The Man Who COULD Have Been Bill Gates (Gary Kildall)

Dec 27, 2018 Michelle Clarke
This story is Gary Kildall, the man who should have been Bill Gates. It's an absolutely fascinating story, and I think that more people should know about it. The year is 1977, and Apple had just become extremely successful with their first PC, the Apple II. It was the first mass production personal computer that you didn't have to assemble yourself.

PC industry was already worth 1 billion dollars just three years after it had begun. For the first time, computers amplified productivity and human intellect from within the home. IBM, who was in the corporate computer business of selling large mainframes, just saw the dollar signs. This was the opportunity of all opportunities. By 1980, IBM had turned their attention to Apple's success in the PC market, and realized that they were wrong about the PC. It wasn't just a hobbyist toy anymore. It could actually be useful. The problem for IBM is that they were a huge company. They were bureaucratic and very slow when it came to decisions. It was going to take years for them just to come up with a PC design, so how were they going to compete in a timely manner? The answer came in the form of a secret small team within the company. This small team was assigned the task to create a business-orientated personal computer. When they got to work, the decision was made to use off-the-shelf parts to speed up the design process. Using non-IBM parts was very unusual for the company.

With this method, instead of building a computer from scratch, they managed to have a complete product within a year. In 1980, IBM had the PC hardware cobbled together. The only thing needed was software to run on it. What IBM needed was an operating system.

An operating system is like a computer's digital traffic cop. It keeps track of how files are stored and how the computer handles hardware such as a mouse, screen, floppy disk drive, and etc. Basically, it's the basis that allows for a modern computer to run.

At this point, this is where the story starts heating up. IBM was the biggest tech company of the time, so any PC that they made would have an incredible impact on the world.

Which system would IBM chooses?

So what software was going to run on it? This was the battle for one operating system that would rule them all. The stakes are high. Every decision here impacts the rest of all history and herein lies one of the saddest stories in computing history.

Bill Gates VS the man who should have been Bill Gates

While building their PC in 1980, IBM approached Microsoft to build the operating system. Before saying a word about the project, IBM asked Bill Gates, who was initially mistaken for the office intern, to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Bill Gates had to keep IBM's plan a secret and he couldn't tell a single soul. When IBM told Gates what they were doing, he remarked that Microsoft didn't have an operating system. The 25-year-old programmer would point IBM in the direction of Gary Kildall.

Gary Kildall a computer scientist

Gary was a meek and mild-mannered man, but despite being unassuming, he had already paved the way for operating systems and personal computers. In 1971, Kildall had made a programming language for Intel's first CPU, the 4004. But he quickly realized that there had to be a way to control how the chip interacted with the rest of the computer system. In 1972, he solved this problem with CP/M, which stands for Control Program for Microcomputers. This was the very first PC operating system. Before CP/M, each computer had to have tailor-made software. Imagine it like this. It would be like having different types of fuel for every single car model in existence. With an operating system like CP/M, a programmer only needed to write software just once, and CP/M would take care of the rest. It was a way to run the very same software on different computers.

Despite this, Gary didn't really have much interest in business matters, and was just doing this as a hobby, but his wife, Dorothy, convinced him to start a business and start licensing his creation. The result was a company called Digital Research. By 1979, Digital Research became the industry standard for operating systems. In essence, they were the Microsoft of the late 1970s, and Gary was equivalent to Bill Gates.

The worse day of Gary's Life

So IBM had just approached Bill Gates, and asked him if he could make an operating system for their new PC. And Bill Gates pointed them in the direction of Gary. So, keen to waste no time, IBM takes Bill's advice and pays a visit to Gary in Seattle. Bill calls Gary on the phone to give him some warning that someone is coming to visit. Because of the non-disclosure agreement, Gates couldn't reveal exactly who was coming to visit.

Bill exclaimed, "Treat them right, they're important guys!".

