Interview: Paul Allen


Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft, invested early in commercial spaceflight, owns two major league sports teams, and jams to Hendrix. His latest venture is mapping the human brain, and his autobiography, Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft, is out now.

Rob Beschizza Your autobiography sheds new light on the tumultuous birth of the microcomputer industry and your critical role in co-founding Microsoft. The question on everyone's mind, of course, is how difficult is it to soundproof a recording studio on a yacht?

Paul Allen: [laughs] It turns out it's very difficult, because of the engine vibrations. So, there's a specially-designed floor in the recording studio to damp out sound, the low-frequency vibrations.

Rob: So that was the key thing, not so much problems caused by the movements of the craft at sea?

Paul: Yeah. I mean, you do your best. It's never going to be as quiet, obviously, as a recording studio on land that you can really soundproof. Recording studios are interesting; a lot of people say, and I agree, that you should have a lot of wood in a recording studio. It gets a kind of a sweeter sound. The U2 guys have played back there, on one of their albums, and Mick Jagger's recorded some stuff there, and many others, including Dave Stewart. Everybody's liked it! But I like the joke that it's hard to write an angry song on a boat when you're cruising along.

Rob: [Laughs]

Paul: If you want to go for the angst and the heartbreak, it's probably a little bit tougher.

Rob: You invested in Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, which became the first successful civilizan space flight and is now being commercialized by Virgin. Where do you see the space-tourism industry going in the next generation?

Paul: I think it's great. It's going to be very interesting to see the level of demand as the years go by. It's a great experience. It doesn't take that long for the mother ship to take you up to altitude. I got to see the SpaceShipTwo simulator, about a half-hour ride up into space and then back down to Earth.

Rob: Virgin Galactic, they've got a waiting list of thousands. Did you made a good investment?

The technology developed for SpaceShipOne was basically the folding wing that lets the craft fall, like a shuttlecock, back into the atmosphere. I don't have a direct investment in Virgin Galactic; they license the technology, and they're going to be paying us for that technology as they fly people into space.

Rob: Why have you not gone into space yourself?

Paul: Manned rocketry, historically, has a four-percent fatality rate.

Rob: [laughs]

Paul: Obviously the Russians have done better than that. Hopefully Virgin Galactic will do better than that. I was very aware of the risks as we were flying SpaceShipOne. As a software engineer, if something goes wrong, all I get is an error message. But if something goes wrong on a rocket, going straight up at Mach five, it's usually a bad result and a potential fatality. So, I'm a bit more conservative. I'll wait until they fly SpaceShipTwo many, many times, and then I'll think about it. My friend, Charles Simonyi, has been up in the Soyuz rocket into orbit a couple times. I think that's it for him, but those were fantastic trips for him.

Rob: I guess you can't go up with the Russians anymore because of your involvement with SpaceShipOne. It would be unseemly.

Paul: Well, I think they'd probably take me, I'm not sure what they're charging now, 35 million? If you wrote them a check, they might take you up. But it's very, very expensive, with a three to six months' training program. You even learn Russian as part of it. And Charles gave me all the details.

There's a great video on the web, I'll send you a link, where Charles talks about the whole experience. And I went to Kazakhstan and saw him go up the second time, and it was quite exciting and thrilling. But I have to admit, I was extremely nervous. When you've got a friend going into space, up in a Russian rocket that's fueled from a tank car in a kind of crumbling launch site, you get a little nervous. But it was all fine.

Rob: You founded Interval Research, which didn't result in many significant spin-offs or products. In the book you mentioned the dangers of casting too wide a net. But how do you go about deciding if a new endeavor, whether it's spaceships, science or software, has any legs? What's your sniff test?

Paul: Well, you have a few sniff tests that you apply. You try to figure out if it's really a unique idea. So after you have it, you go on the web, on the Internet, and you search around and you see, is there anything similar, and you talk to people in the field to see if there's anything similar. Then you've got to put together a team of people that are going to do something different.

Rob: You want to be more focused. Especially with the brain mapping project; you wrote about gathering scientists to decide on a philanthropic endeavor to invest in, and more or less insisting that they come up with something with a near-term achievable goal.

Paul: I think you really picked up on a great point there. We're trying to do something in an industrial scale, in Seattle, with 150-plus people, to explore the genetics, and other aspects, of the human brain. We're doing large-scale analysis in a way that small labs, and the scientists working at them, couldn't otherwise do. The way forward was shown with the Human Genome Project. An entirely different approach can yield some really substantial results, if you can figure out an entirely different approach for something. Then there are things like SpaceShipOne, where I'd always wanted to do something in rocketry. I was lucky to find, I mean, Burt Rutan is a genius. I was lucky to be able to form a partnership with him to pursue that dream. And then the X-Prize came into existence, which motivated a lot of people to look at what that is and it was very, a very rewarding experience.

