Money for nothing

Paul Allen spent $100 million on Interval Research. Now there's nothing left to say about the company that no one could say anything about.

By Janelle Brown
Published April 22, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

What can you get for $100 million? A few Lear jets? Two percent of Webvan? Or how about a handful of failed start-ups, a bankrupt girl-games company and a few unknown patents?

For Interval Research, the once-ambitious research lab funded by Microsoft founder Paul Allen, $100 million didn't seem to produce very much. On Friday, a press release on the front door of Interval's Web site announced that the laboratory was being abandoned. About 30 Interval employees will be invited to join a new, unnamed broadband group for Paul Allen's new cable endeavors, according to the release.

Really, Interval's original grandiose dreams of being a Xerox PARC for the 21st century -- producing innovations and breakthroughs that would revolutionize the computer industry -- had dissipated long before this announcement. The research laboratory survived for eight years, falling short of the 10 years that Allen had originally committed. The organization drew top talent like CEO David Liddle, one of Xerox PARC's most famous research scientists, but its original focus on technology experimentation instead of profits led it down a road that delivered few viable products into the marketplace.

The most visible project to emerge from the top-secret laboratory was Purple Moon, a socially responsible company helmed by Brenda Laurel that made computer games for girls; Purple Moon eventually went bankrupt and was bought by Mattel for a pittance. Other spinoffs, like an online publishing software company called Carnelian, disappeared before they had ever really materialized.

The company was so notoriously tight-lipped about its projects that we can only guess at what else the "research lab" produced during its eight years of existence.

The demise of Interval has been blamed in part on Paul Allen's recent preoccupation with the more lucrative cable industry, causing the departure last fall of David Liddle (according to a September article in the New York Times). Still, it's rather mind-boggling to think that a well-funded research laboratory in the middle of Silicon Valley failed, over the course of eight years, to produce anything memorable or durable.

Of course, individual start-ups have failed in less time on more money. One thing is for sure: Allen has plenty to spare.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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