Thursday, April 22, 2010

Plagued by Lawsuits, McAfee Founder hunts for jungle remedies in Belize

John McAfee, the antivirus-software pioneer, says he’s lost most of his fortune — but doesn’t care. To the contrary, he now hopes to give something back by deriving antibiotics from jungle plants in Belize. Really?

  No road runs the length of Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile-long island off the Belizean coast, so to get to John McAfee’s house, I climb aboard a boat in the resort town of San Pedro, on the island’s southern tip, and motor north for half an hour, along a coast of white beaches set with resorts and private villas. At last, his pier comes into sight, and I step off and walk down the weathered boards, the blue-green water shimmering through the cracks, to find him emerging from the shrubbery beside the swimming pool, his smile blinding against the reddish brown of a fresh tan.

Twenty-three years after he essentially invented the antivirus-software industry, McAfee, now 64, radiates the vitality of a rich man who thinks about more than money. As he steps forward to meet me at the edge of his yard, he’s wearing sandals, shorts, and a muscle shirt that reveals a wiry physique and a tiger-stripe tattoo on each shoulder. He grips my hand with sinewy vigor. For decades, McAfee was a hard-partying ne’er-do-well playboy entrepreneur, a self-described trickster and bullshit artist who’d spent the majority of his adult life gadding about and having fun. That’s all in the past now, or so he would have me believe.

He leads me into the cool semidarkness of his compound’s central living room. It has been nearly three years since I last saw him, in the scrubby desert of southern New Mexico, and while the environment couldn’t be more different, McAfee himself looks unchanged. He has spent the intervening years building a new life for himself on the coast of Central America. He has just auctioned off the last of his sprawling properties back in the United States and sold or given away many of his possessions. He has taken a huge financial hit, he says, but that’s okay. He has enough to fund his latest passion, his gift to the future: developing new kinds of antibiotics from herbs found deep in the rain forests of Belize.

In a radio-ready baritone, McAfee unfurls his story, digressing over centuries and across continents. He describes the economic injustice of the developing world, the imbalances of education and capital, and how tapping the biodiversity of the rain forest for natural cures will help address those problems. “The product is something the world desperately needs, or will need, within a few years,” he says, “as our last lines of antibiotic defense are breached by the ever-growing ranks of drug-resistant bacteria.”

As he talks, he flicks at the fabric of his pants, unable to contain his relentless energy. He pauses, suddenly serious: “But maybe I should ask what kind of story you came here to write? An exposé?”

John McAfee’s rise to fame and wealth began with what at the time seemed a minor annoyance. In the mid-1980s, he was working for Lockheed Martin as a software designer when he came across one of the first computer viruses, the Pakistani Brain. Seeing an opportunity, he picked the virus apart and figured out how to defeat it. Then he built a program, called VirusScan, that could detect and disarm multiple virus threats automatically. The program — the first commercial antivirus software — was an impressive achievement, but it’s what he did next that was true genius. Instead of selling it, as every other software maker was doing, he gave it away for free via online bulletin boards. In no time, he had a base of 30 million users; revenue followed in the form of upgrade charges and licenses for corporate customers. By 1994, McAfee’s antivirus company was worth half a billion dollars.

Though his name was on the product, McAfee wanted nothing to do with it anymore. He sold his entire stake, worth, he says, “$50-to-$100 million. I wanted to move on. Who wants to be tied to the past?”
His next project was software company Tribal Voice, which made an instant-messaging platform that allowed Skype-like telephony. It quickly attracted a quarter-million-strong following despite the era’s slow dial-up connections. In 1999, McAfee sold the company for $17 million. “When John was at Tribal Voice, the growth rate was incredible,” says former employee Jim Zoromski. “But when it got to be too popular, it started to feel too much like work, and John wasn’t interested.”

McAfee had already found financial security. Now he wanted to leverage his success into something greater: a sense of never-ending possibility. He turned his attention to yoga, racing ATVs and motorcycles, and long-distance Jet Ski journeys. “Life is free; life is limitless. You can do whatever you want,” he told me in New Mexico in 2007. “Success for me is, Can you wake up in the morning and feel like a 12-year-old?”


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