Microsoft missed capitalizing on.”
Fast forwarding to the present, Mr. Allen said that Microsoft faces fierce competition today. He said, “They have to fight multi-front wars. Yet it’s hard to innovate and get people to change their habits.” Paul identified three areas he thought Microsoft was lagging in: social networking, mobile apps and (Internet based) platforms. While acknowledging Microsoft’s leadership in PC and enterprise software as well as game platforms, he surprised this author by saying “Microsoft has had a breath taking fall from grace.” They are lagging in new areas, such as mobile devices, tablets and other new platforms, he said. Paul did not mention the advances Microsoft has made in web search, especially with the Bing search engine which has been adopted by Yahoo.
Mr. Allen was not too kind to Microsoft’s mobile computing software platform. “Windows mobile is coming from behind (more popular mobile OS’s/ software platforms such as Android, Apple, RIM). It needs to have persuasive new features to get people to switch. Shorter development cycles, agility and better employees are needed,” he said. He singled out media tablets as a key area for Microsoft to improve on.
The remainder of the interview dealt with Mr. Allen’s other interests. For example, he said his biggest failure was Charter Communications and his biggest investment was in oil and gas pipelines. Interval Research (a company he founded and owned) was described as “a good experience; they developed a lot of IP, but it was not a commercial success.” There was talk about brain research, philanthropy, commercial space travel, intelligent design and facing one’s mortality. But all that is beyond the scope of this article, which is focused on computing.
Mr. Allen’s closing comment may be quite prophetic. He said, “The rate at which young people adopt new technology is breathtaking. They spend an enormous amount of time on-line, but may not be inquisitive about how things work or creative about the technology world of tomorrow.” And that just might be an impediment to future innovation and technology breakthroughs.