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Gary Kildall and Collegial Entrepreneurship


From that point on, DRI was going in several directions at once. DRI was one of the first personal-computer companies to seek venture-capital funding to go public. The VCs were willing, but insisted that strong management be brought in to get the business under control. Gary was thrilled by the idea of bringing in someone on whom he could unload all the annoying business decisions. John Rowley got that job. Gary quickly disappeared into the fold of Tom Rolander and the developers, and was rarely seen elsewhere. In particular he was rarely seen with John Rowley.

Personable, bright, enthusiastic, Rowley nevertheless struck some around him as just a bit unfocused. He was routinely late to meetings, and he called a lot of them. If there was an overall strategy to his actions, it wasn't obvious. Sometimes, one employee later recalled, he forgot to pay his bills—his own bills, that is—and dunning letters would find him at work. He was boundlessly enthusiastic, but as company direction shifted from week to week, the optimism got old quickly.

But Rowley may very well have been doing the best anyone could under the circumstances. The circumstances being that the company remained Gary's company, and actions Gary took or authorized could drive the company into one market or another. And did.

Gary wrote a version of the programming language LOGO for his son Scott. He just thought it would be a cool thing and that Scott could learn about programming and logic from it. Then he handed it to Rowley, saying, what should we do with this? And that was how DRI LOGO became a product. Tom Rolander was fascinated with the Apple LISA (the slo-ow predecessor to the Mac), and set one up in his office. He messed with it for quite a while, but nothing ever came of that. Fortunately. Gary was also intrigued by the LISA/Mac user interface, and began exploring that realm. The company's focus was supposed to be operating systems, but the result of Gary's interest in user interfaces was that one of the many varieties of CP/M then under development got sidetracked into a user-interface shell that would sit atop an operating system. That was "GEM," a Mac-like UI for non-Mac computers. Apple thought it was a little too Mac-like and threatened to sue, and DRI caved. It couldn't have been lost on Gary that Microsoft, which also had a Mac-like UI called "Windows," did not (then, at least) get sued.

The company was making lots of money at first, but it was also making some serious mistakes. Not keeping customers happy was one of the worst. DRI in the early '80s occupied a role similar to Microsoft in the '90s: Everybody depended on it and resented it for that. But DRI just wasn't sufficiently responsive to customer complaints and requests.

Alan Cooper blames Gary. When anyone would tell Gary that he ought to add a particular feature, "Gary would try to argue you out of it." He didn't want to pollute good code with kludged-on features. The PIP command exemplified his attitude. In CP/M, you "Pipped" to drive B from drive A; in MS-DOS, you "Copied" from A to B. Gary thought that there was nothing wrong with using the command PIP to copy, and that any halfway intelligent person could master the concept that you copied (or pipped) from right to left. Bill Gates let people do it the way they wanted. "That difference in attitude," Cooper says, "is worth twenty million dollars." Gary didn't care. What Gary was interested in was inventing.

On Cooper's first day at DRI, he recalls, Gary took him to Esther Dyson's high-level industry conference. "He gave me John Rowley's badge, and we climbed into his Aerostar and flew [to Palm Springs]. I remember running into Bill Gates and saying I had just joined Gary Kildall in research. I said I was working in research and development. He chuckled that Gary had set up an R&D department. He considered R&D to be part of what everybody did. Bill was right."

Gary, however, wanted to segregate R&D from the mundane concerns of the business. He wanted a skunkworks, a small crew that pursued projects on the basis of interest, just as pure academic researchers follow the interesting idea rather than worry about someone's bottom line. And he did.

Some good ideas came out of the skunkworks, although the best mostly came from Gary. He did groundbreaking work on CD-ROM software and on interfacing computers and video disks. A company, KnowledgeSet, came out of that work. So did a CD-ROM-based Grolier's Encyclopedia, a product that showed everyone how to do CD-ROM content. Microsoft's later enviable position in the CD-ROM content market owes a lot to Gary Kildall's good ideas and Bill Gates' ability to spot a good idea and pounce on it.

In the midst of the rest of the confusion, Gary and Dorothy split up. It was more than a private, personal matter, since both of them stayed at DRI. So did the other woman. The atmosphere grew more tense than it already was.


