Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The day Kildall took flying

Maybe you have heard that story about the IBM PC and how IBM wanted to use CP/M, an operating system created by Gary Kildall, as the operating system for their new personal computer back in 1980. The story goes that Kildall wasn't there when IBM's people arrived to meet him, because he was off flying a plane. The IBM people then turned to Bill Gates and gave Microsoft the deal that would make this company the ruler of the PC world and Gates the richest man on earth. Microsoft didn't even have an OS at this time, so they hastily bought QDOS from some other Seattle developer (Tim Patterson), turned it into Microsoft DOS and proceeded to make history.

It's a really good story, imagine losing all that fame and fortune just because you were not there when opportunity (literally) knocked. The only problem with this story is that it is not true. Gates was actually the first man IBM went to when they started looking for their OS, and he referred them to Kildall. Only when negotiations with Kildall stalled did IBM look to Microsoft again and the idea to buy QDOS surged. Also, the deal itself was not as definitive for Microsoft's success as people seem to think. It took many strategic moves by Gates and many blunders from the likes of IBM and Apple for Microsoft to position itself as the total leader of the industry.

I had read about the real story before, but this weekend I read it again in a more detailed and interesting account in the book In search of stupidity: over 20 years of high tech marketing disasters, by Merrill R. Chapman (published by Apress).

One of the claims of this book is that Microsoft has kept its place at the top mainly because they haven't made a really stupid mistake in all these years. If you think the talking paper clip, the Microsoft Network, ignoring the Internet for a long time, or [insert your favorite Microsoft blunder here] were very stupid moves, wait until you read the amazingly stupid mistakes made by companies like Micropro (Wordstar), Ashton-Tate (Dbase) and IBM, to name a few.

This is a book I heartily recommend. It's funny, well written and touches on subjects that are of interest to developers and computer lovers in general.

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