Did Microsoft steal DOS from CP/M? There’s $100,000 in it for you if you can prove they did.
Start with what we know.
Gary Kildall’s memoirs are legendary vaporware. Until now. Today, the Computer History Museum released 79 pages of it. What was released today isn’t the whole manuscript. But it’s better than what we had yesterday.
Gary Kildall is one of the unsung heroes of early computing. As such, he’s one of my favorite people to write about.
Late in his life, he started to write a memoir. I’ve only had a chance to read parts of the first two chapters, but they explain the man and his motives. It’s not the whole manuscript, and some people aren’t happy about that. But it’s better than what we had yesterday.
Most of what exists of computing history came from the victors’ point of view. Gary Kildall wasn’t one of the winners. But without his contributions, the winners wouldn’t have had much to build on.
Maybe someday Gary Kildall will get his due. Releasing his story in his own words is a start.
Undoubtedly I will have more to say after I read all 79 pages myself. But this release is too important not to mention.
CP/M was, as you probably know, the first popular microcomputer operating system. It was good but imperfect, and its cryptic command for copying files, PIP, is often cited as an example. Copy makes sense. Even the Unix equivalent, cp, makes sense–it’s copy without the vowels. But what does PIP mean? What’s the origin of CP/M’s PIP command?
Gary Kildall’s death investigation, or the seeming lack thereof, has taken on mythical proportions. Gary Kildall’s story seems to have that effect on people.
While Gary Kildall died under unclear circumstances, his death was less unusual than early accounts made it seem. That’s why the investigation seemed to fizzle out with less fanfare than it deserved.
I frequently hear lamentations about the number of women in the technology field–or the lack of them. Although there have been a number of successful women in the field, such as Meg Whitman, CEO of HP and formerly Ebay; Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo; and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, men outnumber women in the field and often by a large margin.
That perhaps makes it even more sad that few remember Vector Graphic today. Last week Fast Company profiled this pioneering computer company that time forgot.
I didn’t have time to write everything I wanted to write yesterday, so I’m going to revisit Bill Gates and Gary Kildall today. Bill Gates’ side of the DOS story is relatively well documented in his biographies: Gates referred IBM to Gary Kildall, who for whatever reason was less comfortable working with IBM than Gates was. And there was an airplane involved, though what Kildall was doing in the airplane and why varies. By some accounts he was meeting another client, and by other accounts it was a joyride. IBM in turn came back to Gates, who had a friend of a friend who was cloning CP/M for the 8086, so Microsoft bought the clone for $50,000, cleaned it up a little, and delivered it to IBM while turning a huge profit. Bill Gates became Bill Gates, and Kildall and his company, Digital Research, slowly faded away.
The victors usually get to write the history. I’ve tried several times over the years to find Kildall’s side of the story. I first went looking sometime in 1996 or so, for a feature story about Internet misinformation I wrote for the Columbia Missourian‘s Sunday magazine. For some reason, every five years or so I end up chasing the story down again.
I saw the headline on Slashdot: Forensic evidence trying to prove whether MS-DOS contained code lifted from CP/M. That got my attention, as the connection between MS-DOS and its predecessor, CP/M, is one of the great unsolved mysteries of computing.
Unfortunately, the forensic evidence doesn’t prove a lot.
I think everyone knows the story of how IBM almost used CP/M as the operating system for its PC, but ended up using an upstart product from a small company named Microsoft instead. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened, seeing as the author of CP/M is dead and his business partner is no longer able to recollect those events from the 1980 timeframe, and IBM and Bill Gates have no reason to embarrass themselves by revisiting the story.
But CP/M was the first and most popular operating system for early 8-bit computers, so people who used it remember it fondly, and the way Microsoft steamrolled it made Gary Kildall and his operating system folk heroes to underdog lovers everywhere. Even people who never used it and weren’t even born when Kildall’s company ceased to exist have at least a vague idea of what it was.
The IBM PC 5150 turns 30 today.
IBM didn’t invent the personal computer, but if your computer has an Intel or AMD CPU in it, it’s the direct descendant of the beige box IBM unleashed on the world on August 12, 1981. Without a huge amount of effort, it’s even possible to run most of that old software on your shiny new PC. You probably wouldn’t want to, except out of curiosity, but you can do it.
I wasn’t one of the people who rushed out and got one. At the time, I was still watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. I had my first experience with a computer–a Radio Shack TRS-80–in 1982, and the first computer my family bought was a Commodore 64 in 1984. Even in 1984, there were still plenty of people who questioned why anyone needed a computer in their home. My introduction to the IBM PC and PC-DOS didn’t happen until 1987.