Rob: So what happens to the Brain Atlas once the human brain is mapped? Do you have plans for rolling the organization that you've developed into a new project?

Paul: We're already exploring [options]. I mean there are so many aspects of the brain, it's such a fascinating area. There's so many aspects to it that we're just beginning to understand.

First we're doing genetics of the human brain; this is the first data set that we just announced, from two brains. So we're going to do more brains, and then we're also going to study the genetics of developing human brains.

Then you go into how different parts of the brain are connected together. First, we're going to do that using mice. And then how the brain is built, from stem cells all the way to a full-blown, fully expressed brain. There's so much more to learn. There's decades and decades of research left.

Rob: Of everyone depicted in the cast of "Pirates of Silicon Valley," you're the one who predicted very early on the form and importance of the Internet, and its commercial potential. But when the time came, you got bogged down in the complexities of steering a big telco. What was the trick that you missed when you invested in Charter Communication in the late 1990s? What should you have done differently?

Paul: There are a number of mistakes I made with Charter, and I try to be very forthright and accurate and critical of myself in the book for the different mistakes that were made. My excitement was based on the fact that when a new platform comes along, it's a potentially great opportunity, and I knew that people were going to like having high-bandwidth data in their homes. And in fact, cable has become the number-one supplier of data into people's homes here in the US.

Rob: I got the impression that finding the right executive team was where a lot of the difficulty was.

Paul: That, and over-leveraging. We put too much debt on the company. So, it took me a while to find the right executive. Finally, Neil Smit came aboard. He's now running Comcast cable. So he was a great executive, but that was late in the game, when we had too much debt on the company already.

The other thing that I got wrong, or at least ended up being more modest than I expected, was set-top boxes in the living room and interactive television. People now are playing a few movies and things, with Netflix and other kinds of boxes, and there's Apple TV and a few other things. But they've only had really modest success, because mainly people want to watch live TV, or off a DVR, which the cable companies are happy to lease to them at 10 or 15 or 20 bucks a month.

Rob: Yeah, tell me about it.

Paul: So the platform play proved more modest there than I expected. But I was right about the importance of getting high-bandwidth data, which is getting up to be 100 megabits here pretty soon, into people's homes. So that's turned out to be a key pillar of the current success of cable.

Rob: What's your current favorite gadget? What's in your pocket right now?

Paul: I'm kind of old, and I'm somewhat old-school. I have a BlackBerry Torch in my pocket right now. That's kind of my main email device, because I can type on it faster than I can type on anything else, any other kind of portable device.

Rob: You mentioned in the book being a physical-keyboard kind of guy.

Paul: Yeah, because my mom, my mother forced me to take touch typing when I was a kid. So that turned out to be invaluable.

Rob: What is your daily media diet? And by that, I mean, what magazines, blogs do you regularly read, video games, anything like that?

Paul: Oh my gosh. There's so many. I'm not a video-game player at all. I was always more interested in how the internals of things worked than the things that are basically trying to understand that and work on that and see … than the things that basically just consume time, like video games. I saw some of the early games, like "Space War" and so forth, but never got into that.

There are so many websites I read; I look at everything from Slashdot to Ars Technica to the business technology sites, major newspapers like the New York Times, and my local papers where I live, which cover the sports teams I'm involved with. There are about 20 sites we go to regularly, and I do use Twitter and Facebook as well. I'm on Twitter and I have over 10,000 followers. Which is pretty modest compared to Charlie Sheen.

Rob: You pass over the Allen Telescope Array and SETI quite briefly in the book. How are those projects going? Do you see them as purely speculative or do you have some kind of a hunch that they're going to come up with something soon?

Paul: I like to call that the longest of long shots. It's a very interesting array of medium-sized dishes. I don't know if you're familiar with the Very Large Array in New Mexico which is used oftentimes [but] it's a much smaller and more cost-effective. Years and years ago, I was approached by Carl Sagan to try to save the SETI effort when the funding was being cut off by the US government. I just thought it's the longest of long shots, but that it would be spectacularly important if we did hear a signal from outside of the solar system. They've got my phone number to call if they ever pick up a signal, but so far my telephone hasn't rung.

Then you've got to speculate, is it because there's nobody out there? Is it because they're using a totally different system to communicate? They just don't feel like talking? No one knows why, and everybody speculates.

