Saturday 10 December 2016

When Bill Gates (12) met Paul Allen (14) -- and they set about conquering the world

Caitriona Palmer on a remarkable new book about the super-nerd founders of Microsoft

Published 07/05/2011 | 05:00

Would you be able to recognise Paul Allen if he passed you on the street? Bespectacled, balding and cursed with the soft padded paunch that comes with advanced middle age, Allen is a regular looking guy who could go unnoticed on any American main street. Even his conventional name is as bland as the regular navy two-piece suit and blue shirt that this Seattle native loves to wear.

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But Paul Allen is anything but conventional. Co-founder of one of the world's most powerful corporations, he is one of the richest men on the face of the earth and the other half of the team that brought you Microsoft.

Everyone has heard of Bill Gates; hardly anyone knows about Paul Allen. But once upon a time, during Coca-Cola-fuelled all nighters, Gates and Allen, both geniuses in their own right, pulled off the greatest coup in home computer history by creating the unstoppable software company.

And now, this 'other guy', the man who has stood in Bill Gates's shadow for over 30 years, is about to have his say.

In a new book, Idea Man: A Memoir by the Co-Founder of Microsoft, Allen has spilled the beans on his tempestuous relationship with the nerdy Gates, who -- unlike his mild public persona -- is depicted as a volatile, petulant, mogul-in-training, prone to frequent outbursts and eager to amass as many Microsoft shares as possible.

Allen retired from Microsoft in 1983 after a bout of cancer, becoming a billionaire in his own right. But nearly three decades have not been enough to ease the obvious resentment and bitterness that he feels towards Gates, whom at one point Allen accuses of "scheming to rip me off" shortly after his cancer diagnosis.

Allen recounts how in late 1982, after being told by his doctors that he was suffering from Hodgkin's lymphoma, he overheard a conversation between Gates and another Microsoft senior employee plotting to rob him of his position.

"They were bemoaning my recent lack of production and discussing how they might dilute my Microsoft equity by issuing options to themselves and other shareholders," Allen claimed.

Allen apparently burst into the room, confronting Gates and shouting: "This is unbelievable! It shows your true character, once and for all." A few months later, he resigned.

Gates, who for his part remains on friendly terms with Allen, has remained tight-lipped and diplomatic about the past.

"While my recollection of many of these events may differ from Paul's, I value his friendship and the important contributions he made to the world of technology and at Microsoft," Gates said in a statement.

Allen first met Gates in secondary school in Seattle when he was 14 and the Microsoft chief was a gangly, freckled, awkward 12-year-old, but in reality looked as though he was just eight. Despite this, "he was really smart", Allen remembers.

"He was really competitive . . . And he was really, really persistent."

Obsessed with the giant computers that sat in windowless rooms and spat out reams of papers, the two geeks spent hours devising computer programs and dreamed of establishing a Fortune 500 software company that would one day employ 35 people. Today Microsoft employs more than 90,000.

When Gates enrolled in Harvard, Allen soon followed him to Boston with his girlfriend where he and Gates pulled their infamous all-nighters and worked on creating Microsoft.

The two conversed in their own special language, a form of geeky gobbledygook, both falling on the floor in peals of giggles whenever they cracked codes. Gates was so obsessed with programming that he would sometimes work until collapse, passing out on the floor to the horror of his friends.

Allen's girlfriend at the time, Rita, remembers Gates as quirky and odd. One night she was left speechless after watching Gates consume a roast chicken dinner that she had prepared. "Did you see that?" she asked Allen after Gates left. "He ate his chicken with a spoon. I have never in my life seen anyone eat chicken with a spoon."

Allen had always assumed that as co-founders of Microsoft he and Gates would share equal 50-50 profits but Gates thought differently. "It's not right for you to get half," Gates told him. "I should get more. I think it should be 60-40." (Gates later renegotiated so he would receive 64 to Allen's share of 36).

Allen paints a candid picture of the obsessive Microsoft chief. An uncompromising workaholic, he took to prowling the company car park on weekends to see who had showed up for work. In high stress meetings he was prone to fits of temper, cutting colleagues short with his classic put down: "That's the stupidest f****ing thing I've ever heard."

Since retiring, Allen has spent the last 28 years indulging his inner teenage male, buying multimillion-dollar "boy toys" with the tens of billions that Microsoft has bestowed on him.

In 2003, he built 'Octopus' -- the largest private yacht in the world, standing seven stories high and fitted with a concert stage, a recording studio, swimming pool, basketball court, submarine and staffed by 50 full-time crew.

He has bought an American football team and a basketball team. An avid guitarist, he has jammed with Mick Jagger and Bono and hung out with Paul McCartney. Obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, he has bought up most of the late star's artifacts and commissioned America's most famous architect, Frank Gehry, to design a museum to house them.

Like an adolescent with an unlimited allowance, he has invested in rocket ships, space tourism, science fiction and animated cinema. He has bought up Monets, Renoirs, Van Goghs and a red spandex jumpsuit worn by Britney Spears in one of her music videos.

A steadfast bachelor -- he has been linked in the past to tennis player Monica Seles and a former Miss USA -- Allen now lives in a giant mansion with his elderly mother and sister. Some critics have dismissed him as "creepy" and a "boy-man" obsessed with his toys.

But, like Gates, he has also turned to philanthropy, donating more than $1 billion of his fortune to charity.

Other critics point out that Allen's obvious resentment of Gates is unfair given that most of Allen's wealth came from Microsoft products developed long after he left the company in 1983.

But Allen insists that he and Gates remain on good terms and that he harbours no grudge about the past. In 2009 his cancer returned and he now faces a mighty battle against Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Perhaps because of that, Allen feels it's more important for him to get his story out -- before his old nemesis has a chance.

"We haven't had a chance to discuss the details of the book yet," Allen told The Guardian recently. "I think Bill was a bit surprised by some of the elements in it, and he'll want to have a very intense discussion about that. That's the way Bill is.

"Maybe he'll come to my house. Maybe it'll be in a public place so our voices can't be raised too much. Not in a lawyer's office, please."

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