Paul Allen Thought Like a Hacker and Never Stopped Dreaming

The Microsoft cofounder, who left the company in 1983, died Monday at age 65 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

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Iconic tech-company founders often come in pairs: Bill Hewlett and David Packard. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

The world lost half of one such duo Monday when Paul Allen, who cofounded Microsoft with his childhood friend Bill Gates, died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 65.

For the last three decades of his life, Allen was best known as a philanthropist and prolific entrepreneur. He funded the first successful privately financed spacecraft launch and the development of the world’s largest aircraft. And he owned two professional sports teams, football’s Seattle Seahawks and basketball’s Portland Trail Blazers, and co-owned another, soccer’s Seattle Sounders.

But it all comes back to Microsoft, the source of the wealth that enabled Allen to fund his eccentric passions. Together, Allen and Gates practically created the modern software industry in 1975. And while Gates was better known, the company’s first product was Allen’s idea, and the pair worked furiously to realize it. “Personal computing would not have existed without him,” Gates said in a statement Monday.

Had history gone only slightly differently, Allen might have become half of a different duo. He was accepted to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 1972, he told WIRED in 2011, but his parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Had Allen landed at Reed, he might have met Steve Jobs, who went to Reed that year.

Instead, Allen went to Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. After two years he dropped out and moved to Boston at the urging of Gates, then a student at Harvard University. After the move, Allen pitched several business ideas to Gates. “Each time I brought an idea to Bill, he would pop my balloon,” Allen wrote in his memoir Idea Man in 2011. “My ideas were ahead of their time or beyond our scope or both.”

Allen finally came up with something feasible that December after reading about one of the first commercially available personal computers, the Altair 8800, in Popular Science. Allen’s idea wasn’t Windows or Word or even MS-DOS. Rather, he proposed that he and Gates create a version of the Basic programming language for use with the Altair. Within a year, Gates had dropped out of college and the two had founded Microsoft, originally dubbed “Micro-soft.” The name was also Allen’s idea.

When Allen and Gates started the company, selling software was practically unheard of. The giants of the time, like IBM and DEC, made their money selling hardware. Sharing software on floppy disks—or punch cards or tape—without paying was common practice. When Gates called those who copied Microsoft software without paying “thieves” in a 1976 open letter, it sparked the first of many controversies the company would face. But many others soon followed in Microsoft’s footsteps, and an industry was born.

However productive their working relationship was in the early years, it didn’t last. In Idea Man, Allen accused Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer of conspiring to dilute his stake in the company. The souring relationship, along with a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982, led Allen to leave Microsoft in 1983, three years before the company went public.

Allen beat his first bout with cancer and went on to become a prolific investor and philanthropist. He bought the Trail Blazers in 1988 and the Seahawks in 1996, and invested in a wide range of tech companies. In Seattle, he founded the Pop Culture Museum in 2000, which began as a tribute to Allen’s musical hero Jimi Hendrix, and redeveloped the South Lake Union neighborhood.

Most importantly, he kept chasing new ideas. Allen and Gates started Microsoft by thinking like hackers. Allen wrote a critical piece of the duo’s software during the final moments of a flight to the demo that won the nascent company its first contract. But he also had a deep respect for long-term, exploratory, scientific research.

In 1992 he cofounded the Interval Research Corporation, reportedly out of concern about the decline of research and development funding from governments, universities, and corporate entities like Bell Labs. The company shuttered in 2000, but Allen used its research to file patent lawsuits against several major technology companies in 2010. The cases, which are still ongoing, claimed ownership over technologies that display recommended products or news articles, a feature found on countless ecommerce and news sites. This type of “patent trolling” is controversial at best, but the suit did surface an interesting tidbit: Allen claims that Interval Research was one of the original funders of Brin and Page’s research that eventually became Google.

In 2003, Allen donated $100 million to create a neuroscience research institute in Seattle to work on new ways to map the cells and genes of human and animal brains. By 2014, he had committed $500 million to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and it was a major player in the federal BRAIN initiative developing new technologies to probe how the human brain functions. Allen, a lifelong fan of Star Trek and science fiction, also created the Allen Institute for AI, to work on giving computers the ability to reason, learn, and read—grand challenges he felt commercial AI research alone would not pursue aggressively enough.

His love of science fiction also fueled Allen’s last great project. Starting in the 1990s, he quietly funded the development of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first privately funded, human occupied craft successfully launched into space. He followed that by funding Stratolaunch Systems, the company behind the largest airplane ever built. The Stratolaunch has two fuselages and a wingspan of 385 feet, longer than a football field. The idea is to use it to launch satellites into space more cost effectively. That could make it far cheaper to deploy satellite-based broadband and bring high-speed internet hard-to-reach parts of the planet.

“Paul wasn’t content with starting one company,” Gates said in his statement. “He channeled his intellect and compassion into a second act focused on improving people’s lives and strengthening communities in Seattle and around the world.”

Allen told WIRED in 2011 that despite his tense exit from Microsoft, he and Gates had remained friends. In fact, according to Idea Man, Gates apologized to Allen in a letter sent not long before Allen left the company.

“During the last 14 years we have had numerous disagreements,” Gates wrote. “However, I doubt any two partners have ever agreed on as much both in terms of specific decisions and their general idea of how to view things.”

It wasn’t enough to keep Allen at Microsoft. But by then Allen’s early work with Gates had already yielded a phenomenally successful company, one that is still among the most valuable in the world today.


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