American Computer Scientist
Paul Allen co-founded the Microsoft Corporation with Bill Gates (1955- ) , adapting existing programming languages such as BASIC, which was originally written for mainframe computers, into software suitable for personal computers. Such innovations enabled the software industry to become established and expand as a viable business, strengthening the American economy and creating new groups of computer entrepreneurs and users. As personal computers became more affordable and accessible during the 1980s, Allen contributed to software development and distribution, enhancing the quality and usefulness of hardware technology, while major computer manufacturers incorporated Microsoft software as the primary operating system for their products.
Born in 1953 in Seattle, Washington, Allen was born to Kenneth and Faye Allen, a university library administrator and teacher, respectively. Allen grew up in Seattle's North End community and attended the private Lakeside School, where he taught his friend Bill Gates about electronics and programming languages. Allen attended Washington State University and prepared software with Gates in a campus computer laboratory for a small company. They envisioned utilizing microprocessors to perform mainframe functions in miniaturized computers. Their first business attempt, a company called Traf-O-Data, failed because of competitors who could sell products more cheaply, but in the process Allen gained awareness of how to succeed at business. He then left college to work as a programmer for Honeywell in Boston, Massachusetts. Noticing a January 1975 Popular Mechanics advertisement for a microcomputer kit, Allen contacted Gates, suggesting that they prepare software for this pioneering personal computer.
The pair established the Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Washington, in 1975 with Allen serving as executive vice president, directing research to design new products. Allen believed Microsoft should promote both software and hardware but Gates disagreed. They adapted programming languages that were used for mainframes, primarily in academic and governmental institutions, for personal computer usage. BASIC (beginners' all-purpose symbolic instruction code) was their first successful program. They bought a language prototype known as Q-DOS from a local company and appropriated it for MS-DOS, an acronym for "Microsoft Disk Operating System," which became a universally adopted program used to command personal computers.
Additionally, Microsoft software had practical applications such as word processing and spreadsheet programs for business and academic uses. While Allen did not invent any of the software that Microsoft sold, he knew how to convert existing programs for personal computers. Major computer manufacturers, including IBM and Apple, selected Microsoft's software as the primary operating system for their machinery—even designing personal computers specifically to use Microsoft programs. This software was considered user friendly, that is, making personal computers more comprehensible to novice computer operators. As computer companies produced more powerful microprocessors, Allen directed Microsoft programmers to develop suitable software to meet revised technological demands.
After suffering an acute illness, Allen retired from Microsoft in 1983. He still owns, however, a significant percentage of the company's stock and serves on Microsoft's board of directors. A multibillionaire who is the third wealthiest American, Allen devotes his energy to establishing and supporting new companies interested in improving computer technology, especially Internet-related applications. He founded Starwave, a company that sold subscriptions to specially designed sports-related Internet sites. Allen also created Vulcan Northwest, the Paul Allen Group, Asymetrix Corporation, and Intervas Research. A philanthropist, Allen donates money to community groups, favoring charities that promote education, cancer research, environmental issues, and the arts. Allen focuses on improving lifestyles globally through computer technology, seeking to connect everyone to the Internet. A proponent of "distance learning," Allen has funded experimental classes through the Paul G. Allen Virtual Education Foundation at his alma mater, which presented him with a distinguished alumnus award at its 1999 commencement.
ELIZABETH D. SCHAFER