|The story of Gary
Kildall's Great Missed Opportunity has passed into folklore. But
what is the truth behind this cause celebre? Gordon Eubanks, Symantec
supremo, told Clive Akass.
Gary Kildall wrote CP/M,
the first mainstream desktop operating system. He invented the concept of
a Basic Input Output System (BIOS), the core logic which marries hardware
to the operating system. He was a founding father of desktop computing, yet
history mainly recalls his greatest mistake. He was the man who gave away
the IT industry; the man who gave Bill Gates the world.
The story goes that two suits
from IBM had arranged to meet him at home on a certain day in 1980.
Kildall was off flying his plane, and had left his wife Dorothy
to do the talking. She balked at signing an agreement to not disclose anything
they told her, and showed them the door.
Nonplussed, the suits then approached
a fledgling company called Microsoft about the small matter of developing
an operating system for the first IBM PC.
Such is the legend, already enshrined
in alt.folklore.computer. Only it wasn't quite like that, according to one
man who was around at the time. Gordon Eubanks founded Symantec, one
of the biggest software companies to have grown fat by plugging the gaps
left by Microsoft. He knew Kildall from way back in the early
They were very different characters.
Eubanks was drafted into the Navy during the Vietnam War, and stayed
on to get sponsored for graduate school. He formed his first company while
still a student and has been an aggressive, even predatory, businessman ever
Kildall, a specialist
in compilers, was one of his tutors and a brilliant programmer, but by all
accounts was out for a good and easy life. He wrote CP/M (Control Program
for Microprocessors) in 1973, almost as a by-the-way, to help him develop
software for the 8-bit 8080, one of Intel's first microprocessors.
Eubanks couldn't understand
him. "I remember having lunch with him one day and he said to me, 'I don't
know what to do with the CP/M.' So I said, 'You had better make it a business.'
And he said, 'I am not sure if people will buy it.' I replied, 'Oh
Gary, come on...'." It is now more than two decades later and Eubanks
still shakes his head in astonishment.
Within five years of having had
that conversation, hundreds of thousands of machines, using Z80 or 8080
processors, had been sold with CP/M as their operating system. Kildall
had formed a company called Intergalactic Digital Research, which he later
shortened to Digital Research, and became a multimillionaire.
For a time, Eubanks was
in direct competition with Bill Gates, selling rival versions of Basic
to run on the CP/M machines. He was still in the Navy, his mother was running
his company from her home in California, and he decided it was time to get
out. "Then Gary offered to buy the company at a really high price.
I think he paid ten times revenue for it in Digital Research stock, which
ended up being worth a lot."
Eubanks joined Digital
Research but left after two years. "It became clear to me that Digital Research
did not have the will to win and they were losing opportunities. So I went
off and did my own thing."
The problem was that events had
been too easy on Kildall. "He felt everything was in his court, and
he could do whatever he wanted. This was where Gary and I had a hard
time... where we did not get on very well."
Disaster had nearly occurred
some time earlier when hard disks were introduced and CP/M would only support
floppies. Hardware manufacturers, tired of trying to get an upgrade out of
Kildall, almost reached the point of developing a rival operating
system. "All of a sudden Gary realised that business was starting
to dry up because the floppy-disk systems were not selling. People wanted
hard disks and high-density disks."
Kildall finally ordered
a crash program to write a CP/M upgrade. "When something like that happens...
it's like when someone has a heart attack, they get a whole new view on life
and start to work out... But Gary never realised how close he came
to losing his business, and he did not change."
The same thing happened all over
again when Kildall was slow to bring out a CP/M upgrade to run Intel's
new 16-bit 8088 and 8086 chips. Tim Patterson, an 8088 boardmaker
at Seattle Computer Products, got so tired of waiting that he wrote his own
operating system, called QDOS. "Tim got frustrated, as did a lot of
people, about Gary's attitude to this kind of thing," Eubanks
IBM had been slow, too. It was
still stuck in the age where a computer filled a room and could be used to
milk its owners of millions. IBM did not want to know about desktop computers
and didn't want anyone else to know either.
By the end of the seventies,
the microcomputer business had become too big to ignore. IBM decided it had
to get in on the act. It could not afford the time to develop its own model
from scratch, so the decision was taken to build a machine from off-the-shelf
hardware components and bought-in software. Kildall's Digital Research
was the obvious place to go for an operating system, hence the famous visit
to the Kildall home. Eubanks says: "I've told this story to
lots of people and they just won't get it. All they want to get is that IBM
showed up and Gary was off flying his aeroplane. The problem is that
this is very wrong."
For one thing, Kildall
never dealt directly with hardware manufacturers. He left that to his wife
Dorothy. "Gary was very laid-back. He didn't care that much.
Dorothy ran the business and he ran the technical side and they did
not get on." And who could have known that the IBM PC was going to be important?
"IBM was just one of dozens of companies who were in the [microcomputer]
Dorothy was talking to
some people from Hewlett-Packard, Digital Research's biggest customer at
the time, when the IBM representatives showed up on the doorstep. She was
in the throes of preparing to go on holiday the next day. "That was what
really caused the problem," says Eubanks.
That, and the contrasting characters
of Gates and Kildall. "The real issue wasn't that Gary
refused to talk to IBM. The real issue was that Microsoft had a much better
vision for the business. Gary was very laid-back. He did not care
that much. And Bill was extremely focused and driven."
Gates did not even have
an operating system at that stage. After IBM called, he promptly bought
Patterson's QDOS for $50,000. It was little short of a CP/M clone,
but it was to become MSDOS and run nine out of ten of the world's desktop
News of the deal spread quickly.
Patterson rang Eubanks, warning him to port his Basic to the
new operating system. "I said, 'Jeez, Tim, why is that?' And he said,
'I can't tell you, but a big Seattle company has just licensed it, and licensed
it on to a hardware company that's bigger than anyone you can think of.'
I said, 'Let me get this right. You are telling me that IBM licensed it from
Microsoft.' Tim said, 'I didn't say that but you should definitely
Digital Research pioneered
pre-emptive multitasking, and its GEM graphical operating system was more
successful than early versions of Windows. But the company never regained
the pre-eminence it had in the seventies, and was bought by Novell in 1991.
Kildall died in 1994 at the age of 52, from head injuries received
during a night out in Monterey, California.
These days, Eubanks regularly
pauses in London to brief journalists about the latest products from Symantec,
a company he bought in 1982 from the proceeds of his early business ventures.
Gates' move in buying up QDOS seems to have provided something of a model,
because Symantec has grown by a series of similar strategic acquisitions,
including Central Point Software, Peter Norton Computing and, most recently,
As Eubanks puts it,
"[Symantec's] strategy is to focus on businesses with good growth prospects
and the opportunity to become market leader... We use acquisitions to accelerate
entry into key markets." About his early success, he says: "I was lucky.
I was in the right places at the right times." His last word on
Kildall is: "Gary could have owned this business if he had
made the right strategic decisions."