Archive for the ‘Microsoft’ Category

Courtesy, Penguin Books

Idea Man is the latest in a growing group of “co-founder” memoirs (Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak’s iWoz and Digital Equipment Corp. co-founder Harlan Anderson’s Learn, Earn and Return being two others) that have attempted to set the historical record straight by emphasizing contributions they’ve made and their relationship with partners who would wind up overshadowing them on the public stage. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft Corporation, arguably the most successful computer firm in history, has added significantly to this genre with Idea Man. With this autobiography drawn largely from his own journal entries, Allen has written a matter-of-fact, detailed account of his relationship with co-founder Bill Gates: how the two of them met at the Lakeside boarding school in Washington State, shared a love for “hacking” or writing code, and eventually set the stage for their company by securing a contract to write a BASIC computer software program for the fledgling MITS Altair 8800 computer, which Allen first read about in a computer publication while working for Honeywell Corporation outside of Boston. At the time, the younger Gates was enrolled at Harvard, but the itch to start a company was never far removed from either man, and after Allen showed Gates the article he read, it was apparent the Albuquerque-based MITS Corp. presented intriguing opportunities for software development – which Gates and Allen pursued with alacrity.

Paul Allen is a man of many talents, but has also accepted and liberally related both his flaws and regrets throughout the book. A core theme was a percolation of the animus he eventually felt for Gates, who Allen describes in this book variously as relentlessly brilliant, imperious, stubborn, conniving, insecure, insensitive, reckless (with an affinity for collecting speeding tickets) and stingy (yet capable of great generosity on occasion). A main point of contention between them was the original partnership agreement for Microsoft, and how it was later modified. Gates, the son of a successful attorney, argued effectively for a 60% – 40% stake, though after their contract with IBM, Gates asked that it be again modified to 64% – 36%. Though Allen was a bit resentful with these developments, he largely took them in stride.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, ca. 1980. Courtesy, Miller-Nagan Wealth Management Weblog

However, the final straw came with a meeting between Gates and eventual CEO Steve Ballmer (who was friends with Gates at Harvard) discussing Allen’s perceived disillusionment and lack of productivity with the company. They then proceeded to hatch a scheme to diminish further Allen’s ownership stake in the company. Allen, who had been listening outside the whole time, angrily burst into the room and their relationship was never the same.

Allen left the company before it went public in 1986, after he had been diagnosed with a treatable form of Hodgkin’s Disease, and when Microsoft finally had its initial public offering (IPO), he became a billionaire overnight. He traveled a bit, but quickly became restless. Being a big basketball fan and a lover of sports generally from before his days at “Wazzu” (Washington State University), he made an overture to the ownership of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, and at 35 years of age became the youngest team owner in all of professional sports. Later, he would become the owner of the Seattle Seahawks NFL team and part owner of the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team.

In addition to sports, Allen enjoyed listening to and playing rock music and was mezmerized by the guitar artistry of Seattle native Jimi Hendrix. This led him to build the Experience Music Project in Seattle (named after Hendrix’s band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience), a repository for important musical artifacts, archive and science fiction museum. Allen’s sister Jody, herself an experienced and capable fundraiser, spearheaded its financing efforts and construction, and Frank Gehry was later secured as its architect. Allen not only idolized Hendrix, he is himself a skilled guitarist and eventually realized a goal other men can only fantasize about: to meet and perform with the world’s most noteworthy rock musicians. Through various channels, he befriended musicians such as U2’s Bono, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel, Dave Stewart, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and many other members of rock ‘n roll royalty. Additionally, Allen later became involved with motion pictures, creating Vulcan Productions, where, among other works, he co-produced Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed PBS series “The Blues.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games for Allen, who was fascinated by the workings of the brain, and the seemingly endless possibilities for artificial intelligence. But the major impetus for his creation of the Allen Institute for Brain Science was personal: in 2003 his mother was diagnosed with dementia, which he described in a Jan. 21, 2003 journal entry: “My mother is struggling right now with an Alzheimer’s-like condition. I’m sick at heart about this.” He launched his Institute with a $100 million donation and it was opened in September of that year.

Kenneth S. Allen (left) and his son, Paul Allen (right). Courtesy, University of Washington

Allen describes being remorseful at not having been able to properly say goodbye to his father, who died prematurely (age 60) of complications from a blood clot in his leg. To commemorate him, Allen established an endowment in his dad’s name at the University of Washington, where his father was an associate director of libraries. The Kenneth S. Allen Library, Allen asserts, now holds over a million volumes.

Allen also made numerous other investments in startup companies, as well as cable TV, where he admitted to significant failure. But overall, Idea Man is a wonderful read; not only a firsthand, detailed portrait of Allen’s life, but an important and heretofore untold business history as well. Allen’s role in Microsoft was instrumental in obtaining the company’s lucrative relationship with IBM in 1981 and in developing software that was not only IBM, but Apple compatible. It’s safe to say that most of Microsoft’s greatest coups during the late ’70s and early ’80s would not have occurred without Allen’s presence.

From his average childhood in a typical American family of Seattle, via Anadarko, Oklahoma, to the pinacle of high tech achievement, Allen’s contributions to the computer industry remain monumentally significant, and he describes his career with honesty, conviction and not a small amount of humor. Idea Man is a winner.

Idea Man, by Paul Allen, is published by Penguin Group, U.S.A. $27.95.