Rob: I hope that it's because civilizations lose interest in radio, rather than blow themselves up.

Paul: Yeah, I think it may be that there's some other approach. There's Optical SETI, where things like laser pulses are used for communication. But nobody knows. Nobody knows, so it's worth exploring.

Rob: You owned a significant chunk of AOL in the early 1990s and mentioned in the book that if you had kept your share for a few years, you'd be $40 billion richer. If you'd have done so, do you think there'd have been any difference to how you'd have exploited that wealth? Would your life be any different if you were a $43 billionaire instead of a $13 billionaire?

Paul: I doubt it. You kind of give yourself a hard time about what might have been. Obviously, I made money. My investment in AOL made me a lot of money. I was just very concerned that, I thought Microsoft was going to take it down a few pegs. So I got out with pretty good returns, but not the returns I could have had if I had just stayed in.

But you just think about the philanthropic thing. That's what I think about these days. The lion's share of my money is going to go to philanthropy after I pass away. So you think about all the good things that could have been done with those assets that aren't going to happen, and you're a little bit sad about that. You're sad about it, not a little sad, you're sad.

Rob: Reading the book, I felt that even at the points where you're working very hard on specific projects and engrossed in technical stuff, that there's a certain distance that you put between yourself and the work.

Paul: No, no. Especially during the first five years, the whole period when I was at Microsoft, it was very intense. Especially when I was coding just basically every hour I was in the office until three in the morning. There's not much distance between you and the work when you're trying to fix a bug at three a.m., trying keep your eyes open.

There are the moments of conceptualization where you're just thinking about what could be done, where you get a flash of insight. Most often, the clock just ticks away. And then there are the hours, when those things happen very infrequently; the grind and the craft of doing work, whether it's writing or something else, which is so engrossing.

I went on to do other things after I left Microsoft, but I wasn't a programmer anymore. I was more of a manager and designer, doing different things. I feel like I've had an amazing career but certainly during those years at Microsoft, I was really in the thick of crafting things on a daily basis.

Rob: The message of the book is how you aimed for a broader view of the ideas, even when you were crunching that closely.

Paul: Yes, that's what I view as my strong suit, the ideas. I'm decent at executing, and was a pretty good programmer, but you're lucky in your life if you have a few of ideas like the one that started Microsoft. I feel very fortunate that along the way I've had a few ideas and been involved in a few amazing different projects, and it's been a fantastic experience.

Rob: Is there any advice you could give to people who want to take the same path? How do you focus on new ideas without losing sight of execution?

Paul: To come up with ideas, you have to prepare. You get there by following tech news, a lot of websites, blogs such as BB, and many other things. Stuffing your brain with information. Hopefully, you get an idea for something after you've done that for a while: that's what happened to me.

Then you have to put together a team of people, and I was lucky to have Bill Gates, and other people, as my partners through the years to execute those ideas. And you've got to test your idea against what's already out there, to make sure it's not duplicative, that it really is a green-field idea. All those factors have to work together.

And if you're lucky you come up with something that has the potential to change the world. And that's incredibly rewarding. But it's not just the idea. It's all the effort and the work that come after you have the idea.

Rob: You were in the news a lot last year because Interval is suing a lot of other tech companies over patents concerning what are fairly commonplace features of the Web.

Paul: I can't really comment on an active lawsuit.

Rob: Those are patents that Interval filed itself, but it waited 15 years or so to litigate. Why not go after offenders at the time of infringement?

Paul: Litigation happens after you try to license technology, after you talk to the companies involved. In general, that's what happens. And all these people that you read about today in the technology press, with companies like Google and Microsoft and Apple and Yahoo! and everybody else, these lawsuits occur frequently. So it's nothing that unusual. I guess the only unusual aspect is it probably had a more individual flavor than I expected.

Rob: You didn't expect the legal action to be so closely associated with you personally?

Paul: Everyone's going to have their take on things. At Interval, I invested a lot of money to try to develop new ideas because I was trying to do something like Xerox PARC. They've been so amazingly successful doing with graphics user interface and so forth, so we put a lot of work and effort and funding into developing intellectual property, I think.

Assistant: One more, Rob, OK? Then we're going to have to let him go.

Rob: Sure. Is it true that you and Steve Wozniak secretly fight crime together on the mean streets of San Francisco?

Paul: [laughter] God, no. I think I've met Steve one time. And I haven't seen him for many, many years. But I wish him the best. A true innovator.

Rob: Thank you very much for your time.

Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft, is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.