Back in 1969, a single event occurred that changed the course of the world as we know it. Two boys at \n\nLakeside School in the state of Washington signed up to debug a PDP-10 mini-computer. What started as an \n\nextracurricular lark turned into something quite different.. They enjoyed themselves so much that within \n\nthree years, the two boys had formed a company to sell traffic control software. By the end of the 1970s, \n\nthey had left college (dropped out in one case) and gone to New Mexico, where the new wave of microcomputers \n\nwas just beginning. \n MORE ON Tech Nostalgia\n \n Companies and Products That Didn't Deserve to Die\n \n Readers' Most Mourned Dead Products\n \n Technologies We're Glad Are Dead\n The boys were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, and their company was called Micro-Soft. Sometime later, the \n\ncompany dropped the hyphen and licensed an operating system to IBM that guaranteed them income on nearly \n\nevery PC sold throughout the 1980s (and most of the 1990s\u2014and beyond). They brought on board a \n\npugnacious character named Steve Ballmer to help push the company forward. And push it forward they \n\ndid\u2014from its first specialties\u2014programming languages and operating systems\u2014into \n\napplication suites, entertainment, hardware, online access, communications, education...and pretty much \n\neverything else. Although Microsoft is not a synonym for Bill Gates, the two have shaped and driven each other so much for \n\nso long that it's hard to separate them.. And Microsoft has shaped and driven the PC industry so much, it's \n\nhard to separate those two as well. But imagine what would have happened if Gates had taken a different \n\nelective in high school and delved into that as deeply as he did into software development. What if he'd \n\nbeen given free reign in an industrial kitchen instead of a PDP-10? What if he had thrown himself into \n\nconsomme instead of Control-Alt-Delete? Battled against indigestion instead of infinite loops? What would \n\nhave happened then? Piece Meal Well, for one thing, we'd have far fewer fast food chains. Gates's need to dominate an industry would \n\nnever permit that much competition in the market. Just as WordPerfect and Lotus Development and Stac \n\nElectronics were forced to retreat to a siege position (and a much smaller slice of the market), Gates would \n\nhave consolidated the food industry into a few big chains and a whole lot of struggling mom-and-pops. We'd probably have a Bill's BurgerSoft on every street (and on some streets, several of them popping up \n\nlike Starbucks). At a few strategically located places, we'd also have the occasional embattled conglomerate \n\nof a competitor\u2014KFMcSubwayKing. The KFMcSubwayKing restaurants would be a bit more expensive and exude \n\njust a hint of desperation. But the BurgerSoft experience wouldn't be that great either: You'd have to go \n\nback to the counter three or four times to pick up bits of your order that weren't quite ready when it was \n\ndelivered to you. Somehow, they'd put a positive spin on it. They'd probably call it BurgerSoft Piece Meal, \n\nand make this seem like a feature, not a bug. DOS Boot Microsoft got its big start in the mid-1970s developing a version of the already popular programming \n\nlanguage BASIC, which ran on the first affordable kit computer, the Altair. When IBM decided to get into the \n\nmicrocomputer business a few years later, it went to Microsoft for a programming language. The company \n\nintended to go to a Digital Equipment Corp. alumnus named Gary Kildall, whose company, Intergalactic Digital \n\nResearch (later dropping the "Intergalactic"), supplied an operating system for microcomputers called CP\/M. \n\n Gates and his second in command, Ballmer, slipped out and bought the rights to a CP\/M clone called QDOS \n\n(Quick and Dirty Operating System). They offered IBM a one-stop shop for operating systems and programming \n\nlanguages, and crafted a fantastic deal that would guarantee Microsoft a payment for every single PC that \n\nIBM shipped. MS-DOS was Microsoft's money machine for more than a decade. It fueled the fantastic growth of \n\nMicrosoft and enabled it to branch out into all the areas it eventually dominated. If Gates had been flipping burgers instead, IBM would probably have signed with Kildall for CP\/M and \n\ngotten a much better deal for itself.. No one except Gates and Ballmer saw the operating system as license \n\nto print money\u2014Kildall included. Kildall was no slouch as a businessman, but he didn't have the Bill \n\nGates beat-them-all instinct\u2014or the hardcore lawyers who could browbeat IBM's lawyers into caving in \n\non the fine print. Without DOS cash flowing into the coffers of a company that intended to dominate the \n\nworld, the PC revolution would have been very different. A Kick in the AppsClear into the 1990s, people turned to different companies for different types of productivity programs. \n\nIf you wanted to do spreadsheets, you went to Lotus Development. If you wanted to process words, the obvious \n\nchoice used to be WordStar, then WordPerfect. Presentations to do? Software Publishing's Harvard Graphics, \n\nnaturally. And