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Gary Kildall

I had a revelation during the preparation of this article. Legend has it that Gary Kildall, as Forbes put it, “could have been Bill Gates”, if it were not that he was busy flying his airplane the day IBM knocked on the door. Most analysts dealing with this foundational moment in computing history, however, leave aside a particular piece of information, which I think explains why IBM chose Microsoft over Digital Research as the provider for the operating system of the original IBM PC, even though Bill Gates himself told IBM to knock on Gary’s door instead.

It is a simple fact, but one that popped up in my research immediately. Here it goes: Mary Maxwell Gates, Bill’s mother, was appointed to the board of directors of the national United Way in 1980. And guess who else was in that committee? The late John Opel, president, chairman, and CEO of…, you guessed it, IBM, between 1974 and 1986.

As explained by James Cortada, “Project Chess”, the codename of the original IBM PC project, was shrouded in secrecy and directly driven from the top of IBM by the (then president) Opel, together with William Lowe and Philip Don Estridge (nowadays widely recognized to be the true father of the IBM PC). It is known that Ms Gates pointed Opel towards the small software company of his son, located at that time in Bellevue, Washington. And understandably enough; what loving mother would not do the same?

We will never know, of course, how much influence she had in the final decision of using MS-DOS instead of CP/M. In the opinion of this author, this was a decisive fact. Of course, this is pure speculation, but this magazine is, after all, an opinion piece.

Describing Gary’s story in more detail, this month’s Vidéothèque movie is the “Gary Kildall Special”, a 1995 episode of the “Computer Chronicles” PBS show, introduced by none other than Stewart Cheifet. Gary was the co-host of the show from 1983 to 1990, and showcased many Digital Research projects and products on the show, a fact now acknowledged to have been a fatal flaw in his own business strategy. But more on that later on.

The episode understandably avoided mentioning the connection between Ms Gates and Mr. Opel. You did not want to upset the richest person on Earth (at the time) with wild speculative claims. The video does contain, however, a eulogy from Bill Gates at the end, one that could very well serve as a definition for the expression “crocodile tears”:

“Gary Kildall was one of the original pioneers of the PC revolution. He was a very creative computer scientist who did excellent work. Although we were competitors, I always had tremendous respect for his contributions to the PC industry. His untimely death was very unfortunate and he and his work will be missed”
Bill Gates

Re-read the paragraph above, in particular the last phrase: “…his work will be missed”. I have seldom read a more elegant way to spit on a grave.

Even if I can understand the rage that Gary Kildall might have chewed for the rest of his life, I think that there was little he could have done to avoid this outcome. The dice were pipped well before IBM took a decision. Even the fact that CP/M was priced at 140 USD per copy instead of the 40 USD they charged for PC-DOS could be traced back, in my opinion, to a relationship forged in the upper echelons of the American high society of the time.

Once again, the adage “it is not what you know, but who you know” comes into play. It is difficult to beat your competition when their literal mother drinks literal champagne with the literal CEO of your biggest potential customer ever.

Bill Gates, who really did not have an operating system, jumped at the opportunity: IBM is not known for ringing the bell more than once, and they did it twice at his doorstep. He then promptly bought 86-DOS from Tim Paterson, licensed it to IBM as “PC-DOS”, and the rest is history. Thanks, mum.

It is essential, at this time, to state the non-obvious: the concept of a Disk Operating System for microcomputers is entirely and completely traceable to the mind of Gary Kildall. His creativity and candid personality yielded a great company called Digital Research, still remembered by their old employees as a hallmark in the history of computing. He was also the author of the PL/M programming language while working at Intel; the company would continue using it years after Kildall’s departure.

His business acumen legacy, however, is more debatable. Gary’s open approach to business led him to disclose trade secrets to the competition (read: Bill Gates), a fact that had a harmful impact in his business during the second half of the 1980s.

Gary’s tragic passing in 1994 (almost exactly 30 years ago as this article hits the press) had, however, a silver lining; he did not get to see Windows 95 become a sales juggernaut, crushing all competition (which included, ironically enough, IBM’s own OS/2). His obituary in the New York Times fails to convey much more emotion than Bill Gates’ own words.

As a personal note, I would have loved to see Gary in person testify before Congress during the trial against Microsoft, to denounce how they had actively blocked DR-DOS (CP/M’s successor) from running Windows in the early 1990s. This was discovered in 1992, and known as the “AARD code” ever since. Well, Caldera did sue Microsoft anyway. Ah, monopolies.

Kathryn Strutynski deserves a special mention before closing this article. She was Digital Research’s fourth employee, and the manager of various products of the company; she was a true computer pioneer, and her name and career has been sadly forgotten by many historians.

To celebrate a simpler time, and to see CP/M in actual action, I can recommend a video showing how to create “Hello World” programs on CP/M in seven programming languages: assembler, C, FORTRAN, COBOL, Pascal, BASIC, and Forth.

But please, whatever your opinion on the subject might be, do not miss this month’s Vidéothèque movie, the “Gary Kildall Special” on YouTube. Continue your discovery of Gary Kildall through the transcript of a Computer History Museum event in his memory, and then reading Gary’s own recollections in his book “Computer Connections”, freely available through the same museum.

Cover snapshot chosen by the author.

Continue reading Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computer Calisthenics & Orthodontia or go back to Issue 070: DOS. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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