Digital Fever – Another view of Microsoft as a technology leader (Part 1)


by Mike Kroll


Robber barons are nothing new to America. We have seen them dominating banking, railroads and a variety of industries since the 19th century. Our history is populated with any number of men who amassed huge fortunes through highly-questionable business practices and unfairly dominated their markets; squashing competitors, labor and communities alike as they wielded insurmountable political and financial power like a swinging mace. Familiar modern examples include a number of media moguls and Bill Gates' Microsoft. Contrary to his carefully cultivated public image Gates is personally neither a technical nor business genius but rather an opportunist with incredible timing, unmitigated gall and a ruthlessness not commonly recognized by the casual observer. The creation of the admirable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is due far more to the positive influences of his father and wife than any evidence genuine generosity on Bill's own part (although after you amass so much wealth and power that you and your heirs could never dream of spending it all fueling a worthy charity is one way for a robber baron to assuage his conscience).

Before the introduction of the IBM PC there was a wide range of various operating systems available on the market for various computing platforms and even IBM didn't initially want to force its PC users to use PC-DOS. In a notable departure from that company's typical business practices IBM was releasing the IBM PC as an open standard device and encouraging third-party developers to create add-on hardware and software to be used with the PCs. The simple fact was that corporate IBM grossly misjudged the market potential of the PC and underestimated the profit potential in developing all these extra add-ons in-house.

IBM invited a number of software companies with operating systems to tailor their OS to work with the new PC platform and most industry observers expected the then technical leader CP/M by Digital Research to become the dominant OS on the new PC. In early 1981 Digital Research already had a history of developing and selling operating systems and programming language software to the then-small personal computing community. At the time there were few commercially available software applications and most business computer users hired programmers to write application software. Dr. Gary Kildall, president and founder of Digital Research, saw the future opportunities for his company in delivering more and better programming solutions for professional and hobbyist computer programmers. Kildall (and just about everyone else at that time) could not foresee the eventual general adoption of business desktop computers much less home computing.

Gates had established Microsoft as a software company by selling an interpreter for the BASIC programming language to computer hobbyists but hadn't sold any operating system software. When Gates made his presentation to IBM he claimed to have already written an OS specifically for the Intel 8086 chip that was closely related to the Intel 8088 chip at the heart of the IBM PC. In fact, Microsoft had contracted for the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) to port a version of Unix developed under license from AT&T (who developed and then owned the Unix operating system). But this operating system, called “Xenix” by Microsoft was too powerful, complex and hardware demanding to be practical on the base IBM PC that would be shipped at introduction. Gates assured IBM that his OS for the IBM PC would be simple to operate, less expensive and specially tailored toward the IBM platform. And, most importantly, he guaranteed that “PC-DOS” would be completed well before the scheduled release of the original IBM PC.

When IBM invited Kildall to supply a version of CP/M for the upcoming IBM PC he initially balked at IBM's technical and business specifications as well as their short timeline. While the then existing CP/M was an operating system that worked across a wide variety of computer brands utilizing Intel and Zilog processor chips Kildall wanted to tweak it more specifically to the hardware architecture of the IBM PC which differed in many ways (good and bad) from earlier personal computers. It was expected that the Intel 8088 processor would be replaced with the more powerful 8086 processor and its better memory architecture which Kildall and his team hoped to take advantage of in their new operating system, CP/M-86.

Gates approached a little-known programmer who had written a small and simple operating system for Intel 8086 processors used in a small computer company's line of S-100 bus microcomputers. Seattle Computer Products and Tim Paterson had no idea why Gates and Microsoft wanted to buy his 4000 lines of source code for QDOS (Quick and Dirty Disk Operating System) but welcomed the reported $25,000 they were paid for all rights to the code and its future use. Microsoft tweaked and cleaned up the QDOS code renamed the result “86-DOS” and presented it to IBM for approval. IBM hastily offered Microsoft a contract to sell “PC-DOS” cheaply and exclusively for use on IBM PCs but also permitted Microsoft to develop a generic version of the operating system, “MS-DOS” which could be sold for use with the expected clones of the IBM PC.

