Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire is a fascinating study of Bill Gates and Microsoft. I read it several years ago (it was reprinted in 1993 so it might be difficult to find now) and really enjoyed the book. It brings to light events that have been pretty much washed away in the past 18 years of Microsoft dominance in the desktop and office market. I was sifting through some old notebooks of mine (then pen and paper kind) and came across some quotations I’d pulled for my undergrad thesis. I thought it would be nice to share a few quotes here and reflect on them.
“According to one Microsoft programmer, the problems encountered by Lotus were not unexpected. A few of the key people working on DOS 2.0, he claimed, had a saying at the time that ‘DOS isn’t done until Lotus won’t run.’ They managed to code a few hidden bugs into DOS 2.0 that caused Lotus 1-2-3 to break down when it was loaded.” (233)
At the time Lotus 1-2-3 was enormously faster than Microsoft’s Multiplan (Microsoft’s pre-Excel spreadsheet). Lotus at one point was really kicking Microsoft’s butt. Whether or not you believe the research James Wallace and Jim Erickson did in Hard Drive there’s no denying that owning the most popular operating system gives an unfair advantage, any company owning the OS could introduce bugs to break competing products. This is why open source, being able to look at code, helps level the playing field.
“Gates was angry that Microsoft, the original microcomputer language company, was being beaten so badly by a mail-order startup company only a year old.” (277)
The quote above refers to Borland, whose product Turbo Pascal was doing record sales. I personally bought Borland Turbo C (for DOS) and a Borland C++ compiler for OS/2. As the quote suggests Microsoft originally was a programming languages company. They wrote a version of BASIC for the Altair. I can understand and sympathize with Gates since he did seem to have a clue back in the day about programming languages. At one point in Hard Drive there’s mention that Gates discovered some incomplete code and wrote a boot loader while on a plane to visit a client. That said obviously Microsoft unleashed their unholy wrath on Borland not long after and pretty much ran them out of the compiler business. They don’t seem to have recovered the market share they once had.
It’s a forgotten fact that at one point Apple threatened to sue Microsoft for elements of Windows which Apple claimed Microsoft pilfered after working on Macs (Microsoft was writing MS Office for the Macs).
“When Apple threatened to sue Microsoft in 1985 over Windows for copyright violations, Gates said he would stop development of Excel and Word for the Mac, which at the time were desperately needed software applications which Apple hoped would spur sagging sales of the Macintosh. Apple had no choice but to back down on its threat to take legal action. Instead it signed a licensing agreement giving Microsoft royalty-free rights to use the graphical display technology developed for the Macintosh.” (315)
It’s hard to say whether anything would have changed if Apple had gone through with the lawsuit. Both Apple and Microsoft had a look at Xerox’s Star desktop operating system which preceded both the Macintosh OS and Microsoft’s Windows. Really neither Apple nor Microsoft deserve credit for the desktop OS, those kudos belong to Xerox, even if it did plan to keep it to themselves.
Those are the quotations that jump out the most at me from my notes. A lot of this is from DOS/pre-Windows 3.1 days. It’s always nostalgic to me having started in the PC market with an XT clone running a 10MHz NEC V20 chip. It reminds me of my first PC box which had 640KB of RAM (which was a lot) and a 42MB hard drive (which was also a lot). That PC was used to dial-in to BBS’ and run a BBS (Bulletin Board System) for a number of years before switching up to a 386.
It also reminds me of the frustration I had with Microsoft in those early days when I went out and bought a MS-DOS upgrade which they claimed was fake (it took an hour of calling long distance to convince someone it was real. After I followed all their “tell me what you see on the hologram” they finally told me that it appeared legit after all. A week later they decided it was fake again and restricted my access to their Toronto BBS (which I needed to get communications drivers). Ancient history, but every now and then it’s good to look back and reflect on what’s happened in the past, and not always from the view of the “victor.”