Monday, September 5, 2011

Gary Kildall: The Tesla of the Technology Industry

We all know the story of Tesla, the forgotten genius, left out of the spotlight by a inferior but business-savvier Thomas Alva Edison.

I believe it's time to remember Gary Kildall, to kill some myths, and to place him in the position he should have always been in the the PC industry.

Gary was not like other PC pioneers. He actually studies in college, earning a Doctorate Degree in Computer Sciences. Companies like Intel and Microsoft owe a lot of their success to Gary Kildall.

Gary created the first personal computer operating system: CP/M. Let's put in on perspective. Without an operating system, a program can run only in the computer it was developed for. The operating system is a layer between the machine and the program, allowing compatibility among computers. The PC revolution would not have happened without operating systems.

CP/M's history is great. Gary was working at Intel as a consultant. When Intel released the 8080 processor, they thought they've created just a micro controller. The people at Intel didn't know the jewel they've created. It was Kildall who showed them the chip was an actual computer. To prove it, he created PL/M, the first high-leve programming language and CP/M, the operating system.

Gary starter Digital Research Inc. and ported CP/M to the Zilog Z-80 microprocessor. CP/M was so popular, a card was creates for the Apple II, to allow it to run CP/M. This card had a Z-80 processor. The card's manufacturer was a company having success with two products. One was a programming language and the other was a word processor. The language was a version of BASIC, which became the most popular. The word processor was called simply Word. The company's name was Micro Soft, which changed to today's Microsoft.

Gary Kildall and Digital Research invented much more than CP/M, though. When the 286 processor hit the market, the first company releasing a multitasking product was Digital Research. Multitasking feels natural today, like having your word processor and email open and running at the same time. But back then, you could have only one program running at a time. Gary Kildall made this change before anybody else.

GUIs on PCs was something Gary was a pioneer as well. GEM was one of the first GUIs for the IBM PC, as well as in other computers, like the Atari. Introduced in 1985, GEM was superior to Microsoft Windows in every sense.

Gary Kildall was an innovator in optical media. Before the CD-ROM, Kildall presented a prototype of electronic encyclopedia using videodiscs, before 1985. Later on, in 1985, Gary introduced the first CD-ROM encyclopedia: the Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia.

Gary Kildall was an excellent car and plane pilot. He had a private plane, which he used to go to his business meeting along the USA. This virtue would eventually cost him to become the victim of an infamous myth.

This is the myth: Digital Research lost the contract to licence CP/M for the IBM PC because Gary Kildall went out flying and forgot about IBM.

The facts are very different. I know them from someone I had the privilege to work with, who worked at Digital Research and was a personal friend of Gary Kildall.

By the time IBM was building their IBM PC, they wanted it to run CM/P as its primary operating system. The decision was obvious. CP/M was a well-established and successful operating system in the business area. Gary Kildall was not in charge of the legal department within Digital Research, so he delegated that part, while he was flying back to meet with the IBM executives, and resume the meeting.

IBM wanted to force something called "unilateral non-disclosure agreement", which basically said Digital Research could no reveal anything about the conversations with IBM (not even the fact that they met) but IBM could reveal anything about them.

Let's remember that back them (1980) IBM was practically synonym of computers. But Digital Research was an already well established company, and required a determined level of standard with legal agreements, and IBM's conditions were not acceptable. Digital Research wanted to work with IBM, but they didn't like the terms of negotiation.

Let's remember the CP/M card built by Microsoft. IBM thought Microsoft had some sort of licensing agreement with Digital Research, and contacted them.

Today we might say Microsoft was smarter. But the fact is, Microsoft had much less to risk. At the time, Microsoft was just another player in a big market. Their best seller was the BASIC language. The had nothing to offer as an operating system. The opportunity with IBM was very big, and with small risk.

The story was different with Digital Research. Their core business was operating systems. They had CP/M running in a lot of different computers. Licencing CP/M had to be done the right way.

The outcome is well known: Microsoft bought a CP/M clone, called QDOS, repacked it as PC-DOC and later as MS-DOS.

Gary Kildall passed away in 1994. His name deserves to be with the names of the great pioneers of the PC industry: Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Ed Roberts, and others. It's extremely unfair for him to be remember as "they guy who blew the IBM deal".

I want to close this post with a quote from Bill Gates, after Gary's death:

"Gary Kildall was one of the original pioneers of the PC revolution. He was a very creative computer scientist who did excellent work. Although we were competitors, I always had tremendous respect for his contributions to the PC industry. His untimely death was very unfortunate and he and his work will be missed."

With this, I finish my homage to Gary Kildall, a superior mind, a pioneer, a visionary, and an example of what innovation is.


Unknown said...

I would like to agree with your statements. My father Bill Byerly worked with Gary at Intel and Digital Research in the 70's. I was a child but was witness to a lot of these events. Gary was a genius and Gates was the hack.

Carlo Mazzini said...

Thanks for your nice comment. I had the privilege of working with Tom Lafleur, who was also part of Digital Research and was friend of Gary. Perhaps your father knows him. He used to tell me stories that made me wish we had that level of innovation nowadays. They were epic stories for any computer geek (like me!)