Unfortunately, Gary was a somewhat chilled-out guy and didn't really get the full urgency of what Bill was warning. Perhaps he thought it was just another small company, and not the largest tech company on the planet. Because of this, Gary isn't home when IBM visits. He's out flying one of his private planes on business. IBM ends up talking to Gary's wife, Dorothy, who is now head of operations in Digital Research. The lawyers of IBM begin pushing her to sign a nondisclosure agreement, essentially to say that they were never there. Dorothy wasn't impressed by this, and refused to sign the document. The IBM team had a short temper. After going nowhere with negotiations, they became frustrated and decided to leave Gary's house. A few days later, IBM would approach Bill Gates a second time. Gates, being deterministic and opportunistic in nature, was never going to give Gary a second chance. He saw that IBM had the potential to change the PC market into something entirely different: a new cleaned-up business image instead of the geeky enthusiast image it had. So here comes the clincher.

Bill Gates decided to do something pretty sneaky: he told IBM that Microsoft could in fact make an operating system, even though they didn't have one. What Microsoft decided to do was just buy an operating system from a small company down the road for $75,000. This operating system was called the Quick and Dirty Operating System, or QDOS for short. If you think that that's a bit of a weird name, there's a reason for it. The code it used for the software was essentially a rip-off of CP/M, the operating system that Gary had made. So with this rip-off of CP/M, Microsoft now had their hands on a functioning operating system. QDOS would become Microsoft DOS, or MS-DOS for short, and would be packaged with every IBM PC. So if you've ever used MS-DOS, it could be said that you were using the Microsoft Dirty Operating System. However, this name would be officially changed to Microsoft Disk Operating System. And of course, MS-DOS would eventually become Microsoft Windows.

The first IBM PC was released in August of 1981. It was predicted to make 250,000 sales, but it was a smash hit, selling two million units in a couple of years. IBM had now overtaken Apple as the world's largest PC manufacturer. With this event, it was now truly ok for the white collar class to get into PCs. It was no longer for hobbyist freaks and enthusiasts So everything was falling into place for Bill Gates. He was getting set to be the richest man in the world. The Dirty Operating System was one half of the equation, but some smart business sense would complete it. Because the IBM PC was made from off-the-shelf parts, other manufacturers such as Compaq and HP began making their own PC clones with the very same parts.
The deal for Microsoft was that MS-DOS would be licensed to IBM by Microsoft for a one-time fee of $50,000, but there was a catch: Microsoft never mentioned to IBM that their deal was non-exclusive. Soon Microsoft was selling MS-DOS to all of IBM's competitors, taking a licensing fee from every computer sold. This licensing deal has been called the greatest deal in history. It made
Bill Gates a billionaire.

Gary's failure to not be there at the right time is conversely called one of the biggest business failures in history. Once the sales of the IBM PC took off, Gary had realized what he had lost. For a rare moment, he would shed off his kind nature and threatened to sue IBM. In a settlement, IBM agreed to offer CP/M alongside MS-DOS with every PC sold. Gary Kildall was pleased. People could now choose for themselves which software they liked best. Justice had finally been served. There was only just one problem, though. When both software packages were released, MS-DOS sold for $40 and CP/M, $240. This was a complete disaster for almost identical pieces of software. For this reason, Gary's CP/M software would fade into obscurity by the late 1980s. Gary had lost to a clone of his own creation. Sadly, he didn't take it well. He was so crushed by the events that he didn't ever bother suing Microsoft or IBM again. The strain from missing out on the greatest opportunity of many lifetimes would eventually cause Dorothy to divorce Gary. He would also shy away from his show, The Computer Chronicles. The ubiquity of personal computers in the following years meant that Gary would forever be reminded of his failure everywhere he turned. Kildall would slip into a bout of depression and alcoholism.

Sadly, in 1994, Gary would die from head injuries in a fistfight at a biker bar. Today, Gary, the man who invented the operating system for personal computers, is only a faint footnote in technology history. So I think that it's important that we keep his contribution to the evolution of computing alive. I can see that it was just a series of unfortunate events for Gary, but if we can take any lessons away from them, it might be, make the most of every opportunity.

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