Who was Gary Kildall?
Could he have been richer than Bill Gates? He was the one that wrote the software that made the personal computer industry possible. But, he turned down a deal that would have changed everything because he was satisfied. He died in a brawl.
Gary Kildall was a computer instructor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate school in Monterrey, California. In 1974 he saw an ad for an Intel processor and called the company to offer his services. He was hired to write programming tools for the new Intel 4004 microprocessor. When Intel introduced the 8008 and 8080 models he wrote a high-level language for them that made the processor infinitely more useful. You could give English-like commands to the chip instead of talking in 0s and 1s.
When Intel developed the world’s first floppy disk system, the company decided not to sell it to the public. Kildall asked if he could sell a version. He invented the first DOS (disk operating system) and called it CP/M or control program for microprocessors. It could keep track of peripherals like a monitor or a disk drive. His friends said he wrote it by himself, effortlessly, which showed his tremendous aptitude for writing computer code. They also wondered why anybody would possibly want an operating system for a single user. Kildall wasn’t in it for the money, but for the joy of being able to do it.
By the late 1970s, CP/M was running on over 500,000 computers. It powered most of the computers of the time with the exception of the Apple which used not-Intel chips and had it’s own operating system. This included Xerox, Kaypro, Kentucky Fried Computers, Commodore, Morrow. Intel could have bought CP/M for $20,000 but turned it down.
Along with his wife, Dorothy, Kildall started Intergalactic Digital Research, Inc.. Intergalactic was later dropped. They operated DRI out of an old Victorian home in Pacific Grove, California. Dorothy ran the business and Gary wrote the code. At the time they started there was barely a market, but soon they were selling thousands and making millions.
Gary Kildall liked the money and soon loaded up on the toys he could now afford- airplanes, speedboats, motorcycles, a stretch limo, a Corvette, A Rolls Royce, Formula One race car, 2 Lamborghinis, and a Ford pick-up.
In 1980, IBM was secretly developing its own personal computer. IBM did not believe the market was going to be that big so they decided to build it out of off-the-shelf parts and license an existing operating system. CP/M was the market standard, so it was the obvious choice. For some reason, IBM mistakenly thought that CP/M was owned by Microsoft. Microsoft was then just a small company, but the biggest provider of computer languages for microcomputers. Microsoft didn’t sell operating systems.
When IBM called, Bill Gates told them that CP/M wasn’t his and directed them to Gary Kildall. At one time Microsoft and Gary Kildall talked about merging their businesses, but never did. They tried to stay out of each others specialty. The next day, the suits from IBM arrived in Pacific Grove for a meeting. When they arrived, Gary Kildall wasn’t there. The legend goes that “Gary went flying”- too busy to talk to one of the biggest companies on earth. The truth was that he had an appointment with one of his biggest customers and had flown that morning to see them. He didn’t think the meeting with IBM was going to be that big of a deal so he left his wife, Dorothy, to speak to them, but he returned before the meeting was over.
Before the meeting started, IBM handed Dorothy their standard one-sided nondisclosure agreement. The one-sided document stated that the meeting taking place had never taken place and if it was proven that it had taken place anything IBM told DRI was confidential and anything DRI told IBM was not. Dorothy refused to sign it and called her lawyer. While waiting for the lawyer, Gary showed up.
Gary didn’t see the nondisclosure agreement as a big deal: “so what if a big plodding company like IBM wanted to get into microcomputers” he thought. He would get a couple of hundred thousand dollars of business and that would be it. So Gary signed the form.
The deal killer with IBM was that they wanted to buy CP/M for a flat $200,000 plus a $10 royalty and they wanted to change the name to PC-DOS. Gary thought-”why should he do that” He was earning millions, CP/M had strong brand name recognition and almost every PC except Apple was already using his operating system. Why would he want to give that up? Gary Kildall said, NO.
IBM went back to Bill Gates to see if he could get Kildall to change his mind. But, Bill Gates game plan shifted. He had given Gary Kildall first shot. He wasn’t going to give him a second. Kildall was a better programmer. Gates was a better businessman and saw the opportunity a lot clearer than Gary Kildall did. Bill Gates greatest skill is to give people what they want. Bill Gates didn’t have an operating system to sell but told IBM he did. Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder knew of where he could get an operating system just across town.
Tim Paterson owner of Seattle Computer Products had written Q-DOS a close imitation of CP/M in which Tim Paterson was selling as a bootleg copy of CP/M. Allen bought it from him for $50,000. He never mentioned that he was going to resell it to IBM.
Microsoft renamed it MS-DOS, then a made a deal with IBM. IBM would pay them royalties for each copy and Microsoft would retain the ownership rights to the operating system. This meant they could license MS-DOS to anyone they wanted. IBM PCs became the industry standard. But, they priced their machines too high which opened the door for IBM compatible computers or clones and Microsoft sold the operating system to every single one of them.
Gary Kildall was not happy when he found out about the Microsoft-IBM deal. He considered it theft when he learned how similar MS-DOS was to CP/M. He was too easy going to sue and even if he did, copyright laws would have made it hard for him to win. A copyright only protects you from an outright copy, not an imitation. The threat of litigation caused IBM to give Kildall a deal. IBM would offer CP/M as an option along with MS-DOS. That was fine with him. He believed the PC industry had room for two operating systems. Competition was good, he thought. Just like there was room for two colas and three automakers.
IBM never told him they would let customers choose between MS-DOS at $40 and CP/M at $240. Of course, who would pay 6 times more for the same thing?
Unlike Bill Gates, Gary Kildall refused to enter the markets for word processing and spreadsheets because he thought it would be unethical to sell both the operating system and the other software.
Gary Kildall became a bitter man as the years went by. He was haunted by the IBM deal. It grated on him that Bill Gates was being given the credit for his invention. He was constantly asked if he really “went flying” the day that IBM came to call.
He became distracted. He and Dorothy divorced. Gary Kildall spent most of his time traveling. He sold his company DRI to Novell for $120 million in 1991. He hosted a television show for PBS about computers and wrote a 250 page tell all book that was never published. He acknowledged that the book would probably be construed as sour grapes. His son is afraid to have the book published to this day for fear of being sued by Bill Gates.
Shortly before midnight July 8, 1994, Kildall walked into a bar wearing his Harley-Davidson vest. The bar was filled with a group of rough looking bikers. No one is sure what happened, but somehow he hit his head on something while falling backwards. Was he in a fight? Drunk? Not even Kildall could remember. He walked out of the bar on his own. In two separate visits to the hospital that weekend no one found the blood-clot between his skull and brain. Three days later he was dead at age 52.