In conversation: Paul Allen

On searching for aliens, buying pro sports teams, and his two brushes with death

On searching for aliens, buying pro sports teams, and his two brushes with death

Photographs by Chris Lane/Getty Images

Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, but left after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982 and the two men had a falling out. Since then, Allen has used his fortune, estimated at US$13 billion, to buy sports teams, a submarine, build rocket ships and fund brain research, among other pursuits. In his new book Idea Man, which he wrote after a second cancer scare, Allen delves into his partnership with Gates and how it sparked the personal computer revolution. But he also reveals that working with Gates could be like “being in hell.”

Q: It’s been two years since you were diagnosed with cancer for the second time in your life, this time non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. How is your health today?

A: It’s good. I still have a few small after-effects, but I get tested every few months to make sure I’m still in remission. But I’m doing wonderfully better than when I was really sick when I first started on the book.

Q: Why write this book now?

A: I’d been thinking about doing a book for a number of years, and when I got sick I just felt it was something I should focus on. It really helped me get through chemotherapy. I’d get up each day, work on the book a little bit. It was good therapy.

Q: You’ve said one of the reasons for writing the book was to make sure history gets the story right. What was it that history was getting wrong about the formation of Microsoft?

A: I wanted to tell the story from my perspective. My side of the story had never been in print. I felt people would be interested in that part of my life, which was basically eight years at Microsoft, and the rest of the book is everything that happened after that.

Q: Had you felt that your side of the story was not reflected in the accepted history of Microsoft?

A: I just think it’s always different when someone tells it from their perspective, and I think there are details in the book that truly hadn’t been told. Some of the things in there have gotten more notice than I expected.

Q: I’m assuming you mean the intense focus on the revelations about your rocky relationship with Bill Gates.

A: There was more attention paid to that than the whole scope of the book. But there’s many things I had to say about my time with Bill, which, as the book recounts, was a very productive relationship, but it did have distinct ups and downs.

Q: I understand you have yet to speak with Bill Gates about the book. What do you think he’ll say when you do talk about it?

A: Bill, like me, we’re both sticklers for accuracy and he might have different recollections of things than I do. I did my best in the book to be as accurate, unvarnished, warts and all. But it’s possible he has different recollections. He’s hinted at that.

Q: You’re a movie buff. Did you see The Social Network?

A: I did. And there’s an opening shot that shows that magazine stand in Harvard Square [where Allen bought a magazine that revealed the world’s first minicomputer, and sparked the formation of Microsoft]. I staved off watching The Social Network until the book was done. I didn’t want it to form any linkage between the movie and the book. But there are definitely some echoes of things that happened in the early Microsoft days and many years later with Facebook.

Q: Do you mean the breakdown in the relationship between the two founders, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Savarin?

A: I think it’s a little bit different, though. Bill and I were programmers-in-arms. It’s not like we were doing different things. We were both staying up late and writing reams of code and eating lots of pizza. Of course I got the interesting role of going out and delivering our first product.

Q: Why is it that tech companies seem particularly prone to these types of ownership battles among founders?

A: It all just depends on the personalities. One person may be more drawn to the public side of something, so as it grows that role expands. Whereas the technical role expands too, but not as much. When that happens you get an interesting dynamic.

Q: You offer a very frank analysis of how Microsoft lost its way—partly the result of distractions from the anti-trust lawsuits but mostly that Microsoft got too big, mediocrity crept in, and there was a failure of leadership. What will it take for Microsoft to get its mojo back?

A: Microsoft has always tried to do a broad set of things. When you get a competitor like Google, you have to meet and beat that competitor to get people to switch, so it’s very challenging. Microsoft is on the case, but coming from behind in technology is very challenging. It happens sometimes. Google beat MySpace, and Android has come from nowhere to take a significant share of smartphones. So I root for Microsoft, but they’ve got their work cut out for them.

Q: How serious is the situation? Is it a case of change or die?

A: I like to talk a lot about platforms, like the smartphones and tablets. When new platforms come and people start switching to them, just like the PC took market share from mainframes, you’ve got to say, are smartphones and tablets going to take mind share and revenue away from the PC? You’re starting to see that now, so it’s incumbent on Microsoft to address these new platforms.

Q: I’ve read that you have a BlackBerry.

A: Yeah, I’ve been a long-time BlackBerry user. My mother forced me to take touch-typing in high school, which turned out to be fantastic for the keyboard.

Q: Then here’s a Canadian content question. Like Microsoft, Research in Motion was completely caught off guard by the iPhone and the iPad. Are they going down the same path that Microsoft is on, or is the PlayBook going to be the thing that turns them around?

A: Again, to beat someone who’s taken the lead, you have to be better. And while I can type faster on my BlackBerry Torch smartphone, I can’t tell you that it has all the features of the iPhone. For pure email it’s better, but for browsing the Web or applications it hasn’t caught up yet. So I hope that RIM is working to improve this. But once you fall behind it’s hard, because the leader keeps trying to push ahead, which is what Apple is doing. If you look at these platform battles, there’s only usually two or three people left standing. So who is going to be the third player after Apple and Google Android? Microsoft thinks it’s going to be number three. RIM thinks it’s going to be number three. It’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

Q: The first half of your book deals with how you made your fortune, the second half on how you’ve spent it—buying sports teams, building rocket ships, searching for aliens (by funding the SETI Institute), pursuing artificial intelligence, making movies, the huge boat, a submarine. These were all things you were fascinated by as a kid. It’s almost like you set out to relive your childhood, just with a lot more money.

A: It’s not about reliving your childhood; it’s about what’s interesting and exciting. Some of these things might change the world in terms of scientific research on the brain, or listening for alien signals, which I like to say is the longest of long shots. But then there are just things that I saw when I was young. It was the golden era of early manned rocketry, so it was always in the back of my mind that if I could participate in some of these things, and maybe move them forward, that would be a dream come true. Other things, like the sports teams, you do because the community asked me to save the team and keep it in my hometown [the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL]. The other team [the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA] was just because I loved the sport. Some things you do because they make your life fun, but they’re big responsibilities. You’ve got a responsibility to a whole community.

Q: Then here’s a question that’s been debated over the ages: can money buy happiness?

A: It certainly gives you more options—some amazing options. When you’re growing up in a university neighbourhood in north Seattle you don’t think about owning sports teams, or being able to do the Northwest Passage. But in the end, the majority of my resources will end up going to philanthropy. (Allen has joined the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett pledge to give away his fortune after he dies.)

Q: One of the philanthropic projects you’ve funded is the Allen Brain Institute and the effort to map the human brain. Was that an extension of your fascination with digging around inside machines in the 1970s to figure out how they worked?

A: If you have your first big success with computers and programming, which work in a very regular structured way, and then look at the brain, which works in such mysterious, complicated ways, then that’s endlessly fascinating to try and understand it. The other aspect of the brain institute is to try to discover earlier treatment for neurodegenerative diseases. My mother has Alzheimer’s, so it’s very rewarding to me to think we might—there’s no guarantee, but we might—accelerate treatment.

Q: You’ve had two brushes with death. The first taught you life was too short to spend all your time boxed up in Microsoft coding software. What did the second bout of cancer do?

A: You’re reminded of the importance of friends and family. It always reminds you that we’re all here on this planet for a limited amount of time and you have a limited amount of time to affect things in a positive way, so it makes you want to complete things you’ve always thought about doing. The book was one of them. Now I’m very focused on the brain institute and philanthropic efforts.