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A History of Microcomputers, Bill Gates (MS) and Apple

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999


Computers really started around 1976 with the Apple][. Now I know some people would like to start with the Eniac and other so called computers (in the 40's and 50's), some will even try to stretch it back to Babbages Inference engine. However, computers weren't what they are today until people could afford them and use them. My history starts with the "Personal Computer" -- kit computers need not apply.

There was some interesting stuff done before the first computer. Intel created the 4004 processor - a 4 bit microprocessor that had more use in programmable calculators than anything close to what we would call a computer today, but you've gotta start somewhere. The claim to fame for the 4004 (besides being the predecessor to the 8008, 8080, and later 8088 all the way up to the Pentiums of today) was Intels first bug (they have a long history of bugs), that caused the machine to burn up -- I don't mean just run so hot that you need special coolers and fans, like most Intel chips -- I mean literally burn itself out(1).

(1) Computers have instruction sets -- values you send the computer to command it to do different things (do math, jump somewhere, do some conditional tests, etc.), and there are lots of possibilities. These values (instructions) are called machine code and are just groups of bits (zero's and one's) making larger numbers - usually represented in a different counting system called hexadecimal (base16) -- [see Counting Computerese]. Humans are not that good with numbers, so instead we give these instruction mnemonic representations (abbreviations) of what they will do. Like LDA (Load Accumulator), BRA (branch always), and that is how people used to program. The numeric representation is called machine code, the mnemonic one is called assembly code. They are both different representations of the same values. Companies figure out what the instructions are based on numerical groupings, but at that time didn't always think about what would happen if you sent the computer a value (instruction) they hadn't planned on. These were called "undocumented instructions" also a euphemism for - "We didn't think of THAT!".

There was one particular accidental value (instruction) you could send to the 4004 processor that would cause it to burn out. PHSST! No more worky - ever. That instruction was affectionately named - HCF or Halt and Catch Fire. I affectionately call it the forerunner of the FDIV bug of the Pentium or overflow bug of the PentiumPro and PentiumII. Intel is not the only company to have problems, they just seem to do it best.


The first really successful home-kit computer was done by a company called MITS, and the computer was affectionately named the Altair (after a star that was a destination in a StarTrek episode). This was the first home KIT computer, and didn't have a keyboard or monitor - just switches and LED's. Not very exciting by todays standards - but actually owning your own computer was really neat in 1974 (1)

(1) I later worked for Pertec, who had bought out MITS. They were making Motorola 68000 based multi-user micro-computers and lots of peripherals.

The Kit Computer was a panic attention to save a dieing Calculator manufacturer (because of pressures by companies like T.I.).The Altair resulted from the collaboration with Les Solomon of Popular Electronics who more or less gave away the basic concept to Ed Roberts of MITS. MITS offered a reward for anyone that would make a basic language (a relatively easy to use language) that ran on the Altair. Well this Harvard drop out and his friend decided to go for it, and wrote the basic. These hackers were Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and Micro-Soft was born (later to be renamed Microsoft). Their language worked, and they started selling it for $300 a whack - which was as much as the computer Kit cost itself.

There is a lot of myth about Gates and Allen and the writing of that Basic. Basic had existed for a long time before Microsofts implementation -- they did not create anything new! They did get their basic to run the first time they tried it on a real Altair, but they wrote the language using an Altair emulator on borrowed (see stolen) computer time on a mini-computer. So emulators are not new, and it would have been a big shock if it had not run the first time. It was a marvel of emulator technology at best - certainly not any big deal about Bill and Paul programming skills.

Since the computer industry was a bunch of academics and hobbiests that were used to giving away their programs, selling programs was heresy -- charging more than the computer itself was insulting. Gate's Basic quickly became a highly pirated program both because of the cost -- and because it was buggy. The pirated version was fixed and improved (most users were programmers at that time so they could fix things) -- so the Pirated version was actually better than the original -- which made Gates one angry geek.

Bill Gates was so mad about people stealing his program, that he said some stupid things (nothing has changed) and pissed off most of the users of the time. He got a few people angry enough to write their own version of Basic called Tiny-Basic. It wasn't as powerful as Bill's basic, but they were selling via shareware ($5 I think) "on-the-cheap" -- because Bill's basic was so over-priced. Bill Gates was livid - and started the first micro-computer industry law-suit over the gall of someone undercutting him. Basically Gates claimed that they were trying to drive him out of business with unfair business practices (Oh, the irony of it all!). Bill Gates made some claims like "I should be able to charge whatever I want for software" and other memorables. I think the threat of suit was too much (and Bill Gates had plenty of money through his mom and dad), and so the tiny basic guys just made their Basic "public domain", and gave it away for free. But Microsoft started a long proud tradition of corrupting the spirit of the law, and bullying competitors, using lawyers.

