Bill, Steve, And Gary… Computer Pioneers

If you ask your neighbor who Bill Gates or Steve Jobs is, they’d probably know. But mention Gary Kildall, and you are likely to get a blank stare unless you live next door to another Hackaday reader. [Al’s Geek Lab] has a great three-part documentary on Gary Kildall who, in case you didn’t know, was the man behind CP/M, a very influential operating system in the early days of computing and one that set the stage for the PC revolution.

You probably know the folktale that when IBM was looking for an operating system, Bill Gates took the meeting, and Gary Kildall went surfing instead. But like most capsule histories, there is plenty more to the story, and it isn’t as simple as people make it out.

We forget, sometimes, how innovative Digital Research — Kildall’s company — was for the time. We think of CP/M as the venerable CP/M 2.2, which was fine. But there was multitasking CP/M and GEM — a precursor to the graphical user interface found everywhere today. Sure, it looks antiquated now, but it was light years in front of everyone else.

If you watch the whole series, you’ll learn that the IBM story isn’t totally apocryphal, but the truth is much different. Kildall didn’t want the IBM deal, and for what seemed like good reasons at the time. Of course, Gates negotiated a deal with IBM that would build a huge company, so it is easy to look back and say that not taking the deal was a mistake, but we would have probably made the same decision as Kildall at that time.

This isn’t the first time we’ve wondered what a world where CP/M won would have looked like. If you want to look inside CP/M, you can. Of course, it still powers many retrocomputers and even has some surprising clones.

52 thoughts on “Bill, Steve, And Gary… Computer Pioneers

  1. “Don’t think for a minute that [Bill] Gates made it ‘big time’ because of his technical savvy.” – Gary Kildall

    Such is the story of a great many people praised as being “pioneers”. It’s not the first person to do something that gets remembered (as we see here) but rather it is the person who exports the idea that they are a pioneering by capitalizing on it.

    It’s unfortunate that his life was cut short but falling onto a hard floor is a good way to sustain a head-injury. Given how much of our world is now made of very hard material, it’s surprising more people don’t die this way.

    1. As a physician who has worked plenty of trauma I assure you- the most common blunt injury object is the floor. Plenty of people but especially elderly on blood thinners sustain fatal or at least severe head injury from simple falls.
      I don’t remember the exact number but a fall and hip fracture in elderly had a shockingly high (eventual) mortality. Like 15-20% or something.

    2. When MITS approached Microsoft for BASIC for the Altair computer, Gates lied and said they were already working on BASIC for the 8080 CPU. They got started on it after signing the deal and getting the technical details for the Altair. On the flight to deliver the paper tape to MITS, Gates and Allen realized they forgot to write a loader so they did that on the plane. At MITS they used their notes to toggle in the loader. The BASIC tape went through the reader without problems and it ran. Score!

      Gates other big(ger) lie was telling IBM they were already working on an OS for the Intel 8088/8086 CPU. *Then* they went looking for someone else’s OS to buy and found Quick and Dirty Disk Operating System. Unlike their open licensing deal with IBM for MS-DOS, Gates did a one time payment deal to buy QDOS outright.

      MS-DOS wasn’t really usable as a ‘daily driver’ until version 2.1, after support for hard drives and subdirectories was added in 2.0. Version 3.2 was when it got to be pretty good.

    3. ^ this, thanks to his more recent philanthropic change of direction people forget that Gates was not seen as a great guy and a lot of MS’s success was built on bullshittery, lawyers, and sharp business practices rather than having the best product.

      The guys doing the real serious work / cutting edge stuff are rarely the ones who make it big.

      1. “…MS’s success was built on bullshittery, lawyers, and sharp business practices rather than having the best product.”

        My favorite Apple story was torturing some of the techs at a rollout demonstration of the mac in the early 1980s by asking them why they didn’t support multitasking given that the 68000 was capable of a rudimentary form of it, and several did a very good job of it all – particularly the Amiga.

        As far as the rest of it, the lawyer/sharp business award goes to Microsoft whose whole business approach was (and may still be) “We’re going to take your software – you can cash the check we just wrote you or we can bleed you out in court. Your choice.”

        Weaponized bullshittery? Jobs of course, and the C-suites of tech will never look the same – but enough about Elizabeth Holmes…

  2. “GEM — a precursor to the graphical user interface found everywhere today. Sure, it looks antiquated now, but it was light years in front of everyone else.”

