by Matt Lake

What If Bill Gates had Become a Restaurateur Instead of Making Software?

Feb 28, 200813 mins
AppleEnterprise ApplicationsLinux

Imagine if Bill Gates had studied food science instead of computer science. A world without the Empire That DOS Built would be a very different world...

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 everything else.

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?

Piece Meal

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.

DOS Boot

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 ever heard!”

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 gave them.

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.