e-mail...well, you'd use whatever the e-mail provider supplied: CompuServe or MCI Mail. That \n\nis, if you used e-mail at all. \nBut Microsoft changed all that. Drunk with MS-DOS money, Microsoft was able to sink a lot of resources \n\ninto developing and promoting applications, and Gates and company found a killer way to get people on board: \n\nBundle the apps together in an office suite. It wasn't entirely Microsoft's idea of course (what was, after \n\nall?), but they trounced the once-mighty Ashton-Tate (of dBase fame) and Lotus Development with their \n\nsystem-hogging and overhyped suites Framework and Symphony. The rest is history. Except that if Gates were a \n\nchef, he'd be selling less-digestible cheeseburger and chicken bucket bundles, and something else would be \n\ngoing on in the PC arena. There was always room for a serious upstart among the hidebound large app developers of the day, \n\nWordPerfect and Lotus Development. WordPerfect itself toppled the dominant word processor in the \n\nfield\u2014WordStar\u2014and after a couple of decades of competition, it's entirely possible that we'd \n\nhave several strong front-runners instead of one 800-pound gorilla. Of course, another developer might have aced the office suite. The scrappy programming outfit Borland, \n\nheaded by French developer Philippe Kahn, would probably have made some serious inroads in this direction. \n\nIt collected a lot of spreadsheet users in the late 1980s with Quattro, the company's "sequel" to Lotus \n\n1-2-3. They made serious inroads into database development with Paradox, into application development with \n\nthe Turbo product line, and even dabbled in word processing in 1989 with a program called Sprint. (It got \n\nsqueezed out pretty fast\u2014probably because there was already an 800-pound gorilla and several other \n\nprimates in the room.) Borland's Kahn was certainly driven by a Gates-like drive to win\u2014and if he \n\nhadn't had Gates to tilt his lance at, he'd have turned to Lotus and Ashton Tate. (In fact, he did; Borland \n\nbought Ashton-Tate in 1991) And let's not forget that Borland brought a little fun into the equation too. \n\nKahn held the first Borland Comdex press conference at a fast food joint, for one thing. (How would that \n\nhave played out at BurgerSoft, do you think?) And Paradox had a couple of alternative icons for Windows, one \n\nof which showed two waterfowl and another with two wooden jetties. Yep...a pair o' ducks and a pair o' \n\ndocks. Puns may be the lowest form of wit, but there's surely a place for them in this business. Gooey Food\u2014GUI Operating SystemsOh, and on the subject of Windows icons, there is of course the whole business of Windows. No Microsoft, \n\nno PC-based object-oriented multitasking operating environments, right? Well, wrong. The winning notions of \n\nrunning multiple applications at a time and making a graphical interface to do it in didn't start in 1985 \n\nwith Microsoft. And despite the crowing of millions of Mac users, it didn't start in 1984 with Apple either. \n\nThe GUI started the year before Gates and Allen signed up to debug PDP-10 applications: 1968. That's when several brainiacs from Stanford Research Institute demonstrated a radical computing system at \n\nthe Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. A thousand IT professionals watched this event, which has \n\nsince been dubbed the mother of all demos." (video) The session was led by Doug Engelbart, who demonstrated \n\ncopy and paste, search and replace, hypertext, dynamic file linking and shared-screen collaboration between \n\ncomputers in the City by the Bay and Menlo Park. Oh, and he also used a bizarre handheld pointing device he \n\nhad devised, which he apologetically referred to as a "mouse." The Mother of All Demos was the culmination of six years of research, and over the next 15 years, it \n\nspawned all kinds of innovation in operating environments. By 1973, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) \n\nhad built a computer using a system of windows, icons, menus and Englebart's pointing device. Naturally, \n\nwith the industry's love of acronyms, this type of operating environment was called a WIMP. Five years \n\nlater, Xerox distributed 50 of these computers\u2014called the Alto\u2014to three universities, Stanford, \n\nCarnegie-Mellon and MIT. And the following year, they demonstrated their system to Apple Computer. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe where Bill Gates was innovating in an industrial kitchen, McDonald's \n\nwas introducing the Happy Meal, and BurgerSoft was introducing the BillBurger Bundle, with a cheaper and \n\neven more breakable plastic toy. With regular upgrades you could pick up a replacement at your next visit. \n\nIt would be another year before the IBM PC shipped, but by 1984, when Apple shipped the Mac, there was \n\nalready a strong commercial-grade graphical operating environment at the demo stage: Digital Research's GEM. \n\nThe company behind CP\/M, Digital Research, created and commercialized an operating system that ran well on \n\nAmstrad hardware in Europe and on Atari machines in the U.S. The early entries on IBM's PC platform were a \n\nlittle less appetizing\u2014Quarterdeck's