    GEM appeared roughly at the same time as Apple’s Mac, but years after Apple’s Lisa, and MANY years after Xerox’s GUIs. And it was VERY basic. So I wouldn’t see it “lightyears ahead”. But it worked well on the early PCs (you had to buy GEM separately), and a variant of GEM became the “build in” GUI of the Atari ST. There it learned some new tricks and became quit usable, as far as I remember.

    1. Yes, of course PARC was right and as someone who actually used GEM, I have to say it was pretty advanced for a personal computer at the time. GEM was released in 1985, while Lisa was 1983. On the other hand, Lisa sold for $10k so it only sold 10,000 units in 2 years. On the other hand, any CP/M machine was at least a candidate for GEM and by 1981 there were 260,000 CP/M licenses. Way more than than by 1983 and 1985. So yes, PARC was first — totally agree — and the Lisa was before (as well as Sketchpad, NLS at SRI, PERQ, and Symbolics but those don’t have as big a fan base, though Symbolics does have a fan base ;-) ). But that’s like saying some major car company introduced some feature in a given year. You can probably find some small number of cars that had it before then, but it wasn’t common or available to the general public. GEM made GUIs available to the many CP/M users out there. I’d suggest that if it were not for the success of the Mac, the Lisa would be an obscure footnote. Granted, GEM didn’t catch on either but that wasn’t my point. My point is GEM was there and it did work well for that time. Sure, WordStar didn’t work as well as Open Office, either, but it did great and we did a lot with it.

      1. Yeah the “light years” part, while GEM like Windows falls into the “good enough” category of success. As for Lisa some say Jobs meddling (sabotage?) has something to do with it’s failure.

      2. PARC was not first. The concepts embodied in the Alto and Star were developed and tested at MIT Media Lab and Library Science. Xerox hired the pioneers away from MIT, because Xerox was concerned computerized, paperless offices were a threat to its copier business.

        1. If I recall, the real influx was from SRI/Engelbart although that was more UI and less GUI. Not that the Media Lab didn’t have a lot of first, too. As far as I know, it was started in 1985 by Negroponte.

          1. Yes, it was SRI. And Jef Raskin saw the presentations in 1968 when IIRC he was working on all sorts of interactive/interface/human factors stuff at UC San Diego, counter to the common claim that the Mac interface concepts came from his team visiting PARC.

    2. First time I’ve seen GEM even mentioned in a very long time. I thought it was great! I agree it was lightyears (or at least lightmonths) in front of anything else. And I developed quite a bit of software for it. Lisa beat GEM to market by maybe a year and a half, which back then was a long time. They both stole ideas from each other and I suspect may have shared some of the same code base. GEM was certainly faster and included more apps and features out of the box. The Xerox GUI set the stage for both of them as a prototype and demonstrated what was possible but never got to mature on its own.

    3. Gem was bundled with Amstrad 1512’s, a budget non pc style business machine made by Alan Sugar’s amstrad company launched in 1986. It came with licenses for ms-dos 3.2, DR-DOS plus, GEM Desktop, GEM Paint, Locomotive basic2 and other stuff. I remember their launch but I hated them, they were built down to a price, and put the psu in the monitor and made everything proprietary. I disliked gem desktop too and it felt super clunky to me, but I know a lot of people thought it was great to have a gui window manager.

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  3. I imagine the Macintosh folks would have something to say about the claim of GEM being “light years in front of everyone else” when it came out in 1985, but yeah. We tend to assume the eventual winners in these stories were the best in every way, and of course that’s not true. CP/M, Netware, Betamax etc. all had serious points in their favor at the time; that means some things went backwards when they failed.

    Luck plays such a big part that in some cases, what we lost may have been straight-up better than what we got. If the Mac had ended up on this list (as it very nearly did), then clamshell Windows CE phones might be the most advanced technology you could buy today.

    The odds are that we did lose some of these historical coin flips, though only Uatu knows for sure.

    1. To be fair, very few who actually used the Mac in 1984 would honestly say it was useful then. It was buggy and 128k wasn’t enough memory for it to be useful. It was more of a proof of concept of what would be useful when it got more RAM and some upgrades… (and it was really painful if you didn’t have a 2nd floppy… the disk eject/insert sounds haunts my nightmares. ;)

    2. Not-so-smartphones might have lasted a lot longer but there’s no way we’d in 2023 still be using clamshell phones.

      Just look at how many early GUIs there were at almost the same time. Nobody was really THAT critical to the progression of PCs and OSes. The closest people to actually making a difference that might have had a decade or two impact would be K&R… and even that I’m not sure about. Without Linus, we’d have widespread open source OSes somewhat later and possibly WAY less successfully…

      In fact, it’s possible the needs of the Linux kernel have created a massive brain drain among those people predisposed to open source contributions and so it has held us back all this time.

