Book of the week: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft by Paul Allen

Paul Allen recounts the founding of Microsoft and the story of his friendship with Bill Gates, whom he first met in prep school when the two bonded over a passion for computers.

(Portfolio, $28)

As start-up stories go, “few are more compelling than Microsoft’s,” said James Ledbetter in The Washington Post. In Paul Allen’s telling, it’s almost the archetypal digital-age creation tale: Two young geeks meet in prep school, bond over a passion for computers, skip classes, eat takeout, and stay up programming until the wee hours before finally developing a product that humbles the computer industry’s reigning giants and nets the underdogs billions. Though “memoirs from technology executives are almost universally bad,” Allen’s is “more engaging than most,” in part because he doesn’t seek more credit for his professional achievements than they deserve. Also, the story, “at its core,” is about the betrayal of the founding friendship, and the friend who let him down is Bill Gates—still the company’s chairman and one of the richest men in the world.

Allen works a little too hard to put all the blame on Microsoft’s more famous co-founder, said Richard Waters in the Financial Times. From the moment Gates first appears as a cocky, precocious teenager in 1968 Seattle, Allen makes him seem the driven, money-conscious, and bullying half of a partnership that also needed a cerebral visionary. It’s all leading to a dramatic breakup: In 1983, shortly after Allen is diagnosed, at age 29, with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he quits Microsoft after overhearing Gates plotting to push him toward the sidelines by diluting his 36 percent share in the company. Idea Man provides “a fascinating tale of the early days of the software industry,” but you can’t help thinking that it exists mainly so Allen can justify his immense personal wealth and “settle old scores.”

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In some ways, Allen’s self-portrait is “nearly as unflattering as his portrait of Gates,” said Rich Jaroslovsky in The young Allen comes across as a passive-aggressive figure, stewing in resentment. Post-Microsoft, he’s a bit of a bumbling billionaire: He bets big on cable television and loses, and buys the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers but mismanages them. Though he remains “a genuinely creative thinker,” he “lacks the Gatesian fire to impose his vision on the world around him.” But Allen’s life story is hardly a downer. Many of his philanthropic ventures have been successful, and despite the lingering resentment, his relationship with Gates even appears to be on the mend. Allen writes that when he experienced another cancer scare, in 2009, he was happy to discover that Gates was “everything you’d want from a friend, caring and concerned.”

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