Wired Interview: Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen Talks Tech, Bill Gates, Chemo and Guitars

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The United States must do a better job of educating its young people in science and technology if we're going to compete with China and India over the next century, according to Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and an American computer pioneer.

In a wide-ranging interview with Wired.com, Allen called for President Obama and other American policy-makers to "fully internalize the fact that we need to do something to better prepare our kids to compete in this hyper-competitive future that's rapidly approaching."

Allen, who is chairman of the billion-dollar investment firm Vulcan, gives few interviews. But in our conversation, he opened up on a number of topics, including his new book, Idea Man, his battle with cancer, his relationship with his childhood friend and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, his intense focus on brain science, and his love of music, and in particular, guitars.

Allen went out of his way to stress the need for science and technology education. "In terms of chip design and software in general, we're still the leaders," Allen said. "But you have to ask yourself about 20 years from now and 50 years from now. It would be great if we could focus more effort on the competition, because it's coming in spades."

Education is absolutely crucial.

"In junior high and high school is when Bill and I gravitated towards high-technology, and I don't think there's enough being done to expose young people to the fascination and excitement of it," Allen said.

The 58-year-old Allen, who is one of the wealthiest people in the world with an estimated net worth of $14 billion, will be in New York City this week for the launch of Idea Man, which Allen began writing while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

Among other things, the book represents an effort by Allen to recount the history of Microsoft, the software company he co-founded with Gates 36 years ago.

In the interview, Allen sounded like a man who feels lucky to be alive. I asked him, why write the book now?

"I was very sick with a life-threatening illness, and it had been on my list of things I wanted to do for many years, and I finally decided, the time is now to work on this," Allen said.

In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday night, Allen told Leslie Stahl of CBS News that he had hoped to "be alive to see it published." Idea Man will be released on Tuesday, April 19th.

Allen Started Working on the Book in November 2009

In the fall of 2009, Allen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. In 1982, Allen had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, which he survived after radiation therapy and a bone marrow transplant. Allen told Stahl that during his recent chemotherapy, Gates came to his Mercer Island, Washington, home, "multiple times and we had some great talks."

Allen, who is now cancer-free, said that he really began to work on the book in November of 2009 after his first cycle of chemotherapy.

Allen said that writing Idea Man "was very helpful in getting me through chemotherapy because I would struggle to get going every day, and I would start describing things that happened and then eventually when I was toward the end of my chemo and then afterward, I would spend a long time editing and editing and editing. I went through every word in the book eight times."

"My old feeling for the craftsmanship of programming came back," Allen told Wired.com, "and I tried to get everything, the words, the phrases, as best as I could."

Idea Man has generated much discussion in the press because of the candid way Allen describes his relationship with Gates, his boyhood friend and business partner. Most notably, Allen describes how Gates tried to dilute Allen's ownership stake in Microsoft over the course of several years, which led to a rift between the two men, the details of which have never been fully revealed. And he describes Gates' legendary temper and hard-driving management style.

Allen told Wired.com that he did not write the book in order to attack Gates, and he said he's neither bitter nor angry toward his friend. Rather, Allen said, he wanted to tell his own personal story, which includes the history of Microsoft, as he recalls it, while he still has time.

"I wanted to tell the whole story from my perspective, and the ups and downs of our partnership, which was incredibly productive, and then, as the book tells, things slowly changed and I felt like I had to leave Microsoft," Allen said. "I thought people would be interested to know the key moments and the key events, and how things came together and how things ended up dissolving in the end."

"When those events happened there was a real sting and disappointment and surprise and all of those emotions, and I felt very strongly, and then after a period of years, I let it go," Allen continued. He said the dispute with Gates was "the last element in my deciding to finalize my departure from Microsoft, and there was no going back."

Allen on Gates: 'I Consider Us Friends'

I asked him about his relationship with Gates now.

"I consider us friends," Allen said. "We've been through many ups and downs in the past and, you know, these events happened 30-some years ago. At some point, we'll sit down and have an intense discussion about his recollections and my recollections and all that, but this book is meant to be my view of how things happened."

"It's funny to see something like The Social Network come out, and see that shot of Harvard Square in the first few minutes of the movie," Allen continued, chuckling.

"That gave me a certain flashback because that's where I found the magazine," he said, referring to the copy of Popular Mechanics he discovered in 1974 with a picture on the cover of the Altair 8080, the world's first microcomputer. Within one year, Gates had dropped out of Harvard, and the two men had founded Microsoft.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Allen left Microsoft in 1983, after his first bout with cancer, but he remained on the board until 2000, at which time he sold nearly 70 million shares in the company. (He still owns over 100 million shares.) Allen also owns a large patent portfolio, and is currently locked in an intellectual property dispute with some of the biggest technology companies in the world, including Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo. He declined to comment on that matter, citing the ongoing litigation.

Of all the initiatives Allen is working on, he said he was particularly excited about the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which he launched in 2003 with a pledge of $100 million. Last week, the Institute announced that it had completed a map of the human brain, a landmark scientific achievement.

"I find the function of the brain incredibly fascinating, and it's like trying to crack the toughest, most complicated problem there is," Allen said.

In the years since he left Microsoft, Allen has pursued several passions, including music, sports, philanthropy and travel. Allen is the founder of the Experience Music Project in Seattle, which contains the world's largest collection of memorabilia devoted to Jimi Hendrix.

Allen is a hard-core music aficionado, and he keeps several guitars in his office, including his prized Martin Robbie Robertson acoustic, which he described as a "fantastic guitar."

Allen: Find a Balance Between Work, Other Pursuits

In an interesting historical anecdote, Seattle-born Allen said he applied to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 1972 and was accepted, but did not attend because his parents could not afford the tuition. Instead, Allen went to Washington State University, but dropped out after two years to move to Boston, where his childhood friend Gates was attending Harvard.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs attended Reed in 1972, so it's interesting to think about what might have happened if Jobs and Allen had met in Southeast Portland. (Disclosure: I went to Reed.)

Allen has done much to boost the economy of his beloved Pacific Northwest. He owns the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, and the Seattle Seahawks football team.

In 2008, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors honored Allen for his "unwavering commitment to nonprofit organizations in the Pacific Northwest and lifetime giving approaching $1 billion." That same year, Allen was awarded the Herbie Hancock Humanitarian Award from the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz for "his visionary achievements as a businessman and a global philanthropist."

In our Wired.com interview, Allen stressed the need for people to find a balance between work and other pursuits.

"In the first eight or so years at Microsoft, we were always chained to our terminals, and after I got sick the first time, I decided that I was going to be more adventurous and explore more of the world," Allen said.

"Technology is notorious for engrossing people so much that they don't always focus on balance and enjoy life at the same time. So I think it's important to complement, as we used to say at Microsoft, the 'hard-core' investment you're making in your work with some adventure and some real enjoyment of life at the same time."