Paul Allen’s tearing into Gates seems familiar

You’ve probably heard by now about Vanity Fair publishing an excerpt from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s autobiography,  which doesn’t give the most flattering portrayal of Bill Gates, his former business partner.

I’ve heard most of these stories before, though I’m trying to figure out where. What surprises me is the people who are acting like this stuff came out of the blue. If I’ve heard most of this stuff before, then so have a lot of people.
I worked for a while for a company that Paul Allen owned. I walked past a huge picture of him every day, hanging in the lobby. I never met him, though I did meet the CEO on a couple of occasions and even gave him a jump-start. I did hear some Paul Allen stories there, and it was interesting, to me, how a company owned by a Microsoft co-founder actually used an awful lot of non-Microsoft products, especially in the back office. Sure, we all had Windows and Office in our cubicles, and we used Exchange for corporate e-mail, but much of the company ran on Solaris and Linux. I’ve worked places where blind loyalty to the Microsoft party line was part of the corporate culture, but Allen’s company wasn’t one of those.

And I went to school with some people who interned at Microsoft, so I’ve heard a number of the Gates legends that circulate among Microsoft employees. And those mesh with Allen’s account.

I’ve read biographies of Gates several times, so it could be that I’ve heard some of the stories there.

But I noticed one odd detail missing from Allen’s account. In late 1982, Allen says, he overheard Gates and Steve Ballmer trying to figure out how to dilute the value of Allen’s shares in Microsoft. His health was failing, he was thinking of his future beyond Microsoft anyway, and Gates and Ballmer weren’t satisfied with his recent production.

So what did Allen leave out? His project at the time was PC DOS 2.0. It was the biggest, most ambitious project they’d undertaken to date. And IBM was questioning whether heading up the project was going to literally kill the man. As unflattering as Allen’s account may be, if anything it’s toned down from other accounts that have been floating around for years. Cringely’s account (linked above) tells the story of a dying man working on a make-or-break project for Microsoft while Gates and Ballmer conspired to take his share of the company.

Perhaps the complicated relationship between Gates and Allen is news to some people. Hearing it straight from Allen is new, and it’s interesting to hear it from him, rather than from other people in the industry and from historians’ sometimes nameless, anonymous sources. Maybe it’s just because I’ve read so many books about the early history of personal computers, and maybe it’s because of the circles I’ve found myself running in. But as I read Allen’s account, I found myself nodding knowingly, especially at the Gates stories, like I’d heard them before.

The account of Allen demonstrating their BASIC on the Altair was probably the most interesting part, to me. I’d known they wrote Altair BASIC without actually being able to lay hands on the hardware. I knew they’d punched out a paper tape with their program on it, and Allen flew to New Mexico, loaded the tape on the Altair 8800 while Ed Roberts looked on, and it worked the first time. Somehow I missed what happened in between. I’ve done enough programming that I know most programs don’t run happily the first time, and even when you have code on hard copy that looks good, that still doesn’t mean it’s going to run when the computer starts churning on it. So why did theirs just work? Nothing just works the first time, and besides, we are talking about a Microsoft product here.

Somehow I missed one detail: Allen had an 8080 emulator running on the DEC minicomputer they were using for development. So even though they had never run their language on the actual Altair hardware, they’d run it before. Just on something else emulating an Altair. According to Allen, that was revolutionary then. It quickly became a common practice.

After I took a quick look around, even that detail was available elsewhere before. Just not straight from Allen.

I won’t pretend to have any insight into Paul Allen’s motivation behind this. He’s kept a lower profile than Gates, at least in technology circles. I’m not a big enough sports fan to know what role he takes in his sports teams. But those sports holdings indicate a pattern. For decades he invested in anything he could think of that didn’t involve Microsoft, from sports teams to think tanks to cable companies. I wouldn’t say he avoided the limelight, but unless he had a reason to call attention to himself, he didn’t do it. I remember hearing radio commercials in the 1990s urging Missourians to let Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bring high speed Internet to St. Louis. Paul Allen wasn’t personally running the lines or anything, but “Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen” had a lot more name recognition than the obscure cable company he was in the process of buying. Even though he owned one of the largest companies still headquartered in St. Louis, you didn’t hear his name a lot here.

Gates went on to make a lot more money of course, but Allen’s $14 billion empire doesn’t make him a pauper by any stretch of the imagination. He’s done pretty well for himself, and, like he says in the book, he proved there was life beyond Microsoft.

Allen made national headlines for the first time in years last summer, filing patent infringement lawsuits against pretty much every technology company except, notably, Microsoft. That didn’t make him any new friends in the technology field, and what exactly he was attempting to accomplish by suing that particular group of companies at that particular time remains unclear. Some saw it as greed; some saw it as activism attempting to demonstrate how ridiculous patent law has become. I don’t know what his motivation for that was, nor do I know what his motivation for writing the book now is. Perhaps his motivation for both is concern for his legacy.

If anyone is blindsided by this, it’s the people who wanted to believe that Bill Gates and Microsoft made their money simply by making the best product, and the market naturally selecting the best product. And that Gates went from being a college dropout to the richest man in the world solely by being smarter and more driven than his competitors. Dig even a little into the history, and it’s clear as day that it was a lot more complicated than that. Most monopolies are.

Perhaps it’s harder to ignore, now that the stories of Gates’ ruthlessness are coming straight from the mouth of Microsoft’s co-founder, especially since he confirms that even he wasn’t exempt from Gates’ willingness to betray. But those who want to believe only the best about Bill Gates will most likely find a way to ignore Allen too, given enough time.

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