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Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., speaks during a Bloomberg BusinessWeek "Captains of Industry" event in New York, April 17, 2011.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., speaks during a Bloomberg BusinessWeek “Captains of Industry” event in New York, April 17, 2011.


Photo:

Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg News

The obituaries for Paul Allen, who died this week at age 65, all describe him as a co-founder of

Microsoft
.

This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t begin to capture his larger impact. His more famous Microsoft partner, Bill Gates, came closer to the truth when he said “personal computing would not have existed without him.”

What Mr. Gates and Allen pulled off was not simply building an innovative new company. They imagined and then built a new industry that brought computing power to the masses. More than four decades after they wrote their first piece of software, people around the world have more computing power in their smartphones than the computers NASA used to put men on the moon. It takes nothing away from Mr. Gates to say that on their team Allen was the visionary while his partner was more the practical businessman.

In 1975, when they created the partnership known as Microsoft, they were two kids who had gone to high school together outside Seattle and dropped out of college. If you had asked people at the time which company would dominate computing in the decades to come, most would have answered

IBM
.

Instead Microsoft and Apple would dominate the desktop computer revolution.

The late 1970s were also a time, not unlike our own, full of angst about whether America’s best days were over. Four years after Microsoft was founded, President Jimmy Carter would famously give his “malaise” speech lamenting “the erosion of our confidence in the future.” The reality is that the U.S. was in the early stages of a new era of entrepreneurship and economic progress.

After a cancer diagnosis, Allen left Microsoft in 1983 but retained his ownership stake that made him a billionaire. He later because a philanthropist, investor and professional sports owner. But his willingness to take risks as a young man and see a future others didn’t was a signature contribution that should remind Americans that the future is still what creative individuals in a free society make it.

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