Allen, Paul (1953- ) American Computer Engineer (Scientist)

Paul Allen collaborated with Bill Gates to found Microsoft, the computer software company that provided the programming for almost all personal computer applications. Allen and Gates wrote the programming that launched the company, though as their company expanded, they exerted their visionary influence by wedding hardware with the appropriate software. Although Allen did not actually write the programming, he is largely responsible for delivering the operating systems that drove IBM’s personal computers and later for the development of the Windows interface, which facilitated amateur users’ interactions with personal computers. In this sense, Allen helped fuel the personal computer boom that ushered in the information age.

Allen was born on January 21, 1953, in Seattle, Washington. His father was head librarian at the University of Washington. His mother, Faye, hosted "science club" meetings in the family’s home to encourage her 10-year-old son’s burgeoning interest in science.

In 1965, Allen entered Lakeside, a private college-preparatory school in Seattle, which proved to be a seminal event when he met his future business partner, Bill Gates, three years later. The pair indulged their interest in computers by programming in BASIC, and Allen mentored junior high school students by teaching computer courses as a high school student. Allen has said about his high school years that he "wanted to look at every computer [he] could, understand the software, the neat things this computer could do that other computers couldn’t."

In 1971, Allen graduated from Lakeside and matriculated at Washington State University. The next year, he and Gates collaborated to construct a computer for measuring traffic from a $360 Intel 8008 chip, and the pair launched their first company, Traf-O-Data, to market the technology. In 1974, Honeywell of Boston hired Allen as a programmer. In January of the next year, the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine featured a picture of the Altair, a computer kit based on the then-new Intel 8080 chip. This first personal computer captured Allen’s imagination, as both he and Gates had foreseen the day when personal computers would become available to the general consumer, and computers would grace the desktops not only at corporate offices but also in homes. They also realized that many companies stood poised to manufacture the hardware, but precious few companies, if any, were prepared to produce programming, or software, for these personal computers.

Allen and Gates approached Model Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based maker of the Altair, promising delivery of a version of BASIC for the Altair that they had yet to write. After winning the contract, Allen and Gates spent the next eight weeks frantically composing the code in a computer lab at Harvard University (where Gates was studying), and delivered on their promise. Impressed by the programming, MITS hired Allen as its associate director of software in 1975. Gates accompanied Allen to Albuquerque, where the pair founded a company called Microsoft to develop and market software that would fill the technology gap they had identified.

By 1977, both Apple and Radio Shack had commissioned Microsoft to produce versions of BASIC for their Apple II and TRS-80 computers (respectively). In November of that year, Allen resigned from his MITS position to take up a full-time position at Microsoft, in which he owned a 36 percent share. Allen headed research and development. The next year, Microsoft, buoyed by sales of more than one million dollars, moved to Bellevue in the founders’ home state of Washington.

As the 1980s approached, the computer giant International Business Machines (IBM) realized the potential of the personal computer (PC) market, but it needed an operating system to drive its computers. IBM turned to Microsoft, and again Gates and Allen promised delivery of an operating system they had not built yet. Allen contacted Tim Patterson of Seattle Computer Products to ask for the rights to its "Quick and Dirty Operating System" (QDOS) for use in an unnamed client’s computers. Patterson sold Allen the rights for less than $100,000, and Microsoft became the supplier of the operating system for IBM PCs, which dominated the market within three years.

That year, 1983, Microsoft introduced the graphical interface, or the mode by which users interacted with their computers, called "Windows," a program that revolutionized personal computing by hiding the programming code behind visual icons. Also in 1983, Allen learned that he had developed Hodgkin’s disease, prompting him to resign from Microsoft. However, he held onto his Microsoft stock, making him a billionaire after Microsoft went public in 1986.

Allen shifted his focus to investment, and he wielded tremendous power through his financial strength, though some have criticized his investments for lacking vision. He owned three different companies to handle his portfolio, which included controlling interest in such businesses as Ticket Master, the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, and the Seattle Seahawks football team, as well as in technology-based companies such as Asymetrix, Starwave, and Dream Works SKG.

Allen indulged his passion for rock and roll music by funding the Experience Music Project, which grew out of his idea for a Jimi Hendrix museum, and located the postmodern museum on the site of the Seattle World’s Fair that he attended in 1962. In September 2000, Allen resigned from the Microsoft board to focus his attention on his numerous other enterprises, though he remained a senior strategy adviser.

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