      Imagine if C++ (and eventually successors) had been done by people with K&R-level talent instead of an academic with no concept of elegance whatsoever. C++ is my main thing, but holy fuck is it a cumbersome eyesore with ridiculously verbose and nonintuitive syntax. Boost is just pure insanity. Those two are the “my Nokia phone has all the features of an iPhone” of computer languages.

      We are definitely not in the optimal timeline for most of these developments. Possibly not even close.

      I’m pretty likely to have missed important examples either for or against… I’m not making a dissertation here I’m just stream-of-consciousness bullshitting on the internet. Grain of salt needed. Several.

  4. I dream of a world where the computers are not utterly messed up by the greedy and very inept bill gates.
    Bills ineptitude is why the foundation of programming is so bad, with completely broken tools you don’t build masterpieces.

      1. The companies that make network equipment still can’t make a modem/router/wifi that doesn’t pack up periodically to where it’ll connect but refuse to allow any data to download, and/or rejects wifi connections, and has to be power cycled. Same story with T-Mobile Home Internet. Setting the silver cylinder on top of a cooling fan helped but it’ll still zonk out and need restarted.

    1. Then your life work is far from over. Have you tried to surf the web in the last decade? I wish java would just go away at this point. Anyway it is a tool like the rest of software. I am sure the first wheel wasnt exactly round and the first hammer did not have a handle. Always room to grow. As long as people get paid to bury HTML tables so they can pop over 19 subwindows so you can’t even login, then the good old days will still be better lol. I remember when people would brag about kloc, which now…just sheesh… lawrenceofficespacenawman.jpg

    1. I’d read a few times that he was flying his airplane delivering a product to a customer when IBM came. His wife took the meeting, consulted with the company lawyers and declined their heavy handed offer. For whatever reason, IBM was not as heavy handed with Microsoft( a 2 person business) who had Bill Gates’ mother on the UNICEF board along with the CEO of IBM. Without that cascade of events which lead to the IBM and Microsoft deal, the whole of the desktop and server computing industry would likely be 10 to 20 years ahead of where it is today, probably more.

      Read the book called “Startup- A Silicon Valley Adenture by Jerry Kaplan

      Handhelds would have arrived 10 years earlier as just one example of how Microsoft stifled anyone who did not accept a lock-in of the Microsoft Partnership Program. Even Object Oriented Programming was a threat to Windows so it had to be subverted.

      Bill extended this type of protectionism with his foundation too. Too many times I heard the phrase, we can use Linux because we accepted money from the B&M Gates Foundation.

      The attacks on One Laptop Per Child( OLPC ) project, etc, etc. The world would be far different, and I’d say better place, had IBM been as willing to deal with Digital Research as they were in dealing with Microsoft for the OS for the IBM PC.

      1. United Way. She was chairman of United Way, a terribly powerful organization among industry of all sorts. I have seen men beaten for refusing to allow automatic payroll deduction for United Way donations. The drive for 100% was very strong. United Way worked how to get the spouses of CEO’s and board members and union leaders into the organization then made 100% employee involvement the major measure of status. It was a very big deal at Boeing and Weyerhaeuser, etc in the Seattle area.

        Anyway, I had always heard Gary was planning to go flying and slipped out the back when the IBM people showed up. I think they took Gates’ ridiculous deal because their project was a wildcat operation and they needed to show something right now.

      2. I don’t think OLPC needed Microsoft to kill it. First Netbooks, then cheap Android phones and tablets, then Chromebooks did it just fine. Not to mention Raspberry Pis and their clones.

        1. It’s obvious that you are not familiar with what the OLPC device and software platform was and all those things you mentioned but the NetBooks came AFTER the OLPC. Intel was also attacking OLPC and funded some remote school sites to use their NetBooks and made lots of media press releases about it. The problem was, those Netbooks could not last through the school day so Intel provided diesel generators to run outside of the classroom to provide the needed power. Ya, not even close to what the OLPC device provided. The OLPC could be used outside in full sunlight too, not the Netbooks.

          The XO laptop was an amazing piece of technology and was very well designed to meet the needs it was spec’ed for. Because it did not run Microsoft Windows it was a threat to Microsoft and so Bill Gates and Steve Balmer made trips to countries OLPC project had MOUs with and spent hundreds of millions to get the education departments of those countries locked into devices which only ran Microsoft Windows. The XO laptop run on a Redhat Linux distro with an AMD processor hence the attacks by Microsoft and Intel.

