Father of DOS Still Having Fun at Microsoft

Programmer Says His Place in History Due to Timing, Necessity

  In the fabled history of the PC revolution and Microsoft's place in it, the tale comes to a part that goes like this: It's 1980, and the leviathan IBM calls on a rambunctious company near Seattle that IBM hopes can fill the software hole in its embryonic PC project. The young Microsoft can do it, but to close the deal, it needs a crucial element in the package: an operating system for a 16-bit machine. And it needs it fast.

Enter Tim Paterson, programmer at a small Tukwila hardware shop, Seattle Computer Products, and known by Paul Allen to have already written an operating system for a 16-bit processor. In the ragged informality of those days, the program is QDOS, for "Quick and Dirty Operating System." Microsoft acquires the rights to QDOS, 86-DOS officially, and licenses a version to their secret client, IBM.

Tim Paterson, original author of DOS, is in the eighth year of his current stint at Microsoft.
From there, Microsoft's steep trajectory of success takes off, and the story of MS-DOS 1.0 and its descendants-eventually the most widely used computer program in the world-is well-known.

But the story of Tim Paterson, now in the eighth year of his current stint at Microsoft, is not as familiar. Surprising, given that he sometimes bears the heavy mantle "The Father of DOS." It's a quieter celebrity the amiable software design engineer carries around, and it's a celebrity he's comfortable with-when the stories are accurate.

He squirms, for instance, at the implication that he's fixated on his authorship of DOS. He holds up a recent profile in Forbes, contrived as a first-person account. "I was 24 when I wrote DOS," it begins. "It's an accomplishment that probably can't be repeated by anyone ever."

"That really makes me sound egomaniacal," he frets. And if there is anything the genial programmer from the Visual J++ group appears to not suffer from, it's egomania.

Then there's that title.

"I prefer 'original author,'" he explains. "I don't like the word 'inventor' because it implies a certain level of creativity that wasn't really the case. Besides," he laughs, "there's enough people who think it's nothing to be proud of. If I say 'I invented DOS,' they say, 'Well, good for you, sucker.'"

The Mother of Invention...

He figures his place in history is due to timing. And necessity. Seattle Computer needed an operating system to sell with the new 8086 machines. Gary Kildall's Digital Research had provided the standard operating system, called CP/M, for earlier chip generations, but was overdue with software for the new processor. Paterson, tired of waiting, went to work to build his own.

"To get to that first version took about two man-months," Paterson recalls. "I worked on it about half the time over a four-month period," although by the time the original MS DOS 1.0 shipped with IBM a year later, he calculates his time investment "was more like six man-months."

Neither Paterson nor Seattle Computer knew who Microsoft's customer was until he was hired here in 1981. "IBM," he remembers thinking. "That's weird. Big computer company. Hope they do well." He reflects about this briefly. "I have no great ability to figure out where the future is going," he says.

Eventually Microsoft invested a total of $75,000 for 86-DOS. Both Microsoft and Paterson have fended off legal and professional challenges involving DOS-Microsoft settled a contract dispute brought by Seattle Computer for $1 million in 1986. And Paterson has taken pains over the years to detail the originality of the 86-DOS program, despite a surface resemblance to CP/M.

Paterson passed in and out of Microsoft during the 80s, but returned for good in 1990. He has patents and industry awards to his professional credit (including the Stewart Alsop Hindsight Award in 1991, recognized along with Bill Gates).

But the prominent "First Place" trophies and clippings on the wall of his Building 2 office come from the world of off-road racing, in which he bangs a four-wheel drive Mazda around gravel back roads throughout the Northwest with his wife Penny riding shotgun. "I'm still having lots of fun," he says. And the smile on his face confirms it.