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Paul Allen's Legacy at Microsoft

Paul Allen went on to do many significant things in his life, but the achievement that provided the springboard for so many of the rest of his activities was the fortune he amassed as the co-founder of Microsoft.

Primarily, Microsoft is associated with the other co-founder, Bill Gates, whose personality, drive and talents formed the company's identity, and who remains involved in the company's direction on a part-time basis.

On the other hand, Allen, who died of complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 65 this week, has been out of day-to-day activity at Microsoft since 1983, and off the board since 1986. His time at the company ended before Windows became a dominant product, before the Internet emerged as an opportunity for the tech industry and a threat to Microsoft's central position in PC computing, before the public ugliness of the antitrust case, before Microsoft's rise as a major enterprise software player and before the company emerged as one of the handful of cloud megavendors.

That said, the 43-year-old company still bears a few important markers left by Allen himself.

Paul Allen (source: Microsoft)

One is the name. Calling the company "Micro-Soft" was Allen's idea. The hyphen was later dropped, but four decades later, the company still goes by a name reminiscent of a different era in tech. In 1975, "microcomputers" and "micro" were sexy terms in computing. Software remains an element of the name, as well, even in an age in which Microsoft has become more about the cloud and hardware has also become a significant piece of the business.

A bigger legacy of Allen's is his role as a catalyst for getting the slightly younger Gates focused full-time on the computer business. They spent countless hours together at the private Lakeside School  in Seattle working on a teletype terminal connected over a phone line to a time-share computer. In the small scrum of like-minded Lakeside students spurring on each other's enthusiasms for the technical possibilities of the systems, Gates and Allen were especially close.

Living in Boston a few years later, Allen grabbed his friend Gates from his college dorm at Harvard to show him the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics with its Altair 8800 on the cover. "This is happening without us!" Gates recalls Allen declaring in a successful effort to rally Gates to prioritize seizing the moment over getting a college degree.

"Microsoft would never have happened without Paul," Gates said in a statement earlier this week. Counterfactuals are difficult to prove. It's hard to imagine that given his interests, Gates would not have seen the magazine himself or seized the moment in some other way. But without the timing enabled by the personal history and chemistry between those two individuals, who knows?

Another Allen imprint on Microsoft's culture is his role in one of the most famous coding death marches in technology. After spotting that article about the Altair, Gates and Allen called the maker of the device and told him they were essentially finished with a version of Basic for it. They hadn't started.

They spent the next few weeks working around the clock. Allen, who was to do the demo, realized on the plane to Albuquerque that they hadn't written a loader, a requirement for their demo, and whipped one up on the  plane. At the time, they were calling their company "Traf-o-Data," but the core of Microsoft was there. As Stephen Manes and Paul Andrew wrote in their biography of Gates, "The development tools Allen put together in this era would serve as the core of Microsoft's language efforts for years."

Finally, what Allen realized was "happening without" them was the democratization of computing that drove Microsoft's growth strategy -- enabling a PC on every desktop -- for most of its corporate history.

Outside of Microsoft, Allen lived the dreams enabled by an early fortune for a technology titan. He invested in successful commercial space flight ventures, bought professional sports franchises, commissioned massive yachts, founded newsworthy companies and backed scientific research projects. Ultimately, he may be more widely remembered for his role in sports or those other activities, but whatever Microsoft would have been called without Paul Allen, it certainly would have been a different company.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 18, 2018 at 10:01 AM


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