Ironically but not surprisingly, after IBM took delivery of the source code for PC-DOS and subjected it to thorough quality control and testing it discovered hundreds and hundreds of bugs which led the company to completely rewrite the operating system before the PC was launched in August 1981. Thanks to the mutual code-sharing terms of their contract Microsoft was the big winner in this rewrite as that company was able to incorporate the much improved IBM code into its own version of MS-DOS and this is why the copyright for PC- and MS-DOS was shared by Microsoft and IBM. Gates and company essentially hoodwinked a small company out of their product for a relative mere pittance, sloppily modified it to fool IBM at a demonstration and later built its fortune on a product IBM reinvented for them.

Mike Kroll operates “Dr. Mike Computer Therapist,” a small computer repair shop in Galesburg. You can e-mail him at: or stop by his shop to “Get Therapy” for your computer. Heck, Mike even continues to make house calls in his Mobile Therapy Unit!



Digital Fever – Another view of Microsoft as a technology leader (Part 2)


by Mike Kroll


The original IBM PC didn't include an operating system, PC-DOS was a $39.95 add-on as were many other features that made the PC useful. That original PC came with a whopping 16K of system memory and no hard disk or floppy disk and no input or output ports beyond places to plug in a keyboard, green monochrome text-only display and a cassette recorder for data storage; and this dream machine sold for about $2,000! You could add one or two 5.25 inch floppy disk drive or cards for parallel or serial ports to communicate with external devices like printers or very slow modems and memory could be expanded all the way to 64K, all at substantial cost. When Gary Kildall and his Digital Research released their CP/M-86 it was a $495 option few new PC owners opted to include in their purchase.

It was for a couple of years before IBM began including PC-DOS as a standard component in its PCs and only then after it became industry-standard practice (by Microsoft edict) that MS-DOS be bundled with every clone PC sold. This was the beginning of Microsoft's efforts to crush all competition, particularly Digital Research that had by that time seen the light and reduced greatly the cost of CP/M-86 to no real effect. Very quickly PC- and MS-DOS came to totally dominate all PC and PC-clone sales and Digital Research was pushed into obscurity.

Another product Microsoft had developed in-house was a word processor for Xenix known as Multi-word. While Xenix was soon sold to Microsoft's developmental partner in that project (SCO), the company maintained ownership of Multi-word and began developing it as a word processor for DOS. Microsoft was beginning to diversify its product mix beyond DOS and Basic and into business applications. Its early attempts were laughable at best. Word processing was then dominated by Wordstar and spreadsheets by VisaCalc both of whom would soon face stiff competition from WordPerfect and Lotus 123 respectively. Microsoft lusted after this market.

Meanwhile another major computer company, Apple, has an installed base well in excess of 300,000 Apple IIs and 2,500 employees worldwide. Apple began selling the Apple III before the IBM PC was released and ran a great full page ad in the Wall Street Journal shortly after IBM's formal release. Apple began the ad “Welcome IBM. Seriously” and prepared to duke it out in the marketplace with the mother of big iron as they worked to master sales of microcomputers. Apple already owned the education market but had been slow to make inroads into American businesses where IBM targeted its marketing.

In an effort to further its position in the business world Apple's Steve Jobs did something he would forever regret, he invited Bill Gates and Microsoft to partner with him in the development of business software applications. What Jobs had in mind were Apple versions of Microsoft's Multi-Word and MultiPlan and his real target was to have such software polished and ready to go with his secret new computer system, the Macintosh. In late-1981 or early-1982 Gates was shown an early prototype for the Macintosh including its innovative new operating system with the graphics user interface. Honorable business partner Gates immediately began secret work on a Microsoft GUI-based operation system.

