Back in 1969, a single event occurred that changed the course of the world as we know it. Two boys at
Lakeside School in the state of Washington signed up to debug a PDP-10 mini-computer. What started as an
extracurricular lark turned into something quite different.. They enjoyed themselves so much that within
three years, the two boys had formed a company to sell traffic control software. By the end of the 1970s,
they had left college (dropped out in one case) and gone to New Mexico, where the new wave of microcomputers
was just beginning.
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The boys were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, and their company was called Micro-Soft. Sometime later, the
company dropped the hyphen and licensed an operating system to IBM that guaranteed them income on nearly
every PC sold throughout the 1980s (and most of the 1990s—and beyond). They brought on board a
pugnacious character named Steve Ballmer to help push the company forward. And push it forward they
did—from its first specialties—programming languages and operating systems—into
application suites, entertainment, hardware, online access, communications, education…and pretty much
Although Microsoft is not a synonym for Bill Gates, the two have shaped and driven each other so much for
so long that it’s hard to separate them.. And Microsoft has shaped and driven the PC industry so much, it’s
hard to separate those two as well. But imagine what would have happened if Gates had taken a different
elective in high school and delved into that as deeply as he did into software development. What if he’d
been given free reign in an industrial kitchen instead of a PDP-10? What if he had thrown himself into
consomme instead of Control-Alt-Delete? Battled against indigestion instead of infinite loops? What would
have happened then?
Well, for one thing, we’d have far fewer fast food chains. Gates’s need to dominate an industry would
never permit that much competition in the market. Just as WordPerfect and Lotus Development and Stac
Electronics were forced to retreat to a siege position (and a much smaller slice of the market), Gates would
have 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
like Starbucks). At a few strategically located places, we’d also have the occasional embattled conglomerate
of a competitor—KFMcSubwayKing. The KFMcSubwayKing restaurants would be a bit more expensive and exude
just a hint of desperation. But the BurgerSoft experience wouldn’t be that great either: You’d have to go
back to the counter three or four times to pick up bits of your order that weren’t quite ready when it was
delivered to you. Somehow, they’d put a positive spin on it. They’d probably call it BurgerSoft Piece Meal,
and make this seem like a feature, not a bug.
Microsoft got its big start in the mid-1970s developing a version of the already popular programming
language BASIC, which ran on the first affordable kit computer, the Altair. When IBM decided to get into the
microcomputer business a few years later, it went to Microsoft for a programming language. The company
intended to go to a Digital Equipment Corp. alumnus named Gary Kildall, whose company, Intergalactic Digital
Research (later dropping the “Intergalactic”), supplied an operating system for microcomputers called CP/M.
Gates and his second in command, Ballmer, slipped out and bought the rights to a CP/M clone called QDOS
(Quick and Dirty Operating System). They offered IBM a one-stop shop for operating systems and programming
languages, and crafted a fantastic deal that would guarantee Microsoft a payment for every single PC that
IBM shipped. MS-DOS was Microsoft’s money machine for more than a decade. It fueled the fantastic growth of
Microsoft 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
gotten a much better deal for itself.. No one except Gates and Ballmer saw the operating system as license
to print money—Kildall included. Kildall was no slouch as a businessman, but he didn’t have the Bill
Gates beat-them-all instinct—or the hardcore lawyers who could browbeat IBM’s lawyers into caving in
on the fine print. Without DOS cash flowing into the coffers of a company that intended to dominate the
world, the PC revolution would have been very different.
A Kick in the Apps
Clear into the 1990s, people turned to different companies for different types of productivity programs.
If you wanted to do spreadsheets, you went to Lotus Development. If you wanted to process words, the obvious
choice used to be WordStar, then WordPerfect. Presentations to do? Software Publishing’s Harvard Graphics,
naturally. And e-mail…well, you’d use whatever the e-mail provider supplied: CompuServe or MCI Mail. That
is, if you used e-mail at all.
But Microsoft changed all that. Drunk with MS-DOS money, Microsoft was able to sink a lot of resources
into developing and promoting applications, and Gates and company found a killer way to get people on board:
Bundle the apps together in an office suite. It wasn’t entirely Microsoft’s idea of course (what was, after
all?), but they trounced the once-mighty Ashton-Tate (of dBase fame) and Lotus Development with their
system-hogging and overhyped suites Framework and Symphony. The rest is history. Except that if Gates were a
chef, he’d be selling less-digestible cheeseburger and chicken bucket bundles, and something else would be
going on in the PC arena.
There was always room for a serious upstart among the hidebound large app developers of the day,
WordPerfect and Lotus Development. WordPerfect itself toppled the dominant word processor in the
field—WordStar—and after a couple of decades of competition, it’s entirely possible that we’d
have 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,
headed by French developer Philippe Kahn, would probably have made some serious inroads in this direction.
It collected a lot of spreadsheet users in the late 1980s with Quattro, the company’s “sequel” to Lotus
1-2-3. They made serious inroads into database development with Paradox, into application development with
the Turbo product line, and even dabbled in word processing in 1989 with a program called Sprint. (It got
squeezed out pretty fast—probably because there was already an 800-pound gorilla and several other
primates in the room.) Borland’s Kahn was certainly driven by a Gates-like drive to win—and if he
hadn’t had Gates to tilt his lance at, he’d have turned to Lotus and Ashton Tate. (In fact, he did; Borland
bought Ashton-Tate in 1991) And let’s not forget that Borland brought a little fun into the equation too.
