June 22, 2024

Accidental Empires, Ch. 4 - Amateur Hour


Cringely claims that because the PC industry is staffed by "pioneers", companies have little depth. Businesses rely too heavily on a few individuals, consequently people in influential positions have little backup, "so when they make a mistake, the whole company makes a mistake."

Bill Gates & Paul Allen

Hardware development leads to software development. Intel chips lead to production of the MITS Altair 8800, which in turn gave Gates & Allen the opportunity to gain a foothold in the new microcomputer industry. Go here for an interesting account of their early years.
G & A wrote a BASIC program for the Altair (BASIC had been used for mainframes). Gates and Allen realised that the first to write an operating system (OS) for the Altair would be creating an industry standard. In 1975 G & A sell BASIC to MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, owner Ed Roberts).

G & A also wrote BASIC versions for other microcomputers.

Microsoft was formed with the stated mission:
"a computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software."

G & A were exceptions to the rule that most pioneers were enthusiasts. They deliberately created a business and then set about trying to control it, whereas most just tried out things for themselves, or for friends.

Gary Kildall & CP/M

Gary Kildall invented the first OS for a microcomputer. He was hired by Intel to write software to emulate the 8080 chip on a time-share system. He had a Ph.D in compiler design and subsequently wrote an OS called CP/M, Command Processor for Microcomputers, using assembly language. It employed, as was the norm, a command line interface.

Intel lost interest, but Kildall eventually sold a version to Imsai, an Altair competitor. Imsai sold computers and floppy drives, but these machines shipped without an OS. CP/M was the only OS available for the Intel chip. In 1976, approximately 100 other small companies produced 8080 machines. Kildall did not want to write a different OS for each. His solution was to develop the BIOS and with it the means to provide portability for CP/M to any Intel 8080-based machine. As a consequence it became the industry standard. Programmers could now concentrate on developing applications by using the CP/M OS to process keyboard input, monitor output and data storage.(E.g. WordStar a word processor application)

Kildall formed Intergalactic Digital Research (later renamed DR). Although intially very successful, he did not display the same acumen as Gates. DR failed to develop a language business and update its OS product when 16 bit chips carrived in 1980. Kildall also refused to produce a BASIC compiler, believing it was MS's business to develop languages and leaving DR to produce operating systems.


The Altair 8800 was not a commercial success; it was a kit that sometimes took ages to construct. If it worked, one still had to write software to run on it. The Apple II was the first successful microcomputer. It had a floppy for storage and a monitor capable of displaying colour graphics and text. It also had software written for it, which the consumer could buy to do real work.

Steve Wozniak invented Apple I to show friends. Then produced the II - $3000 in 1977. It had a floppy controller that used 25% of ICs used by other controllers. Superior performance, could play video games using colour graphics. Importantly it was pre-assembled, unlike the Altair, and thus resembled a consumable product.

Steve Jobs was Wozniak's partner. The business man who aimed to produce computers to sell.

Mark Markkula, had worked for Intel, brought in to give status to Apple and raise money. Saw potential in Apple as a replacement for mainframes.

Apple II's success was eventually founded on the back of spreadsheet software. VisiCalc developed by Dan Bricklin who wrote the application whilst studying at Harvard Business School. Until then, mainframes were required to run this type of application. Bricklin, who could program, saw the potential for a desktop application and wrote a version in BASIC.

Timing was important, the new breed of business graduate combined analytical business methods with typing skills and hence were able to take full advantage of VisiCalc. However it was coincidental that Bricklin adapted VisiCalc for the Apple. It was the only machine he and his partner Bob Frankston could borrow. Bricklin designed and Frankston programmed, a division of labour that set the template for microcomputer programming projects. It took a year to write and hit the market in 1979 at a price of $100.

VisiCalc saved Apple. It was adopted by big business as a result of business people who had bought the software. However, Apple missed the opportunity to buy out VisiCalc and with it the chance to dominate the business application market.


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