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Bill Gates: What I loved about Paul Allen

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/18/2018 Bill Gates
Bill Gates wearing glasses posing for the camera: Paul Allen, right, with Bill Gates in 1983.© Doug Wilson/Corbis/Getty Images Paul Allen, right, with Bill Gates in 1983.

I met Paul Allen when I was in 7th grade, and it changed my life.

I looked up to him right away. He was two years ahead of me in school, really tall, and proved to be a genius with computers. (Later, he also had a very cool beard, the type I could never pull off myself.) We bonded over the teletype that some students’ mothers had bought for the school and had connected to a remote mainframe.

Eventually we were spending just about all our free time messing around with any machine we could get our hands on. At an age when other high school kids were sneaking out of the house to go partying, Paul and I would sneak out at night to go use the computers in a lab at the University of Washington. It sounds geeky, and it was, but it was also a formative experience, and I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do it without Paul. I know it would have been a lot less fun. (“Borrowing” computer time illicitly would become something of a theme for us. Later, when I was a student at Harvard, I got in trouble for letting Paul use the campus computer lab without permission.)

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Even in high school, before most people knew what a personal computer was, Paul predicted that chips would get super-powerful and would eventually give rise to a whole new industry. Many people don’t know that Microsoft wasn’t the first project we did together. That was something we called the Traf-O-Data, a machine that would analyze the information gathered by traffic monitors on city streets. We thought it was a great demonstration of the power of these new devices. We got a prototype up and working, and we imagined ourselves selling it all over the country. But no one wanted to buy the machines, and we had to wind it all down.

We decided to start our next, more successful venture in December 1974. Paul and I were both living in the Boston area—he was working, and I was going to college. One day he came and got me, insisting that I rush over to a nearby newsstand with him. When we arrived, he showed me the cover of the January issue of Popular Electronics. It featured a new computer called the Altair 8800, which ran on a powerful new chip. Paul looked at me and said: “This is happening without us!” That moment marked the end of my college career and the beginning of our new company, Microsoft.

In those days, the chips were so limited that you couldn’t do what’s called “native development”—you couldn’t use a machine with that chip in it as you were developing the software for it. That made writing code for those chips pretty challenging. Paul had a great idea: to write some code that would let us emulate those chips on a more powerful computer, then port it over to the machine with the less powerful chip. That breakthrough was important for a lot of Microsoft’s early success, and Paul deserves credit for it.

As the first person I ever partnered with, Paul set a standard that few other people could meet. He had a wide-ranging mind and a special talent for explaining complicated subjects in a simple way. As an adult, he pursued a huge spectrum of interests, including the arts, conservation, and artificial intelligence. He wanted to prevent elephant poaching, promote smart cities, and accelerate brain research.

Because I was lucky enough to know him from such a young age, I saw that before the rest of the world did. Once, when I was a teenager, I got curious about (of all things) gasoline. What did “refining” even mean? I turned to the most knowledgeable person I knew. Paul explained it in a super-clear and interesting way. It was just one of many enlightening conversations we would have over the coming decades.

Paul was cooler than I was. He was really into Jimi Hendrix, and I remember him playing “Are You Experienced?” for me. I wasn’t experienced at much of anything back then, and Paul wanted to share this amazing music with me. That’s the kind of person he was. He loved life and the people around him, and it showed.

His generosity was as wide-ranging as his interests. In our hometown of Seattle, Paul helped fund homeless shelters, brain research, and arts education. He also built the amazing Museum of Pop Culture, which houses some of his huge collection of music, science fiction, and movie memorabilia.

When I think about Paul, I remember a passionate man who held his family and friends dear. I also remember a brilliant technologist and philanthropist who wanted to accomplish great things, and did.

Paul deserved more time in life. He would have made the most of it. I will miss him tremendously.

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