Veteran tech journalist Dan Tynan recently published a list of 10 overrated technology products, and CP/M was on his list. But was CP/M overrated? I want to dig into that question a bit.
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.
In CP/M’s defense, Gary Kildall saw it only as a means to an end. He wanted to play around with disk drives and microprocessors. Nothing allowed him to do what he needed, so he wrote CP/M and moved on. He never intended for it to become the most popular 8-bit operating system of all time. That’s what ended up happening but it was an accident. Kildall was a brilliant programmer and visionary, but had the misfortune of competing with Bill Gates. Gates was a much better businessman and arguably had a lot more focus.
I used CP/M. And yes, it was clunky. The command for copying files was called pip. Why? That was how the command was named on the DEC minicomputer he used to write CP/M. The reason is obscure. At least Unix’s cp command makes sense: copy.
But CP/M blazed a lot of ground. The PC as we know it today still copies the system architecture–the BIOS–that Kildall invented to make CP/M capable of running on multiple brands of computer. The command line in Windows NT resembles CP/M more than superficially.
And CP/M was elegantly written. When Caldera released the CP/M source code it was able to locate, I took a look at it out of curiosity. At the time I still remembered enough 8080 assembly language for it to not look like gibberish to me. It didn’t waste resources. The code flowed well. And it did a lot of clever things to conserve precious memory and clock cycles. It was obvious to me that I was looking at the work of a genius when I saw it.
The biggest problem with CP/M was that Gary Kildall lost his drive after he wrote it. It made him a multimillionaire. And it wasn’t until Bill Gates zoomed past him and became a world-famous billionaire that he realized there was anything beyond the fortune and fame that CP/M gave him. By then it was too late. And that’s a shame. We got a chance to see what Kildall would have delivered to the world if he’d gotten that chance with IBM. Atari used GEM, Kildall’s graphical interface, on its Atari ST, released in 1985. It was every bit as good as Windows 3.0 was, five years earlier. Kildall always was about five years ahead of Microsoft.
So I suppose CP/M is overrated. I know I’m guilty of looking at Kildall’s legacy as a whole, not just the pieces of it, and seeing it for what almost was. Not just for the A prompt that ran on Kaypro and Osborne and Vector Graphic computers in the early 1980s, before IBM and compatible computers really caught on.