Paul Allen – The Idea Man At Microsoft

Vanity Fair had published an early excerpt of the forthcoming new book, “Idea Man: A Memoir of The Cofounder of Microsoft” by Paul Allen, who cofounded Microsoft with Bill Gates before they both dropped out of college to build the world’s fifth largest corporation. This should be a fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in Silicon Valley history. The excerpt focused on creating the BASIC programming language for the Altair microcomputer in 1975, and how Gates repeatedly tried to increase his ownership of Microsoft at Allen’s expense in 1983. Already there reports that Allen’s recollections of key events at Microsoft are being questioned by others who there at the time.

Although I had read nearly every book on Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple, I haven’t read that many books on the cofounders at Microsoft. The few that I had read were focused on the federal antitrust case against Microsoft, which, from my perspective, was nothing more than a government shakedown to increase the amount of money that Microsoft spent on Washington lobbyists to spread the wealth around. (Apple, which is also facing a possible antitrust investigation, is now hiring more Washington lobbyists.) If I’m not mistaken, this is the first insider account about the early days of Microsoft.

If you read “Hackers: Heroes of The Revolution Computer Revolution” by Stephen Levy, the story about the Altair BASIC that Allen and Gates put together, and the controversy a year later when hobbyists were stealing their software, is well known.

What Allen brings to the story is the behind scenes account of how the program was put together. They didn’t have actual hardware to test the code on since the company producing the Altair microcomputer was no better than a fly-by-night operation, putting electronic parts into a plastic bag for hobbyists to put together. The Apple II several years later would become the first assembled computer for the home market that didn’t require users to own a soldering iron.

Using the Intel 8080 microprocessor guide as a reference, they rented time on an underused PDP-10 minicomputer at Harvard (which school officials later frowned upon), and created a software program of the hardware to develop their software on. They worked non-stop in the familiar Silicon Valley grind to make the deadline in two months, often missing classes and regular jobs until they had more or less dropped out altogether.

The BASIC program worked fine on the simulated hardware, but what about the real thing? Allen took the paper tape—the common storage method back then—to New Mexico, wrote a quick-and-dirty bootstrap loader program on the plane to have the Altair load the BASIC program into memory, and it worked flawlessly. Microsoft had it first sale and the rest was history.

Much hay is being made out of the fact that Gates tried to squeeze Allen out of the business. This isn’t surprising in Silicon Valley. When a startup stops being a small business and starts attracting serious outside money, there can only be one dominant founder to claim all the credit and glory for the company’s success. Everyone else is either shoved overboard or long forgotten. Besides, Gates wanted to run a Fortune 500 company since he was 13-years-old. Even Allen was wise to step aside in the face of such ambitions when the time came for him to leave the company.