Paul Allen, RIP

The passing of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at age 65 from cancer is a sad thing, given his enormous talents and revolutionary impact on the things of our daily lives.

I'm pretty sure I met Allen once, back in 1987, when I was a student in San Francisco, working as a researcher and receptionist for the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, always making it my business to serve the visiting CEOs and corporate presidents good coffee and Dutch cookies as the establishment of subsidiaries and European hubs was discussed. If I met him, it was to serve him cookies, and I think I did because I remember how funny the name of his company was. Microsoft, what is this, little pillows? Why would you name a whole company after that? As you may imagine, although I was focused on the doings of the tech industry, I was actually terrified of actual tech. I was still goggling at the marvels of the fax machine. I was still handling 12-inch Philips disks and very proud I programmed in no stray typos or periods to mess up the database printouts. I prayed the tech boom would be ... a fad.

Well, it wasn't. It was the biggest extension of the industrial revolution ever seen, the exponential expansion of technology into every aspect of our lives, something even I have belatedly embraced and appreciated.

And it was people like Allen who led this revolution, seeing far into where it might lead, and taking the road. His Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, expressed his gratitude movingly:

“Paul foresaw that computers would change the world,” Gates recalled in a memorial statement on Monday. “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.”

It's a far from complete road of course, and one can only hope these marvels of the free society Allen flourished in will go further.

What's saddest about this whole thing is that it hasn't. Because for all of Allen's $20 billion fortune, even an amount like that was insufficient to save the man's life, and he did go early. Such brilliance, snuffed out by the hideous and weakly understood mutation of cells. Nobody - and no tech marvels, either - could stop that cancer. The fleetingness of life affects even billionaires, and that is poignant. 

He lived a good life. He offended no one, he never made stupid public statements, his family says he was a loving and kind member and friend. Rest in peace, a giant, and great revolutionary who made a gargantuan difference.

Image credit: Miles Harris, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

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