        2. Truth. Anyone who has looked at the OLPC closely would see that it failed to clear the bar on the network effect. Altruism generally does not fuel economic activity to the point where it is self-sustaining and that’s what happened to OLPC. MS didn’t need to kill it and I seriously doubt Gates/Ballmer/Kempen gave OLPC much thought at all. If I’m wrong, I’d like to see the smoking guns – business guys trying to sell their product is certainly not one of those. Pretty sure MS saw Apple and IBM as the twin enemies to vanquish, not some cute little laptop selling, er being given away, in impoverished countries.

          1. I’m done trying to educate MS sympathizers. The documentation is there in court documents, blogs and other documents, if you look for it. Anyone who thinks Microsoft does not attack small innovative products, teams, companies etc because they’re ‘little fish’ knows nothing of the Bill and Steve decades. Bill Gates directed Microsoft and hired executives who followed his lead and acted like every competitor was a threat just as you’d expect of someone who’d read and understood what was mapped out in “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. The OLPC was a threat no matter if you believe it or not and they saw fit to run down the publicly listed pages of countries and contacts who’d signed MOUs for the OLPC and made them all offers of Microsoft software which they could not refuse.

  5. I think it’s worth remembering that MS BASIC was ported to pretty near everything and was often effectively the OS. So from a certain point of view MS had more experience getting a microcomputer operating system up and running on new hardware that DR did. I can easily see that being the calculus at IBM, especially when there was no 8088 CP/M to be found yet.

  6. Having been in the biz at that time, the IBM stories are apocryphal. DRI balked at the heavy NDA that IBM wanted them to sign. Bill signed it right away. And CP/M wasn’t much code – There were a number of clones around at that time. MS licensed one of them, QDOS (quick and dirty OS) which took Tim Paterson 2 months to write.

    By the way, the apocryphal stories about Tim showed up having him destitute on the streets after MS “stole” his invention. Turns out he was hired by MS, got stock options and did quite well for himself.

  7. “The Man Who Should Have Been Bill Gates.”

    Who in their right mind would want to be Bill Gates? To be Bill Gates (that is, have his money, power, prestige, and whatever), you would have to be a conniving and cutthroat businessman obsessed with “winning” at all costs like he was. I don’t think Gary Kildall was that kind of person nor did he want to become such.

  8. CP/M 2.2 was introduced in 1979. CP/M 3.0, the next version, was introduced in 1983, still no hierarchical directory structure. That was too long to go without any improvements. Others produced better microprocessor operating systems in that time period, such as the multi-user TurboDOS in 1982.

    1. No question, CP/M lagged badly by the early 80s. And, frankly, by then all the attention was on GUIs. Making a good OS was only a small part of it – no one buys a computer because of the OS. They buy for the things they can do with it, i.e. applications. Fault MS for many things but you can’t fault them for not putting effort into getting 3rd party application developers on Windows. I cite Steve Ballmer’s (in)famous “Developers, Developers, Developers” speech. But more importantly, MS had legions of dev tool developers, developer relations, evangelists, support people. They were investing well beyond other companies. They gave key apps developers access to the windows dev teams well before even the beta test cycles. All the “CP/M and DRI got cheated” blather is just froth and zero substance. You don’t win with a better OS, you win with an ecosystem and that’s the vision that MS invested in. Apple got it. Even IBM got it. DRI, they weren’t even in the game.

      1. The infamous Monkeyboy Dance was in the summer of 2001. You can’t jump from CP/M years or even MP/M years skipping 10-20 years and talk about everyone wanting GUIs and Microsoft’s developer ecosystem. You can but you’ll look like a Microsoft fanboi. Facts remain that Microsoft’s existence today is based on just a few events which lead to a superior technology getting displaced by an inferior one with the Microsoft name on it. And Microsoft got really good at pedaling that snake oil.

  9. Gem was bought by gates for a small sum of money then they killed it.
    As a developer for the Atari ST I got a sease and desist letter from Microsoft.
    I would be sued if I wrote any thing for the Atari computers

    One wonders why the government went after gates.

  10. To be fair Bill Gates did pass that super difficult Harvard first year math class (leaving room for the possibility he bought the actual work from someone else of course) but his huge house in Seattle (?) looks like something from an Austin Powers movie. I would never criticise someone’s choice of spouse or ex-spouse (Chacun à son goût) but it’s undeniable that he was dipping his quill in the company ink and that’s a Bozo no-no. If I were in a position to do business with anyone the Mafia wins over Gates and Gates is not second choice. Capisce?

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