The Beginning

A couple of other guys created another Kit computer called the Apple I - there are still a few around and are collectors items today. These two guys (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) tried to get anyone interested in their concept. They went to HP (where Woz worked) and tried to sell them on his computer - HP wasn't interested. So they went off on their own and decided to sell Jobs VW mini-van, and make their machine. Later they got an investor and buisiness guy (AC "Mike" Markkula) involved - who controlled Apple and was the boardroom puppet-master for 20 years. They created the first real pre-built home computer, called the Apple][. No one around there, except computer dweebs, thought a pre-built computer would be much of a success, but damn if the idea didn't have appeal to consumers. A Basic Language had to be done, so Woz hacked a pretty good one up in no time, but later they caved and licensed Microsofts Basic. The most impressive thing about the Apple][ was that it could do hi-res graphics and color, something that people didn't think was possible at the time (for economic reasons).

The Apple][ was built on a processor called the 6502, which was the basis of a few other computers that came out within a year of the Apple. Ironically the processor was designed by a company called MosTek - which was owned by Commodore (a calculator company that made computers and went out of business after the Amiga) - and Commodore died out long before Apple who used their processors. In fact Commodore almost went out of business before Apple stopped making the Apple]['s. (In the very early computing years I was very pro-Commodore, but I don't advertise that much since the Mac).

Other computers of the time had more capabilities in one area or another than the Apple][ (like the Commodore PET's). But the glamor of the hi-res graphics, the charisma of Apple in general, and the Software variety of the Apple][ made it a success - and then a single product made the market explode. Visi-Calc, written by Daniel Bricklin. A concept as simple as a columnar spreadsheet (which had been done on paper for generations) was written into a computer program so that it could be done automatically, and boom! Many small businesses needed home computers. That is where the outdated concept of the "Killer-App" came from. Now days computers are used for more than one thing -- so the idea of a "Killer App" is not as powerful as it once was, but you can't convince the press of that.

In an ironic footnote, Bricklin (an MBA) created a software product that basically made the personal computer viable. Niether MS nor Apple had any interest in buying his product, which later helped create a demand for both companies. He didn't pattent the concepts, or he would be a very very rich man. MBA's are rediculed by many engineers as being worthless -- while many an engineer are gainfully employed because of the efforts of this one MBA. And almost as ironically it was an MBA who made one very large buisiness mistake that cost him probably 100's of millions of dollars. While software engineers (like Bill Gates) ripped off his idea and got rich on it.

Now Apple got tons of money and went from 1 million in sales to 10 million in 3 years, then 100 million in sales in 3 more years, then 1 billion in sales in 3 more years. It was astounding. Jobs (and Woz, and almost anyone near apple) was immediately richer than they needed to be. So Jobs and Apple started looking not at how they could only make more money, but how they could shape the industry (and world), and started on the Mac project (and later Lisa), but this little computer project ended up taking much more time and effort than anyone would realize - and Apple had to get a few black eyes along the way.

IBM and MS

Well the micro industry suddenly bloomed from a small little hobby toy, into something that many small businesses wanted and felt they needed. IBM wasn't about to let the market go, but wasn't about to respond quickly or well and threaten their huge Mainframe market, so they created a little rogue sub-division to make a personal computer - without any resources or time. This Bocca-Raton Florida group was starting the IBM-PC. They started slapping together off the shelf parts, into an intentionally cheap to build and slow computer (so as not to threaten mainframes), based on designs and technology that was years out of date - but it had one magic variable, the letters - I, B, M.

They needed software to run on it, and an Operating System. IBM could create the Operating System - but it would take 5 years, and probably be some huge over-documented time-sharing mainframe OS that would run like a dog on the cheap Intel processor they had. So the Boca Raton group wisely shopped around. They went to Bill Gates because Bill's mommy happened to hang out with the president of IBM (through charity work), and Billy boy lied through his teeth. He stated they already had an OS running on that processor and would be ready to go in time for IBM. Well IBM bought it, and made a major mistake - they only licensed NON-EXCLUSIVE rights to the OS.

Now Bill Gates and Microsoft had to come up with something fast - their prior claim to fame was a mediocre basic implementation, not an OS. They found a company (called Seattle Computers) that had ripped off the design of Digital Researches CP/M OS (Digital Research was formerly known as Inter-Galactic Digital Research - just to prove that the micro industry was ruled by dweebs). So in the spirit of mutual theft - Bill Gates conned Seattle Computers out of their ripoff of CP/M for $50K - which was a fair chunk of change for the industry. However, if anyone at seattle computers had a clue what the OS was going to be used for (IBM), they would not have sold it so cheap.

