Here’s Bill Gates’ partner BEFORE Microsoft existed

Paul Allen recalls starting Microsoft and his subsequent journey.

Screenshot: The Charlie Rose Show

I’m beginning to feel like a shill for The Charlie Rose Show. A few nights ago, he interviewed Paul Allen, the guy who partnered with Bill Gates to form Microsoft. Paul and Bill were high school buddies whose first venture was Traf-O-Data: a vehicular traffic counting system built upon the Intel 8008 microprocessor.

I’ve always been impressed with Mr. Allen’s programming skills. In order to write the first BASIC interpreter for the then-new Intel 8080 microprocessor (which neither Bill nor Paul could afford), Paul first wrote an 8080 emulator on a Digital Equipment PDP-10 “mainframe” (in PDP-10 assembler) to which they had access. Meanwhile, Bill began writing the BASIC interpreter in 8080 assembler on a yellow notepad. Bill’s friend, Monte Davidoff, wrote the floating point arithmetic routines. Once Paul had the 8080 emulator working on the PDP-10, Bill could start writing and debugging 8080 assembler code to create the 8080 BASIC interpreter.

Micro-soft logo c 1977

Using the corporate name Micro-soft, they licensed the BASIC interpreter to MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. MITS had just begun producing the Altair 8800 microcomputer as a kit. It used the Intel 8080 CPU and MITS needed software to drive Altair sales. Bill and Paul guessed that they had about a month to create a BASIC interpreter before somebody else beat them to the punch.

Altair 8800b Computer Front Panel - 1,238 × 570 pixels
Altair 8800b Computer Front Panel

It’s the stuff of legends: in 1975 Paul boarded a plane to MITS’ headquarters (located in a shopping center) with a copy (on paper tape, I think) of Paul and Bill’s untested BASIC interpreter, which they’d run on the PDP-10 only. They had never run it on an actual 8080. The demo of their BASIC on an Altair 8800 at MITS was the first time they’d ever run it on an honest-to-goodness 8080!

Why did he leave Microsoft?

Paul Allen left Microsoft in 1983 following a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease. After listening to this interview, I surmise that a secondary cause of his departure was friction with Steve Ballmer, who had lived in Bill Gates’ dorm while they were at Harvard, and was hired by Bill to sell Microsoft products. (Update Aug 2013: Apparently Paul overheard Bill and Steve scheming to dilute the value of Paul’s Microsoft shares.) Mr. Allen confirms reports that Bill Gates was a sensational programmer. Though their relationship has cooled, Paul clearly respects Bill’s brilliance.

paul allen bookPaul has written a new book, Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft. Sounds worthwhile.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

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