“MICROSOFT WOULD never have happened without Paul.” You would expect Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and now one of the world’s leading philanthropists, to say something like this after the death of Paul Allen, his former business partner, who passed away on October 15th following complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. But without Mr Allen Microsoft might indeed never have become the world’s biggest software-maker. Nor would Seattle, near which the firm is based, be the city it is today.
It was Mr Allen who in late 1974 insisted that Mr Gates rush over to the news-stand to see the latest issue of Popular Electronics, a magazine, whose cover featured the Altair 8800, a new computer with a powerful chip—an event which inspired Mr Gates to leave Harvard University to start a company. It was Mr Allen who came up with the name Microsoft, a combination of the words “microcomputers”, as PCS were then called, and “software”. And it was Mr Allen who in 1981 negotiated the deal that became the basis for the firm’s success: for less than $50,000 it bought the software written by a Seattle programmer, which would become the operating system, first called MS-DOS and then Windows, that ruled the computing world in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Mr Allen’s impact on Seattle was no less impressive. He left Microsoft in 1983, after learning that he had lymphoma and because of ongoing tensions with Mr Gates and Steve Ballmer, the firm’s number two. Endowed with copious wealth (recent estimates put his fortune at $26bn), he went on to invest in other tech firms (mostly through Vulcan, his company) and many good causes, ranging from brain research to the homeless. Nowhere is his mark more visible than on the city in America’s north-west: he helped restore an old movie theatre and hired Frank Gehry to design the iconic Museum of Pop Culture (Mr Allen was an accomplished guitarist and a keen Jimi Hendrix fan). Vulcan—named not after a planet in Star Trek, a sci-fi television series, as many believe, but the Roman god of fire—developed the neighbourhood in Seattle which is now the home of Amazon, the city’s other tech giant.
Mr Allen’s legacy extends further, to two lessons in particular. Despite the lionisation of charismatic business leaders, most firms are built by a team, not a single individual; witness also Apple’s other Steve (Wozniak). Another is that what successful entrepreneurs do after their creation has established itself can matter as much as the venture itself. Mr Allen, and Mr Gates himself, are proof of that. It will be interesting to see how today’s titans of tech match up.