Paul Allen, the taciturn computer programmer who founded the software behemoth Microsoft with Bill Gates when he was 22 and walked away eight years later with what would become one of the largest fortunes in the history of American capitalism, died Monday in Seattle. He was 65.
The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to his investment company, Vulcan Inc.
Although once dubbed the “accidental zillionaire” by Wired magazine, Allen was in fact an essential part of the launch and early success of Microsoft, which thrived on the combination of Allen’s creative programming genius and Gates’ hard-driving business acumen.
“I guess you would call me the doer and Paul the idea man,” Gates said in 1981. “I’m more aggressive and crazily competitive, the front man running the business day to day, while Paul keeps us out front in research and development.”
As early as 1977, Allen was telling Gates and other friends about his vision of a “wired world.” Writing in a trade magazine at the time, he predicted that the personal computer would become “the kind of thing that people carry with them, a companion that takes notes, does accounting, gives reminders, handles a thousand personal tasks.”
The difference between the two Microsoft founders was that “Gates wanted more than anything to make money; Allen wanted more than anything to be the first to spot a technological idea,” Laura Rich wrote in her biography of Allen, “The Accidental Zillionaire: Demystifying Paul Allen.” “It was a partnership made in heaven _ and it worked.”
Allen left the company’s day-to-day operations in 1983, against the wishes of his friend Gates, a year after beginning treatments for Hodgkins disease. The treatments were successful, but the illness had left him exhausted and also newly imbued with a sense of his own mortality and the need, as he put it, “to re-evaluate your priorities.”
Microsoft stock went public in 1986, and by the end of the first trading day, Allen’s shares were worth $134 million. He kept a substantial investment in Microsoft stock throughout his life, and his net worth at the time of his death was $20.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which ranked him as the 21st wealthiest person in the world this year.
After leaving Microsoft, Allen decided he wanted to have fun with his money, to donate to worthwhile causes and to invest in “other people to do exciting, new, creative things,” as he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. He devoted the rest of his life to spending that vast fortune on an opulent lifestyle of planes, yachts and fancy homes, and on an eclectic mix of philanthropic causes and on myriad investments that included professional sports teams, space travel and technology.
He owned the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and had a stake in the Seattle Sounders soccer team.
Despite his wealth, he retained the aura of the computer geek he had always been. He was a preternaturally reserved man who dressed modestly, appeared uneasy in public and closely guarded his privacy.
Allen, who overcame Hodgkins disease in the early 1980s, battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2009. On Oct. 1, he tweeted that the disease had returned, and that he was being treated and his doctors were optimistic. He died Monday afternoon, Vulcan said.
-By Scott Kraft and Laurence Darmiento, Los Angeles Times