Gary Kildall – He Made America

Friday, June 1st, 2012

We’ve just passed the Gary’s birthday, which was May 19th, 1942.  He would be 70 years old if he was still alive today.  While everyone, or at least most everyone, knows the names Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and, to a lesser extent, Larry Ellison, Gary is known by a relatively smaller audience.  Although he was a millionaire, he never had a fraction of the wealth of the aforementioned entrepreneurs.  I know that I have poked fun at Gary in the past, but that criticism is unfounded.  I was one of those who accused him of throwing away a fortune.  I realize now, after reading many accounts from credible sources, that Gary wasn’t entirely to blame for the fact that Intergalactic Digital Research wasn’t the company that Microsoft became.  Gary invented DOS.  Without him, we may not have seen any of the other people rise to prominence.  It seems like Gary’s lawyer may have had more to do with IBM’s failed negation than Gary himself.  What about the fact that Gary flew for hours in his plane while IBM waited on the ground to meet him?  It appears to be mostly folklore by people who love to make up stories.  Peter Norton, a person for whom I have a deep respect, was one of those people.  He even wrote it in one of his books.  One of my college professors even said that Gary lost the IBM business because he decided to go fishing that day.  I somehow missed that in all of the research that I’ve done on the subject.

Gary invented DOS, which he called CP/M (Control Program for Microprocessors).  MS-DOS (and PC-DOS) was cloned from CP/M.  All of the inner-workings, data structures, file allocation tables, and prompts were all duplicates of CP/M.  Why did IBM not use it?  First of all, IBM was using the Intel 8088 processor (16-bit) for their PC.  CP/M was written for the 8080 (8-bit) and compatible processors.  Significant work would be needed to adapt CP/M to the 8088.  Gary wanted to do it, but he also knew he needed to keep his commitments to his current customers.  He didn’t appear to be a big fan of the way IBM wanted to license CP/M from him.  Eventually, IBM turned to Microsoft for an operating system.  Bill did a smart thing.  He bought the rights to “Quick and Dirty DOS” or “QDOS” (which was later known as 86-DOS).  He sold IBM an non-exclusive right to use the newly-branded MS-DOS, which Microsoft renamed PC-DOS.  Microsoft did a really smart thing since it was a non-exclusive license.  They could sell licenses for MS-DOS to anyone they wanted.  That made Bill Gates very wealthy.  Gary threatened to sue IBM, so IBM made a compromise.  They would allow anyone who purchased a PC to choose which operating system they wanted.  The choice was PC-DOS or CP/M.  The only problem was, while they sold CP/M for $240, PC-DOS was only an additional $40.  Since no one could really tell the difference anyway, PC-DOS was really the only choice for most people.

If you ever wanted to compare Gary and Bill, you are probably talking apples and oranges.  They are two completely different people with two completely different personalities and two completely different backgrounds.  Gary was a scientist (actually he was Dr. Gary Kildall).  He loved to invent new things, after all, Digital Research had a lot of different software packages.  Bill was a Harvard dropout.  He loved technology, after all, although he didn’t create BASIC, he loved it, wrote it, and sold it to people.  The biggest difference?  Bill knew how to market much better.  Gary invented much better than he marketed.  That’s why Bill won the OS war.

The details of Gary’s death are sketchy at best.  It seems that either no one really knows the answer or no one wants to come forward with it.  He died, either from falling down stairs, or from being beaten to death in a bar fight.  What’s so ironic is that Gary’s life (how he created CP/M and why ultimately IBM turned to Microsoft instead of Digital Research) is as obscured by controversy and myth as his death.  I never met him personally, but I wish I could have.  I just wish the computer world could have known him a little better as well.

Rest in peace Gary.  Be proud of what you have done for society.  Thank you for leaving this world with better gadgets, toys, and productivity than you found it.

They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators
Computing: A Business History
In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters
Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date
Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry–and Made Himself the Richest Man in America


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