Kahn held the first Borland Comdex press conference at a fast food joint, for one thing. (How would that
have played out at BurgerSoft, do you think?) And Paradox had a couple of alternative icons for Windows, one
of which showed two waterfowl and another with two wooden jetties. Yep…a pair o’ ducks and a pair o’
docks. Puns may be the lowest form of wit, but there’s surely a place for them in this business.
Gooey Food—GUI Operating Systems
Oh, and on the subject of Windows icons, there is of course the whole business of Windows. No Microsoft,
no PC-based object-oriented multitasking operating environments, right? Well, wrong. The winning notions of
running multiple applications at a time and making a graphical interface to do it in didn’t start in 1985
with Microsoft. And despite the crowing of millions of Mac users, it didn’t start in 1984 with Apple either.
The 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
the Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. A thousand IT professionals watched this event, which has
since been dubbed the mother of all demos.” (video) The session was led by Doug Engelbart, who demonstrated
copy and paste, search and replace, hypertext, dynamic file linking and shared-screen collaboration between
computers in the City by the Bay and Menlo Park. Oh, and he also used a bizarre handheld pointing device he
had 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
spawned all kinds of innovation in operating environments. By 1973, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)
had built a computer using a system of windows, icons, menus and Englebart’s pointing device. Naturally,
with the industry’s love of acronyms, this type of operating environment was called a WIMP. Five years
later, Xerox distributed 50 of these computers—called the Alto—to three universities, Stanford,
Carnegie-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
was introducing the Happy Meal, and BurgerSoft was introducing the BillBurger Bundle, with a cheaper and
even more breakable plastic toy. With regular upgrades you could pick up a replacement at your next visit.
It would be another year before the IBM PC shipped, but by 1984, when Apple shipped the Mac, there was
already a strong commercial-grade graphical operating environment at the demo stage: Digital Research’s GEM.
The company behind CP/M, Digital Research, created and commercialized an operating system that ran well on
Amstrad hardware in Europe and on Atari machines in the U.S. The early entries on IBM’s PC platform were a
little less appetizing—Quarterdeck’s stable task-switching environment, DESQview, was a big hit among
productivity-seekers…but it just didn’t have enough pretty pictures. And IBM’s somewhat prettier TopView
did the job too. In the Gates-less PC world, the porting of GEM to the PC platform would have been a sea
change. It never dominated in our world (unless you were a big fan of Ventura Publisher, which shipped with
a runtime version of GEM), but GEM had legs.
Without Windows, GEM could quite easily have dominated the IBM platform, and provided an easy migration
path to and from hobby computers. It might even have taken a few sips of Apple’s milkshake—after all,
Mac OS could run on only one platform, and GEM was more portable. It would, realistically, have been just
one way of approaching the microcomputer world—and the microcomputer world would not have consolidated
into the Mac and the PC—it 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
hardware platforms running the same graphical operating system, and a buffet table of applications to pick
and choose from. In short, we’d have chaos with a veneer of order on top. And in the kitchen, BurgerSoft
would be edging into the media world. Steve Ballmer would have his own cooking show, and be out-bamming
Emeril at every turn. And no matter how many F-bombs Gordon Ramsey dropped, he’d never reach the sublime
heights of dismissiveness that Gates could slide into with one effortless “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve
Order Out of Chaos
It’s the presence of monstrous entities like Microsoft and driven personalities like Bill Gates that have
pushed the industry towards standardization. But because businesses hate chaos, the industry would probably
have accelerated in that direction anyway.
So there would be a proliferation of different platforms. And plenty of issues with different file
formats from all these applications. That would fuel a real need for something like the Babel fish from the
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—something that could perform translations without any effort by the
listener. Imagine something like DataViz’s MacLink and Conversions Plus—but without an interface.
When it comes to interfaces, well, Apple would have dominated. They’d never have allowed their operating
system or anything that looked too much like it on other computing platforms, but they may well have
overcome their cooler-than-thou ethic and deigned to provide the corporate world with computers. But their
luxury car approach would have left space for plenty of economy model computers for small business and
consumer use. And GEM users and DESQview taskswitchers would be tapping away quite happily on them,
wondering what all the fuss was about.
Because in this universe and all parallel universes, the world was ready for the microcomputer
revolution, with or without Bill Gates. Companies were fed up with IBM mainframes and DEC
minicomputers—and their stranglehold service contracts. And the ’60s made it inevitable that computing
power would go to the people. But in the real-world timeline—as well as all the other possible
ones—it wouldn’t be long before computer folk would crave the network connectivity that mainframes
Fortunately, there was already a huge network under development by the military, the government and
academia. Since the late 1960s, the creature we now know as the Internet had been gradually spreading and
building connections. In a fragmented microcomputer world, the push to standardize on TCP/IP and to really
connect would be even greater.
Once connected, we’d take more leads from the academics. Naturally, we’d adopt the World Wide Web as
early as we could, because it put a graphical veneer on top of a text foundation—like Windows 3.1 over
DOS (or in a Gates-free industry, GEM over CP/M). Once we’d done that, we’d move towards shared applications
and storage. Java or something like it would begin to dominate. And no matter what computing platform you
were running on, your view on the wider world of computing would be the same. In short, we’d go in exactly
the 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
1969, where for a computer elective, a couple of high school students could sign up to work on an
application array at a local server farm. Before long, they could start their own company and jump on the
next big thing—whatever it might be—and take us on another 40-year cycle of computing. Here’s
hoping it’s as wild a ride as the past 40 years have been. And that someone equally driven to excellence is
doing the catering.
Matt Lake has tended the technology in three major corporations and one branch of local government.
He currently cultivates the computers a large two-campus school. He is longing for the day that BurgerSoft
becomes a reality, because he wants to sell the Bill’s Burger Bundle toys on eBay.