How Bill Gates Almost Wasn’t The World’s Richest Man

I don't normally link to stuff that requires registration, but this story is interesting enough to be worth your time.

The saga of the computing industry is rich with outsize characters and surprising plot turns, but there's one story that has risen over time to mythic proportions. It's the tale of how software pioneer Gary Kildall missed out on the opportunity to supply IBM (IBM ) with the operating system for its first PC — essentially handing the chance of a lifetime, and control of tech's future, to rival Bill Gates and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ). In the process, he may have missed out on becoming the world's richest man.

The legend goes like this: One fateful day in the summer of 1980, three buttoned-down IBMers called on a band of hippie programmers at Digital Research Inc. located in Pacific Grove, Calif. They hoped to discuss licensing DRI's industry-leading operating system, CP/M. Instead, DRI founder Gary Kildall blew off IBM to gallivant around in his airplane, and the frustrated IBMers turned to Gates for their operating system. This anecdote has been told so often that techies need only be reminded of "the day Gary Kildall went flying" to recall the rest. While he's revered for his technical innovations, many believe Kildall made one of the biggest mistakes in the history of commerce.

But what if that's not what happened? What if IBM and Microsoft deprived Kildall not only of untold riches but also of the credit for a seminal role in the PC revolution? That's the thesis of a chapter about Kildall in They Made America, a serious coffee table history book by renowned author and former newspaper editor Harold Evans. The book, published by Little Brown on Oct. 12, profiles 70 American innovators and is the inspiration for an upcoming PBS series. And while other tech authors have debunked the gallivanting story before, Evans bases his Kildall chapter on a 226-page, never-published memoir written by Kildall just before his death in 1994. Early on, Kildall seemed to represent the best hopes of the nascent computer industry. But by the time he died at age 52, after falling in a tavern, he had become embittered and struggled with alcohol.

It almost sounds like a fluke that Gates ended up with DOS and an arrangement with IBM. Who would have thought at that time that it basically put him on the path to become the richest man in the world?

10 Facebook Marketing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them For Your Business

  • anthony

    If I recall, Gates’ own version of this era was that he simply priced the wholesale on DOS OS so much lower that IBM could offer their “PC+DOS” bundle cheaper than they could offer the “CP/M” bundle. (I recall there was a third OS in the line-up.) Gates elected to gamble on follow-on sales vs. initial bundle royalties! ** It helped that Gates had rich parents, and that he had pirated sales revenue out of MITS, so that he could “float” this exercise.