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The New York Times reported yesterday (Dec. 7th) that there was a reunion last month of colleagues who pioneered the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They met over two days at the William Gates Computer Center on the Stanford campus.

According to the article’s author, John Markoff, there were other pioneering labs at Stanford, but the A.I. lab received less recognition than its peers:

“One laboratory, Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center, became known for the mouse; a second, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, developed the Alto, the first modern personal computer. But the third, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or SAIL, run by the computer scientist John McCarthy, gained less recognition.”

SAIL was begun by Dr. John McCarthy (who coined the term “artificial intelligence”) in 1963. Les Earnest was its deputy director. During that time, McCarthy’s initial proposal, to the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Pentagon, envisioned that building a thinking machine would take about a decade. In 1966, the laboratory took up residence in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains behind Stanford in an unfinished corporate research facility that had been intended for a telecommunications firm.

Markoff continues, “SAIL researchers embarked on an extraordinarily rich set of technical and scientific challenges that are still on the frontiers of computer science, including machine vision and robotic manipulation, as well as language and navigation.”

This group of alumni distinguished themselves in other innovative and distinctive ways – with artificial intelligence at the heart of their experimentation. As Markoff notes, “… Raj Reddy and Hans Moravec  went on to pioneer speech recognition and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Alan Kay brought his Dynabook portable computer concept first to Xerox PARC and later to Apple. Larry Tesler  developed the philosophy of simplicity in computer interfaces that would come to define the look and functioning of the screens of modern Apple computers — what is called the graphical user interface, or G.U.I.”

John Chowning, a musicologist, referred to SAIL as a ‘Socratean abode.’ He was invited to use the mainframe computer at the laboratory late at night when the demand was light, and his group went on to pioneer FM synthesis, a technique for creating sounds that transforms the quality, or timbre, of a simple waveform into a more complex sound. (The technique was discovered by Dr. Chowning at Stanford in 1973 and later licensed to Yamaha.)”

As has been noted previously in “High Tech History,” Spacewar was, in essence the first video game which was programmed with a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-1 computer. At Stanford, Joel Pitts, a protege of SAIL’s Don Knuth (who wrote definitive texts on computer programming),  “… took a version of the Spacewar computer game and turned it into the first coin-operated video game — which was installed in the university’s student coffee house — months before Nolan Bushnell did the same with Atari.”

In 1980, the lab merged with Stanford’s computer science department, reopened in 2004, and is now enjoying something of a rebirth. Markoff concludes,

“The reunion also gave a hint of what is to come. During an afternoon symposium at the reunion, several of the current SAIL researchers showed a startling video called “Chaos” taken from the Stanford Autonomous Helicopter project. An exercise in machine learning, the video shows a model helicopter making a remarkable series of maneuvers that would not be possible by a human pilot. The demonstration is particular striking because the pilot system first learned from a human pilot and then was able to extend those skills.

But an artificial intelligence? It is still an open question. In 1978, Dr. McCarthy wrote, “human-level A.I. might require 1.7 Einsteins, 2 Maxwells, 5 Faradays and .3 Manhattan Projects.”

Reunion of the S.A.I.L. Laboratory at Stanford University last month

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This morning, we found an interesting piece on “Tech’s Forgotten Co-Founders” in the Business Insider.  It’s a nice piece, but hey, there are only seven people profiled and they are all from West Coast companies!  Hello!  Where’s Harlan Anderson, co-founder of Digital Equipment, once the second largest computer company in the world?  Where’s Steve Wozniak from Apple?  The topic of forgotten co-founders throughout high-tech history deserves a little more than a slide show of seven guys.  Take a look for yourself and see what you think. 

Forgetting Some of Tech's Forgotten Co-Founders

Oops! Forgot Some of Tech's Most Important Co-Founders!

 — Carole Gunst

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On October 28, 1955, Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates was born.  We know him best as an entrepreneur of the personal computer revolution.  During his career at Microsoft, Gates held the positions of CEO and chief software architect, and remains the largest individual shareholder with more than 8 percent of the common stock.  Today, he spends most of his time as a philanthropist.

He was born in Seattle…

Bill Gates was born in Seattle, WA into an upper middle class family.  Because his dad was a lawyer, Gates’ parents had a law career in mind for him, but as we all know, his career took a different turn.   At 13, he took an interest in BASIC programming on an a GE system at his prep school.  His first computer program was a game of tic-tac-toe that allowed users to play the game against the computer.   The next computer he programmed was a DEC PDP-10.  At age 17, Gates formed a venture with Paul Allen, called Traf-O-Data, to make traffic counters based on the Intel 8008 processor.

The Most Famous Harvard Dropout?

In 1973, Bill Gates enrolled at Harvard College.  While there, he met his future business partner, Steve Ballmer, who is now the CEO of Microsoft.  He did not have a definite study plan while a student at Harvard and spent a lot of time using the school’s computers. He remained in contact with Paul Allen, joining him at Honeywell for his summer job.    In 1975, the MITS Altair 8800 was released and Gates and Allen saw this as the opportunity to start their own computer software company.

Whole books have been written about the the history of Microsoft which includes the motley crew shown in the photo below and there will be plenty of High Tech History pieces written about that in the future.  For today, let’s just say “Happy Birthday, Bill Gates.”


— Carole Gunst

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