Gary Kildall (1942 – 1994)
The early days of computing were a bit like the Wild West where fortunes were won and lost and where the unwary were ripped off. What has been particularly liberating for the ordinary users of PCs has been the development of operating language and protocols which are intuitive and easy to use. You would think that the brainbox who made all this possible would have been assured of fame and riches. Think again as I recount the salutary tale of Gary Kildall, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.
Kildall started working for Intel in 1974, hired to develop programming tools for the Intel 4004 microprocessor. He was a bit of a whizz at coding software, turning out code that would work, albeit not necessarily the final polished article. He proposed and developed a high-level language for the 8008 and 8080 models which would allow the user to issue quasi-English commands to the chip rather than relying on binary code. Intel then developed the now unfortunately named ISIS which was the world’s first floppy disk based system and Kildall developed the operating system, CP/M. When Intel decided not to make the PC available in the commercial market, Kildall obtained their consent to market and sell a version of PC/M.
Kildall set up Intergalactic Digital Research and soon PC/M was the operating system of choice in the nascent personal computing world. But success was not assured. In 1980 IBM was on the hunt for an operating system for their soon to be released PC and naturally contacted our hero. Legend has it that Kildall preferred to fly his aeroplane rather than meet the suits from IBM but the reality is that whilst he was late for the meeting, the sticking point was that the hardware giant was only prepared to pay him a one-off fee of $200,000 for using his operating system.
DOS – heard of that? – now enters our story. It was developed by Seattle Computer Products and purchased by a company called Microsoft, owned by one Bill Gates – heard of him? This operating system took the best features of the CP/M operating system but tweaked it ever so slightly to make it incompatible with Kildall’s offering. Gates, a smarter business man than Kildall, sold the rights to IBM for a paltry $50,000, reckoning, rightly as it turned out, that he could make much more by licensing it out to other computer manufacturers – the archetypal sprat to catch a mackerel.
Kildall threatened to sue but never did and was forced to develop another operating system, DR-DOS, to compete with what was his own system. It never made much traction and in 1991 Novell bought what was left of his company. Gates had pretty much the whole of the market sewn up and when Windows replaced DOS his place in history was secured. Kildall was relegated to a footnote, if that.
Worse was to follow. In 1994 Kildall walked into a bar in Monterey wearing a leather jacket with Harley-Davidson badges. There was a group of bikers in the gaff and an altercation. Kildall was pushed, fell to the floor and died from head-related injuries. The coroner reported that the death was suspicious but no one was held to account.
So, Gary, for developing the first PC operating system and failing to cash in on it, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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