40 Busy Years Later, a Microsoft Founder Considers His Creation

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40 Busy Years Later, a Microsoft Founder Considers His Creation
Looking at Microsoft's sprawling product line and 118,000 or so employees, it is easy to forget that the company started with one modest product made by two ambitious people.

In early April, one of those two people, Paul Allen, offered a reminder of Microsoft's humble origins when he posted a photograph on Twitter commemorating the company's 40th anniversary. The picture showed the introductory lines of the printed code for Microsoft's first software product, an interpreter for the Basic programming language that Allen created with Bill Gates in 1975.

"It's weird to look at bits of code you wrote 40 years ago and think, 'That led to where Microsoft is today,'" Allen, 62, said in a phone interview Friday, sounding genuinely amazed.

Last week, Microsoft executives offered a peek of several new products, the most recent effort by the company to build interest among the latest generation of software developers, who have wandered to competing technologies like Google's Android and Apple's iOS in recent years. So it seemed appropriate timing to ask Allen what he thought of Microsoft at 40.

Unlike Gates, who worked full time at Microsoft until 2008, Allen has not worked at the company since the early 1980s, when he left to seek treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma. Allen, whose fortune is estimated at more than $17 billion by Forbes, says he still closely follows Microsoft and the technology industry. He is no longer a top Microsoft shareholder.

While Microsoft is doing well among corporate customers, Allen says he believes the most daunting task the company faces is getting momentum in the mobile market, where Apple and Google hold sway over developers.

"It's possible," Allen said. "It's very challenging to carve back market share."

Allen said he liked Windows 10, the new operating system Microsoft will release this summer that will run multiple types of devices, including the Xbox One gaming console, Microsoft smartphones and personal computers. His technical staff had just given him a PC running a test version of the software Friday morning.

He sounded especially enthusiastic about how Windows 10 on PCs rolled back some of the more radical design changes Microsoft made with the previous version of the software. There was an outcry among Windows users about many of them, including the way it hid the traditional Start menu for launching applications.

"It's like a shift lever in a car," Allen said. "You want it to work a certain way. I think Microsoft has gotten much better at listening to the marketplace."

I asked Allen what smartphone he used - many alumni of the company use an Apple iPhone. "I need to switch away from my old BlackBerry," he said. "My darn thumbs can fly over that thing and type so fast."

Allen said he visited Microsoft a few months ago to get a demonstration of HoloLens, the company's new augmented-reality headset, which will mix virtual imagery with a person's view of their physical surroundings. More than other Microsoft products, HoloLens seems to have teleported from the future. Is Allen, a well-known science fiction enthusiast, eager to wear one?

He called HoloLens "very interesting," though he predicted it would take two to three years before it found a mass audience, comparing it to the delay in adoption of PCs until strong applications emerged. "We're in that period right before these things become mainstream," Allen said.

His role at Microsoft, he said, is as an informal sounding board for executives. He said he had lunch with Satya Nadella, chief executive of the company, about once every six months, and that he was in contact with Steve Ballmer, the previous chief. He said Microsoft's leaders had unique jobs because the company competed in so many different markets.

"That's what I told Steve and Satya: 'You have such a challenging job because you have more competitors than any major CEO in the world has,'" he said.

Allen is perhaps better known these days for his eclectic pursuits outside of technology. He owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers, and is a major real estate developer in his hometown, Seattle. He is developing a system to launch spacecraft from an airplane. In March, a team of researchers on board his giant yacht found the wreckage of a World War II Japanese battleship near the Philippines using a submersible.

Nearly two years ago, he founded a private research group in Seattle to pursue breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. Oren Etzioni, the computer scientist and entrepreneur Allen recruited to run the group, said Allen was very engaged in the work of the 40-person group.

"At his core, he's still very much an engineer," Etzioni said.

© 2015 New York Times News Service

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