The almost-was Bill Gates

Last Updated on October 3, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

Finally, a little bit more detail on the haziest (to me) story in my controversial Why I Dislike Microsoft has appeared: Gary Kildall’s side of the CP/M-QDOS-PC DOS 1.0 story.

The story corroborates what I said, but I wish the story answered more questions.

The story appeared in a book called They Made America, which has a chapter on the story of Gary Kildall. An excerpt appears in Businessweek.

Gary Kildall's death investigation
Gary Kildall on his television program, Computer Chronicles, in 1985.

If you’ll allow a bit of self-indulgence, I believe this occasion marks the first time a link to something I’ve written has appeared on the front page of Slashdot. It referenced the Wikipedia article on QDOS, of which I was the original author.

I really wish Kildall’s memoir, the source for this story, would be published. Aside from the memoir, written between 1992 and his death in 1994, Kildall didn’t talk much. Gates has never said anything more than “Gary went flying.” For that matter, I’m not sure that the circumstances around Kildall’s death were ever completely cleared up. Most accounts say it happened in a bar. I’ve seen some accounts say it was a fight. This most recent account just says it was a fall. But I think I even remember seeing one account that said he fell off a ladder at his house. Not very consistent.

The Businessweek story complains about the murky picture. The IBMers involved aren’t going to talk a lot, for obvious reasons. Microsoft has absolutely no reason to talk. Tim Paterson definitely has reason to talk, because he’s the one implicated in what would today be illegal activity. He’s a multimillionaire and set for life, but I would think he would want to set the record straight for the sake of having a clean reputation, even if he never needs to use it again.

Kildall’s wife, who by most accounts was actually the one who talked to IBM, is no longer able to remember the incident.

In defense of all the parties involved, I understand not keeping all of the events straight. I can’t keep the events of the cancellation of my aborted second book straight anymore, and that happened less than five years ago. At one time I thought all rights to what I had written reverted to me. At another point I thought the publisher retained them. Today I don’t really know, or care, because in all likelihood no copies of it exist anymore anyway.

So are Kildall’s recollections 100% gospel? Fourteen years after the fact, I doubt it. But I know they’re more accurate than Gates’ three-word account that grew into the infamous urban legend.

Unfortunately, there’s no corroboration of the easter egg story. I read that in a John C. Dvorak “Inside Track” PC Magazine column sometime in 1996 or so. I never saw him make mention of it again, and while I’ve talked to people who claim to know the story, they never volunteered any additional detail. The Businessweek article says only this: “Davis, the DRI lawyer, believes that based on the number of similarities DRI’s forensic consultants found between the original DOS and CP/M, ‘in today’s world, you could take it to court and get an infringement.’ But not in 1981.”

I’ve heard two other stories. One is that Kildall wanted to sue and could have won, but was afraid IBM would tie them up in court so long as to drive them out of business–kind of like what IBM is doing to SCO today. The other is that by the time Kildall really knew and could have presented his case, DOS had reached version 2.0 and was almost a complete rewrite and likely lacked any of that infringing code.

So how would the world have been different if Kildall had won? One can only speculate, but IBM PCs would likely have been multitasking by 1982 or 1983. Digital Research developed a GUI in the mid-1980s called GEM that was far ahead of Windows at the time. GEM gained some early popularity on IBM PCs but is more noteworthy as the basis for the Atari ST’s operating system. But it’s safe to say that the IBM PC would have had a GUI comparable to Windows 3.0 in functionality, and likely superior in stability, in 1985, rather than 1990.

Likely a number of other Kildall inventions would have made it into the operating system quickly: disk caches, CD-ROM support, and videodisc support.

Anything beyond that is pure speculation, because most of Digital Research’s creative energies after about 1985 went towards making CP/M almost completely compatible with MS-DOS to create DR DOS, and then to staying a step ahead of the current version of MS-DOS and keeping it as compatible as possible. It’s not fair to say DR’s innovation stopped after 1985, but it certainly changed direction. Kildall’s work was interesting and historically noteworthy but did not drive the direction of the company.

So could Gary Kildall have been Bill Gates? No. Gates is a businessman who happens to know how to program. A very good businessman, and a mediocre programmer. His best-known program today is Donkey.bas, a simple dodge-the-donkeys video game written in Basic.

Kildall was, by all accounts, a spectacular programmer who really didn’t like being troubled with having to run a business, and he clearly didn’t anticipate the next few years’ turn of events. Kildall didn’t believe IBM would be his biggest customer, so he demanded a high royalty. Gates saw IBM as an opportunity to sell an operating system, a programming language, and still more software, so he asked for a ridiculously low price in hopes of future success that would permit him to raise prices later.

Ever noticed what a copy of Windows costs in the stores? Needless to say, he followed through on that plan to raise prices.

Kildall also had his own ideas about what direction to go. Had Kildall done a 16-bit version of CP/M in 1978 or 1979 when the Intel 8086 was released, Microsoft would not have had a 16-bit CP/M clone to buy. The original CP/M had already made Kildall somewhat wealthy when IBM came knocking in 1980, yet Kildall hadn’t ridden that wave. Chances are had he gotten the IBM deal, he wouldn’t have ridden out that wave either, although his company likely would have.

Maybe Kildall would have settled into the kind of role in Digital Research that Dave Cutler settled into at Microsoft: crucial to software development, but not especially visible, so he can do what he wants and be a hothead about it when he wants. But it’s hard to say.

But I agree about the assessment that things would have been better with Kildall at the helm for as long as he wanted to be there. Gates’ primary interest is money. Kildall was interested in computers, education, and helping people.

If Microsoft looks like General Motors today, Digital Research probably would have come up looking more like Honda. Not the biggest company, but a company with great, reliable products. And if you’ve ever compared an X car to a Honda Civic, you’ll appreciate the difference.

C’est la vie. We got the X car.

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