Gary Kildall: The Real Mind Behind Windows...

This blog is on a true story which I found interesting. It’s about 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 him. So, I finally decided to write something on him so that his efforts in the Computing Industry don’t remain forgotten. Don't just leave by thinking that it's very looong... Believe me, it will be interesting as well as useful to you.

Firstly was shocked when I saw this… (this is what made me write about Gary)

It was 1977, and Apple had already been successful with its new PC, the Apple II. It was the first mass-production personal computer which you didn’t have to assemble yourself. People said that they can use the Apple Macintosh PCs to do a zillion things easily…

(Apple II Personal Computer)

The PC industry was already worth $1 Billion just three years after it had begun. For the first time, computers came to be known as a source of 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 due to the sudden increase in the demand on PCs. For IMB, it was an 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. PCs could become a source of great income to IBM. 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 to this came from a secret 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! For IBM, everything was set and going well, but at last they needed an operating system to run their creation.

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

This is the point where the real story starts to heat up. IBM was the biggest tech company of the time, so any PC that they made would have an incredible impact on the world. So, everyone’s question was: “What operating system was IBM gonna use?” This was the battle for one operating system that would rule them all. It would be a giant leap in the wealth and publicity of the company whose operating system gets chosen…

The stakes were high here. Every decision here impacts the rest of all history and herein lies one of the saddest stories in computing history.

IBM approached Microsoft to build an operating system for them. Here, before saying a word about the project, IBM asked Bill Gates to sign up a nondisclosure agreement. According to the agreement, Bill Gates was not allowed to disclose anything about the project to any soul on this planet. Finally, when IBM told Gates what they were doing, he remarked that Microsoft didn't have an operating system.

So, the 25-year-old programmer (Gates) would point IBM in the direction of Gary Kildall, who was a meek and mild-mannered man. He was an expert in creating operating systems and personal computers.

In 1971, Gary had made a programming language for Intel's first CPU, the 4004, which had been used widely in the personal computers of that time as it was the most powerful in 1971. But there had been many problems as his code as there was less of controlled interaction between the chip and the rest of the computer. But in 1972, he solved this problem with CP/M, which stands for Control Program for Microcomputers. This was the very first operating system for computers.

Before CP/M, each computer had to have tailor-made software that used to 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. This was the greatest help in the field of normal computing, all because of Gary Kildall.

Gary always created software and computers as a hobby, he didn’t have much interest in business matters and gaining profit. But one fine day, his wife Dorothy convinced him to start his own business in this stream and start licensing his creations.

The result was a company called Digital Research. By 1979, Digital Research became the industry standard for operating systems. To be frank, they were the Microsoft of the late 1970s, and Gary was equivalent to Bill Gates, in terms of knowledge and wealth. 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. Keen to waste no time, IBM takes Bill's advice and pays a visit to Gary in Seattle.

While the IBM officials were on their way to Seattle, Gates called Gary to warn him that someone was coming to visit him. Gates didn’t give any detail could as per the nondisclosure agreement signed by him. But just said that they were important guys and he shall treat them well.

Here’s where comes the biggest mistake in the history of computing. Gary, being a chilled-out guy didn’t really get the full urgency of what Bill was talking about and didn’t take anything seriously. Gary just thought that it would be another small company in search of an operating system and not the largest tech company on the planet at that time. So, unfortunately, Gary wasn’t home when the IBM officials paid him a visit. He was busy flying one of his private planes! So, the IBM officials ended up talking to Dorothy, who was the head of operations at Digital Research. The officials. The officials 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, the IBM officials approached Gates again. 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 change, 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.

Here’s what Microsoft did:

Gates headed to a small company to buy an operating system. The company provided a software named Q- DOS to Gates for $75,000. It was a total rip-off of CP/M, which was created by Gary. It was a total clone/copy of the operating system Gary had made! It was known as the Q-DOS, or the Quick and Dirty Operating System, which Gates renamed to Microsoft-DOS, or MS-DOS for short. This software was not licensed by Gary and was owned by Microsoft legally!

Finally, Microsoft had its hands on a fully-functional operating system. It was then packaged with every IBM PC, known as IBM PCs with the MS Disk Operating System. In the latter years, Microsoft just made a few changes to it and introduced the Windows series of Operating Systems.

The IBM PCs were predicted to make sales of about 2,50,000 pieces, but there was a sudden hit in the sales, and IBM sold 2 million PCs with MS-DOS!!! IBM had now overtaken Apple as the largest PC manufacturer In the world. Gates was slowly becoming the richest in the world! The MS-DOS was just half of the equation for Gates. He thought that a good marketing sense would be a source of huge profit for Microsoft. Gates refused IBM’s offer of selling the entire MS-DOS to them for a one-time fee of $50,000. He demanded a standard fee of $40 for every PC sold with MS-DOS installed in it. This was the same in the case of other PC manufacturers like HP.

(IBM's first Personal Computer based on MS-DOS)

This great business strategy made Bill Gates a billionaire and this deal is known as the greatest deal in the history of computing. This was when Gary realized what mistake he had done. His cool approach towards everything was the reason how others earned profits from his creation.

He decided to sue IBM and Microsoft, but in a meeting, IBM decided to produce PCs with both, MS-DOS and Gary’s CP/M. The PCs with MS-DOS had a $40 fee for the software, while the fee for Gary’s CP/M was $240 per PC. The reason is unknown. This huge difference resulted in less sales of PCs with CP/M. Gary was totally devastated and adding to this, there was also no sales of PCs with CP/M installed in them by the year 1980.


Sadly, he didn't take it well. He was so crushed by the events that he didn't even bother sueing Microsoft or IBM again. The strain from missing out on the greatest opportunity of many lifetimes eventually caused Dorothy to divorce Gary. He would also shy away from his own 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.

Due to depression, he became an alcoholic. Sadly, in 1994, he died due to head injuries in a fistfight at the local 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, helpful for us in our lives….

Take my note- Never take anything leniently, it may be a life-changer!

Thanks for taking interest in this blog. Hoped it was interesting and gave a positive lesson to you. So meet you next week with another interesting blog!