Who founded Microsoft? Ask almost anyone that question, and they’ll say Bill Gates. But the software icon himself told the rest of the story today in a tribute to his Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen.
“Paul foresaw that computers would change the world,” Gates wrote in the essay about Allen, who died Monday at the age of 65. “Even in high school, before any of us knew what a personal computer was, he was predicting that computer chips would get super-powerful and would eventually give rise to a whole new industry. That insight of his was the cornerstone of everything we did together.”
“In fact,” he added, “Microsoft would never have happened without Paul.”
For many people, that would be a singular accomplishment, enough to define the rest of their lives. But what’s most remarkable about Allen is the sheer range of projects and initiatives that he pursued after his Microsoft life: in science, artificial intelligence, the arts, music, museums, pro sports, space exploration, technology, philanthropy, global health, conservation … the list goes on and on.
As we’ve been discussing and reflecting on Allen’s life over the past day, we’ve repeatedly experienced moments where we suddenly remembered another of the many things he took on: restoring the Cinerama movie theater; funding the fight against Ebola; assembling the vast swaths of land that ultimately became Amazon’s campus; helping to shelter homeless families in his hometown; and building the world’s largest plane to launch rockets into the stratosphere.
Don’t forget Starwave, the forerunner to ESPN.com. That was Paul Allen.
The guy who funded the giant telescope array to search for alien life? Him, too.
He had the distinction of establishing institutes for artificial intelligence and brain science.
And yes, he was the one who stepped in to keep the Seattle Seahawks from leaving town.
Again, the list goes on and on.
Former colleagues call Allen’s interests “eclectic,” and it might be tempting to think of his many pursuits as “random.” From the outside, his life looked like the antithesis of the startup mantra of “focus, focus, focus,” and the embodiment of the saying, “When you’re everywhere, you’re nowhere.”
But behind it all, Allen had a unifying philosophy.
“Some people are motivated by a need for recognition, some by money, and some by a broad social goal. I start from a different place, from the love of ideas and the urge to put them into motion and see where they might lead,” Allen wrote, explaining his mindset in his 2011 book, “Idea Man.”
And he did focus in a different way. He devoted the vast majority of his resources and attention to the Pacific Northwest and his hometown of Seattle, where he was born and raised by a schoolteacher and University of Washington library administrator, and where he met Bill Gates as a teenager.
All of these factors help to explain why, despite his clear impact on the world, Allen’s death didn’t make the type of huge national news that we might have expected.
We had CNN on in the background as we covered the news Monday, waiting for a breaking news alert that we never saw or heard. Yes, there was coverage of Allen’s death nationally, but nowhere near the level of attention paid to the passing of most celebrities. His geographic concentration, combined with his wide-ranging pursuits and the fact that he was largely overshadowed by Gates, meant that Allen wasn’t as well-known as he should have been.
This low profile also seemed to be Allen’s preference. He wasn’t fond of mingling with the public, and seemed wary about providing a window into his life.
I was fortunate to interview Allen at Town Hall Seattle in 2011, and he opened up to the hometown audience in a way I’d never heard him open up before. But even in that setting, he seemed uncomfortable discussing his more lavish pursuits, such as his gigantic yachts.
“They’re too big, and there are too many of them,” he said. “Do I need to say anything else?”
But then he did say more, including an explanation of what it was like to plunge into the depths in a submarine from one of his yachts. “It turns out if you go 1,000 feet down in the ocean, it’s really dark, and the animals are really strange,” he said, “but if you put on some Pink Floyd, it’s fantastic.”
Ultimately that was what made Allen such a fascinating character. He seemed like the type of billionaire a lot of us would want to be if we were fortunate enough to be billionaires: following our passions, trying to make a meaningful difference in the world, not getting stuck on any one thing, and taking the time to stop and play some “Dark Side of the Moon” in our submarine.
Would it have been better for Allen to have picked a singular focus in his post-Microsoft life? Would his impact have been greater if he had spent greater time on fewer pursuits? Perhaps. But it also would have been a lot less interesting, not nearly as multifaceted — and nowhere near as fun.
Listen to our podcast discussion about Paul Allen’s life and legacy in the audio player above, or subscribe to the GeekWire podcast in your favorite podcast app.