In 1983 Apple released the Lisa and its GUI operating system. The machine is at once amazingly impressive and too costly, insufficiently powered and the included applications are just too simple to be truly useful. While the Lisa fades off into the sunset the original Macintosh computer is introduced during the 1984 Super Bowl with one of the most memorable commercials ever produced. Unlike the Lisa sale of Macintosh computer immediately take off selling more than 50,000 unity within 100 days of launch. In September 1984 the 512K Macintosh (nicknamed “Fat Mac”) was introduced ahead of its scheduled 1985 release and in November Apple does an amazingly successful promotion called “Test drive a Macintosh” where over 200,000 people take a Mac home free for 24 hours.

Many PC pundits and market watchers dismiss the Macintosh and its new GUI interface as not business-like but Gates and Microsoft recognize the potential and aren't afraid to use their partnership with Apple to learn how to better duplicate the feat on PC hardware. Jobs and Apple learn about Microsoft's duplicity in early 1985 with the release of Windows 1.0,  initially called Interface Manager and heavily “inspired” (or stolen if you wish) from Apple's original prototype Mac OS. The original Windows is a pale imitation of the Mac OS and receives lackluster reviews and few sales but infuriates Apple who eventually file suit against Microsoft. By the end of 1985 Apple has sold more than a half million Macs, Jobs leaves Apple to form NeXT and his successor, John Sculley drops most of the lawsuit against Microsoft in exchange for a selling the rights to some Macintosh technology for use in Windows and promises by Microsoft to continue developing Mac applications software.

Version 2 of Windows was released in 1987 and along with it came the original GUI versions of Word and Excel. The memory design was limited to using only the first megabyte of memory of just 360K more than the DOS memory ceiling of 640K. While Windows 2 was marginally more successful than its predecessor it wasn't until the release of Windows 3.0 in 1990 that Microsoft finally delivered a GUI interface that sort of worked well, but was nevertheless far inferior to the Mac OS.  Meanwhile as Microsoft worked to develop Window IBM's software folks were developing a much superior product called OS/2 that was initially released in 1987 although its graphics interface, called Presentation Manager, wasn't available until 1988. A huge problem was that Windows and OS/2 were incompatible with one another just as the IBM/Microsoft partnership was having compatibility problems of its own.

While IBM continued to separately develop OS/2 releasing version 2 in 1992, Microsoft continued to muck along with Windows releasing Windows 3.1 in 1992 and Windows 3.11 or “Windows for Workgroups” very late in 1993. It wasn't until the later product came out that Microsoft could be said to have a real working multitasking operating system that could reasonably work on a business network, something Apple and IBM had delivered years before and with much prettier and more functional interfaces. Microsoft used its financial resources to legally battle Apple into submission in the courts and its marketing clout to pummel the far superior OS/2 first into obscurity and finally death.

When Windows 95 was released in August 1995 much of its desktop interface was stolen directly from OS/2. Microsoft finally delivered a true 32-bit operating system with fully functional networking built-in. Users could finally use mnemonically useful file names and larger hard disks could be used to store programs and data alike. Internet Explorer was not part of the original Win95 release but arrived with the second release of Service Pack 1 in early 1996. Officially Win95 was supposed to work on any 80386 processor with 4 megabytes or more of system memory but the OS often wouldn't even boot with those specification and ran like a lame dog with less than an 80486 processor and at least 8 megabytes of memory. Realistic Win95 system typically included at least 16 megabytes of memory.

In the slightly more than a decade since the release of Win95 Microsoft hasn't changed its spots much, except to get worse. Today it continues to release substandard software and deny bugs when they are discovered. It continues to “appropriate” technology from its competitors while being merciless in protecting its own intellectual property even from paying customers. It continues to tout hype over substance and make performance claims that are immediately proven false or misleading and, due to its huge advertising budget, Microsoft continues to receive largely uncritical rave reviews from the computer press. There are plenty of reasons not to jump on the bandwagon for Windows Vista and, more importantly, there are easy alternatives available today that meet or exceed the hype of Windows Vista. We will discuss three such alternatives next week.

Mike Kroll operates “Dr. Mike Computer Therapist,” a small computer repair shop in Galesburg. You can e-mail him at: or stop by his shop to “Get Therapy” for your computer. Heck, Mike even continues to make house calls in his Mobile Therapy Unit!


Published Jan 4 & 11, 20007