20 Apr 2011, Iain Thomson , V3
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has been detailing his criminal past, and that of fellow founder Bill Gates, in a new autobiography.
In his book Idea Man Allen recounts how the pair worked in their early years testing software for a computer timesharing company called the Computer Centre Corporation (C-cubed).
Once their work finished they were faced with mounting bills for computer time, so they "got hold of" an administrator password, according to Allen.
The two men used the password to access the company's accounts and set about trying to find a free runtime account so that they could carry on programming without having to pay for the time They also copied the account database for later perusal. However, management got wise to the plan.
"We were summoned to Fred Wright's office, where we were shocked to see Dick Gruen and another C-cubed representative, an unsmiling man in a dark suit," he recounts.
"We hoped we'd get let off with a slap on the wrist, considering we hadn't done anything yet. But then the stern man said it could be 'criminal' to manipulate a commercial account. Bill and I were almost quivering."
No charges were brought, but this was not the only escapade the pair got up to. Allen recalls their teenage years dumpster diving among computer companies' rubbish in order to find documentation for the TOPS-10 operating system used by DEC.
Allen's memoir covers the early years of Microsoft's history, from a dusty mall in Albuquerque, to the early 1980s when Allen left the company to deal with a bout of cancer.
Gates comes off well in the book. While Allen recounts epic verbal battles between the two, he recognises Gates's drive and entrepreneurial talents, and acknowledges his pivotal role in making Microsoft the biggest computer company of its time.
Allen recounts how Gates would periodically work himself to exhaustion in the early days of Microsoft, so much so that he would simply sleep on the carpet. When Gates's new assistant found him this way, she was told just to tell people he was out of the office.
However, Allen wrote that Gates increasingly began to believe his own myth and began to claim credit for things he had never done. When Gates was trying to persuade Allen not to leave Microsoft, he claimed credit for code Allen had written, but admitted his mistake when confronted.
Gates's increasingly belligerent attitude was a major factor in the US and EU governments' anti-trust actions against Microsoft, Allen writes.
Allen said he told Gates that Internet Explorer did not need to be tied to the operating system, but Gates insisted on it to combat Netscape, and then made matters worse in hearings with the US Justice Department.
"Bill was sarcastic, combative, defensive and contemptuous," he writes. "I knew these traits well, but they were less than helpful on the stand."
Steve Ballmer, initially a divisive figure in the Allen/Gates relationship, is also praised for his drive. Ballmer forced Gates to expand the company earlier than he would have liked in order to meet the orders Ballmer's sales team were bringing in.
However, Allen is tepid about Ballmer's leadership. Vista was described as a debacle and Microsoft internally is slammed for having too many sub-par managers and poor process control.
"To avoid mediocrity, you need to be rigorous in weeding out underperformers," he said. "Microsoft hasn't proven to be good at that. One executive recently told me: 'I wish I could shoot every fourth one.'"
Allen also includes considerable self-criticism in the book. He describes, in painful detail, taking an $8bn loss in the cable industry, but is justifiably proud of his involvement in funding commercial space travel and some of his investment decisions.
Allen was an early investor in America Online and held nearly a quarter of the company at one point. But he said that chief executive Steve Case was wedded to the idea of AOL's ‘walled garden' strategy and was unwilling to accept the coming increase in broadband access.
Allen sold his stock for a $75m profit in 1994, but points out that it would have netted $40bn if he'd held onto it for another six years.
The book details Allen's other activities, including owning and developing two professional sports teams, his work funding artificial intelligence and information management research, and jamming with Mick Jagger and Peter Gabriel.
Allen concludes that progress relies on coming up with genuinely new ideas that are of their time, and seeing that there is a good team to carry them through.
While suffering from increasing health problems, he is looking forward to spending more time developing commercial space travel and other concepts.