Sunday, 29 July 2012

'Idea Man' by Paul Allen

For those of you who don't know who Paul Allen is, he is the multi-billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, with Bill Gates. He left the company in the mid-eighties before Microsoft became the technology giant that it is today (though crucially, didn't sell his shares until many years later). 

The book is part autobiography, part history of technology. Paul starts off telling us about his childhood and love of computers, before moving on to when he met Bill Gates. Microsoft wasn't the first business they set up, and the book charts their early efforts and then the founding of Micro-Soft as it was then called. We find out about how they came up with BASIC computer language for the PC, the foundation for their later success, and then how they got the opportunity to write an operating system for IBM. The book also covers the strained relationship Paul Allen had with Bill Gates leading to Allen leaving the company.

Interestingly the book doesn't stop there, in fact it is only halfway through. The rest of the book is taken up with his life after Microsoft, his thoughts on technology and what he did with his money. Find out what he lost $7 billion on, or how close he came to a prize to make his billions made with Microsoft look like small change.

This is really a book of two halves. I won't lie - I was more interested in his time at Microsoft that what he did after, and consequently I enjoyed the first half of the book more. It probably helps that I'm a bit of a geek, but then I suspect a lot of people picking up this book will be. It's not heavily technical though, and the first part is as much about business as it is about computers. I did know a bit of the early history of Microsoft but still learned a lot.

The second half of the book is a mixed bag, at times fascinating, at other times merely interesting but always worth reading. My favourite chapter here is probably the story of Space Ship One and the attempts to win the X-Prize for the first private sector manned spaceplane leaving the Earth's atmosphere. I did also enjoy the chapter about when he bought an NBA basketball team, despite not being American and not having a particular interest in the sport!

Overall, this is a very good book, and Paul Allen is refreshing in his honesty, both in describing his relationship with Bill Gates, and in particular how he dealt with having so much money, and the mistakes he made. I'd give this a good 7/10.