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The man who gave Bill Gates the world

Gary Kildall was one of the founding fathers of the PC but he is remembered now for his greatest mistake

Clive Akass, Personal Computer World 11 Aug 2006
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The birth of the IBM PC was also the making of Bill Gates, thanks to a door-step farce that has become an industry legend.

IBM at the time had dominated the industry for a quarter-century, though it had been late getting into digital computers, and even later getting into what were then called microcomputers, which it tried to pretend were not a threat to its mainframe business. By the late 1980s ‘micros’ (as in Microsoft) could not be ignored, and IBM set up a team to design one.

The obvious person to provide the software was Gary Kildall, head of a company called Digital Research, who had written CP/M – the operating system used on almost all micros.

Legend has it that two suits from IBM called by appointment at Kildall’s home, but he was off flying and had left his wife Dorothy to do the talking. She baulked at signing a non-disclosure agreement and showed them the door.

So they turned instead to a fledgling company run by a 24-year-old college dropout whose name was Bill Gates. Microsoft did not even have an operating system and promptly bought one called QDos, virtually a CP/M clone, for $50,000 from a Seattle engineer called Tim Patterson.

The legend is essentially true, though what really hassled Dorothy Kildall when IBM showed up was the fact that she was preparing to go on holiday the next day, according to former Symantec chief executive Gordon Eubanks, who knew everyone involved. No-one at the time knew that the IBM computer was going to become the industry’s major standard platform.

And the real reason Kildall did not get the contract was that he was simply too laid back to be a good businessman, Eubanks told me in 1996. “Gary could have owned this business [ie, computing] if he had made the right strategic decisions... He did not care that much. Dorothy ran the business and he ran the technical side, and they did not get on.”

It was Gates who had the vision. “Bill was extremely focused and driven,” Eubanks recalled.

Microsoft tweaked QDos a little and called it MS-Dos. It ended up running in nine out of 10 of the world’s PCs, and traces of it can still be found buried in Windows XP.

CP/M lingered on for a few years and Novell bought Digital Research in 1991. Kildall died in 1994 at the age of 52 from injuries received in a biker bar brawl during a night out in Monterey, California.

Kildall was one of the founding fathers of desktop computing, but he seems destined to go down in history as the man who gave Bill Gates the world.

* For a longer version of the 1996 Gordon Eubanks interview see here.

Tags: History

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