Jul 05

Book Review: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft


Here is the story of a man who has one of the most unusual business careers in the last century. Software, music, space,  sports or the complex (and exciting) world of human brain, Paul Allen has made a mark and a lasting contribution in each of these fields. Idea man is a point-blank memoir of terrifying lows and triumphant highs of one of the most influential person in the world who has helped transform the way we live. In his well written and polished book,  Paul gives a detailed account of his successes and failures (and the lessons learned along the way) that resulted from a life full of passion and curiosity. Here are my two cents on the same:

Winning Points:

Microsoft, Bill gates and the business of software: The first part of the book covers details about Paul Allen’s intricate relationship with Bill Gates and the early days of Microsoft. It is a gripping account of two high school friends who went on to become billionaire founders of one of the powerhouses of the corporate world. Their early days at Lakeside, their restlessness to hunt new ideas, their love for computers , their struggle to come up with  BASIC programming language interpreter for Altair 8800, the fascinating story of scaling up Microsoft from a fledgling start-up to a software behemoth, their disagreements on various issues pertinent to their partnership , all of it is extremely engaging and can keep you awake until 3 AM (I suggest picking up the book on a weekend).  With Paul Allen with his industry changing ideas and visions and Bill gates with his business acumen and his “pitiless” execution abilities,  it was among the strongest and the most formidable business partnerships of all times.  Contrary to many media reports, the book takes a neutral stand on Bill Gates and discusses his relationship with both Gates and Microsoft objectively. The section of the book dedicated to the challenges Microsoft was engulfed with for more than a decade from the lawsuits to the brutal competition it faced in the internet and social space from Google, Apple and Facebook forms an interesting read. Allen further provides insights of how these challenges led to the breathtaking fall of the Goliath from grace.

The pursuit of passions: In the first few sections of the book, Paul Allen discuses his wide variety of childhood interests and passions. Paul left Microsoft before it went public and in a short period of time, his stock options turned him into one of the richest persons alive. As was noted by his attorney shortly after the IPO: “This wealth should enable you to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it…”  This wealth enabled Paul to make investments worth billions of dollars in every field he was passionate about. Ho soon bought NBA’s Portland Trailblazers, Seattle Seahawks, got involved with SpaceShipOne project (the first privately funded spacecraft) and invested billions in America online and Ticketmaster. The most notable of all his ventures is the Allen institute of Brain Science. Through its brain Atlas and mapping, the institute has pushed forward humanity by enabling scientists and researchers all over the world in their projects. Much of the data and the research is open to the academic community worldwide. Although this second part of the book is less interesting and engaging than the first, it provides some insights into the world of sports, entertainment and science. Allen has been particularly open minded in accepting his various flaws in these plethora of investments.

Loosing point:

The biggest and the grandest success that Paul Allen had can be categorically attributed to Microsoft, the company he co founded, and his association with Bill Gates.  Albeit he made huge investments and lived a lavish life of a business mogul thereafter, he never had that amount and scale of success. His visions and ideas have transformed industries but majority of those ideas worked and were best realized while he was with Microsoft.  Maybe, execution was never his strength, at least relative to his co-founder at Microsoft.

Final take:

Highly recommended. Not only Paul Allen provides an unclouded description of Microsoft’s early days, this business book is full of forward looking approach and what the technology has in store for our society. One last section is dedicated to the field of Artificial intelligence and the challenges faced in that area.  Anyone interested in history of technology or software will find the book perceptive. For others, there are rich details of many interesting things.


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