As Digital Research floundered and flailed, Microsoft flourished. Sometimes Microsoft flourished in ground cleared by Gary Kildall, as in the case of MS-DOS, as in the case of multimedia/CD-ROM technology. The legend of Bill Gates as the technological genius who invented everything in the personal computer realm grew, while a dwindling percentage of computer users had even heard of Gary Kildall.

Kildall was always gracious about this.

At least publicly he was gracious. Inwardly, he hid a bitterness that few ever saw. One day, though, Cooper got a glimpse of Gary's depth of feeling about proper credit for invention.

"Kildall took me aside once, about '83. [He started] talking about Apple. He opened this door, and I saw the bitterness: 'Steve Jobs is nothing. Steve Wozniak did it all, the hardware and the software. All Jobs did was hang around and take the credit.'" Cooper was not blind to the implications of this. Kildall resented that Gates, this dropout, this businessman, was getting credit for things that Kildall had invented. "All of a sudden there was this cauldron of resentment. It must have tortured Gary that Bill Gates [got all the credit]."

Whether Kildall's resentment of Bill Gates was fair or not—and it is important to repeat that it was never publicly expressed—it was probably inevitable. When you look at the allocation of credit in the computer industry from a collegial, academic perspective, it does seem that Bill Gates and Microsoft have, now and then, got credit that rightfully belonged to others. It's hard to defend the idea that this is the right perspective to use in looking at an industry, but a collegial, academic perspective was exactly the perspective from which Gary Kildall viewed his world. He could hardly help but feel wronged.


Gary never went back into academia, staying with DRI to its end, when it was sold to Novell in 1991. At Novell, all traces of DRI products and projects quickly dissolved and were absorbed like sutures on a healing wound.

Gary then moved to the West Lake Hills suburb of Austin, Texas. The Novell deal had made him a wealthy man. His Austin house was a sort of lakeside car ranch, with stables for 14 sports cars and a video studio in the basement. He owned and flew his own Lear jet and had at least one boat. In California, he kept a second house: a mansion with a spectacular ocean view on 17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach. He started a company in Austin to produce what he called a "home PBX system," called "Prometheus Light and Sound." He did charitable work in the area of pediatric AIDS. It should have been a good life, but all was not sublime. His second marriage was ending in divorce, and there were signs that lack of credit was continuing to eat at him.

Then, while in Monterey in 1994, Gary Kildall died from internal bleeding on July 11, three days after falling down in the Franklin Street Bar and Grill in downtown Monterey. He was 52.


And there the history of Gary Kildall and Digital Research ends. But it is more than mere politeness to say that a legacy remains. In March, 1995, the Software Publishers Association posthumously honored Gary for his contributions to the computer industry. They listed some of his accomplishments:

  • He introduced operating systems with preemptive multitasking and windowing capabilities and menu-driven user interfaces.

  • Through DRI, he created the first diskette track buffering schemes, read-ahead algorithms, file directory caches, and RAM disk emulators.

  • In the 1980s, through DRI, he introduced a binary recompiler.

  • Kildall defined the first programming language and wrote the first compiler specifically for microprocessors.

  • He created the first microprocessor disk operating system, which eventually sold a quarter million copies.

  • He created the first computer interface for video disks to allow automatic nonlinear playback, presaging today's interactive multimedia.

  • He developed the file system and data structures for the first consumer CD-ROM.

  • He created the first successful open-system architecture by segregating system-specific hardware interfaces in a set of BIOS routines, making the whole third-party software industry possible.

That's a good list, as far as it goes. But friends and students might make a different list, citing his gift for explaining, his patience, his high standards in his work, his generosity. Those who knew him in later years in Austin might cite his pediatric AIDS work.

These things are worth remembering, and represent a real positive impact on the world, whether remembered or not.

As for Kildall's place in computer history, it certainly shouldn't be as The Man Who Wasn't Bill Gates. "It was" as his friend and colleague Alan Cooper puts it, "Gary's bad luck that put him up next to the most successful businessman of a generation. Anyone is a failure standing next to Bill Gates."

He was by any measure an admirable man, a business success, an inventor of importance, a humanitarian.

And, above all, a teacher. "When Fortune magazine writes about Gary Kildall," Cooper said, "they don't see him in his natural habitat: a university." Kildall was never happier than when he was in that academic habitat, solving tough problems and sharing the solutions that he discovered openly with others.

He should have stayed in academia, a relative later said. It's what he loved. But in a sense, he never really left.

Michael is Dr. Dobb's Journal's editor-at-large.

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