stable task-switching environment, DESQview, was a big hit among \n\nproductivity-seekers...but it just didn't have enough pretty pictures. And IBM's somewhat prettier TopView \n\ndid the job too. In the Gates-less PC world, the porting of GEM to the PC platform would have been a sea \n\nchange. It never dominated in our world (unless you were a big fan of Ventura Publisher, which shipped with \n\na runtime version of GEM), but GEM had legs.Without Windows, GEM could quite easily have dominated the IBM platform, and provided an easy migration \n\npath to and from hobby computers. It might even have taken a few sips of Apple's milkshake\u2014after all, \n\nMac OS could run on only one platform, and GEM was more portable. It would, realistically, have been just \n\none way of approaching the microcomputer world\u2014and the microcomputer world would not have consolidated \n\ninto the Mac and the PC\u2014it would have allowed for many different platforms. The upshot of all this? If Gates had been busy feeding the masses, we would be staring at different \n\nhardware platforms running the same graphical operating system, and a buffet table of applications to pick \n\nand choose from. In short, we'd have chaos with a veneer of order on top. And in the kitchen, BurgerSoft \n\nwould be edging into the media world. Steve Ballmer would have his own cooking show, and be out-bamming \n\nEmeril at every turn. And no matter how many F-bombs Gordon Ramsey dropped, he'd never reach the sublime \n\nheights of dismissiveness that Gates could slide into with one effortless "that's the stupidest thing I've \n\never heard!" Order Out of ChaosIt's the presence of monstrous entities like Microsoft and driven personalities like Bill Gates that have \n\npushed the industry towards standardization. But because businesses hate chaos, the industry would probably \n\nhave accelerated in that direction anyway. So there would be a proliferation of different platforms. And plenty of issues with different file \n\nformats from all these applications. That would fuel a real need for something like the Babel fish from the \n\nHitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy\u2014something that could perform translations without any effort by the \n\nlistener. Imagine something like DataViz's MacLink and Conversions Plus\u2014but without an interface. When it comes to interfaces, well, Apple would have dominated. They'd never have allowed their operating \n\nsystem or anything that looked too much like it on other computing platforms, but they may well have \n\novercome their cooler-than-thou ethic and deigned to provide the corporate world with computers. But their \n\nluxury car approach would have left space for plenty of economy model computers for small business and \n\nconsumer use. And GEM users and DESQview taskswitchers would be tapping away quite happily on them, \n\nwondering what all the fuss was about. Because in this universe and all parallel universes, the world was ready for the microcomputer \n\nrevolution, with or without Bill Gates. Companies were fed up with IBM mainframes and DEC \n\nminicomputers\u2014and their stranglehold service contracts. And the '60s made it inevitable that computing \n\npower would go to the people. But in the real-world timeline\u2014as well as all the other possible \n\nones\u2014it wouldn't be long before computer folk would crave the network connectivity that mainframes \n\ngave them. Fortunately, there was already a huge network under development by the military, the government and \n\nacademia. Since the late 1960s, the creature we now know as the Internet had been gradually spreading and \n\nbuilding connections. In a fragmented microcomputer world, the push to standardize on TCP\/IP and to really \n\nconnect would be even greater. Once connected, we'd take more leads from the academics. Naturally, we'd adopt the World Wide Web as \n\nearly as we could, because it put a graphical veneer on top of a text foundation\u2014like Windows 3.1 over \n\nDOS (or in a Gates-free industry, GEM over CP\/M). Once we'd done that, we'd move towards shared applications \n\nand storage. Java or something like it would begin to dominate. And no matter what computing platform you \n\nwere running on, your view on the wider world of computing would be the same. In short, we'd go in exactly \n\nthe same direction we're going now. And that direction is...back to a postwar mainframe-style model. We'd be in a world a little bit like \n\n1969, where for a computer elective, a couple of high school students could sign up to work on an \n\napplication array at a local server farm. Before long, they could start their own company and jump on the \n\nnext big thing\u2014whatever it might be\u2014and take us on another 40-year cycle of computing. Here's \n\nhoping it's as wild a ride as the past 40 years have been. And that someone equally driven to excellence is \n\ndoing the catering. Matt Lake has tended the technology in three major corporations and one branch of local government. \n\nHe currently cultivates the computers a large two-campus school. He is longing for the day that BurgerSoft \n\nbecomes a reality, because he wants to sell the Bill's Burger Bundle toys on eBay.