Digital Research was livid at the cloning of their OS (and a cheap clone at that), and tried to later Suit Microsoft . Gates already had scum sucking lawyers on his side - and so deftly got some sort of "good faith" clause going - so Digital Research had to suit Seattle Computers (the Original Cloners) and not him. Since Seattle Computers only got $50K in the first place, they immediately went out of business because of the law-suit and Digital Research got nothing. Digital Research (and its founder) were screwed, and pretty much fell apart - and the founder later killed himself, and was a broken man. Something about having his creation taken from him, and having someone else (Bill Gates) get the fame and fortune for it (while he got screwed) was too much for him. Especially considering he and Bill weren't the best of friends anyway. He felt cheated since Bill Gates and him had a sort of agreement - he would not write languages and Bill Gates wouldn't do OS's. So much for trust (and non-competition).

So IBM took their slapped together machine, and quickly put an small amount of proprietary code into it (called a BIOS) to protect it from piracy, and licensed the OS. IBM fiercely protected their copyrights and tried to stop all cloning, but later Compaq and Phoenix were able to legally reverse engineer the BIOS well enough that IBM no longer controlled the fate of the PC. Once people had a BIOS that worked like the PC's, then they (and anyone they sold their BIOS to) could make a PC clone. IBM clones were NOT voluntary - it was contested and lost. If IBM had engineered a better computer to begin with, then they probably would not have lost control as quickly as they did. But IBM hadn't done any engineering, and a scant 4 years after the inception of the PC they lost control. MS was gleefully selling their DOS to anyone with a buck, and IBM PC became the biggest "could'a been" stories of the decade.

Unfortunately loss of control of the PC meant anarchy, and an already bad design just degraded further as it had no one guiding its future directions - 10 companies pulled in different directions, and eventually one (usually the worst implementation) would win-out, and the buyers of the other 9 implementations were screwed. Fortunately a few players have gained enough control that things aren't quite so bad today. Intel and MS have enough clout that they can guide (to a point) the PC, and bring just a little bit of order to the anarchy - but as of yet, no one has been able to redesign the PC and make it usable (plug & play, a newer architecture, etc.).


Now the Mac project started before the PC was created - but it didn't finish until afterwards. Apple had hired a guy (Jef Raskin) who had worked on a concept of an all graphics-based computer - and he later went to work for Xerox (Palo Alto Research Center - PARC) to implement some of his concepts, and went to Apple later still to implement those concepts. PARC was a bunch of ivory tower academics making very neat experimental machines -- that no one could afford and did not have to face the realities of the real world. But their ideas were years or even decades ahead of their times. Many of the concepts were brilliant and out of them came concepts like Ethernet, GUI, PostScript, LaserPrinter, Networking, Object Oriented design, and more. But PARC was not where those things could become products - just a place for those concepts to congeal and be mulled over and played with - in every case it took some other companies commitment, and forcing real-work design constraints on the concepts to make the ideas into products. Often it required generations of effort and maturing before those ideas could become products.

One of the biggest concepts was the GUI (Graphical User Interface). Raskin had felt that computers should be in graphics mode all the time, and display things on the screen exactly as you would see the output, and that these graphics would help to make a computer easier to use. He was working on a very low-end machine that was to become the Mac.

Jobs was rich, and now had an ego to as big as his income. He was a great motivator, but at the time also had the people skills of Sadam Hussien. He was bouncing around inside of Apple, and was a hard to control rogue. But politically he was still the founder. He was pretty much thrown out of the Lisa team, and landed in the Macintosh team.

Raskin convinced Jobs (who was not that hot on the idea) to visit PARC and see all those cool ideas (like GUI's). Jobs Visited PARC and was thrilled at some of the concepts - and later got some of his people a second visit to see these concepts as well. For the right to visit (and usage of some of the concepts) Apple gave Xerox some stock (I think it was around a million dollars worth). Apple did not steal anything -- it was paid for, and Xerox did so voluntarily. The machine they saw at the time was called the ALTO, it had overlapping Windows, two menus per window (one for cut-copy-paste), a multi button mouse (with different buttons doing different things), and a chorded keyboard for doing entry. It was not a marketable computer, and only the forerunner of a GUI, but it had many concept in place and it set a seed for the Mac team - who went home a feverently started work on the Macintosh. The ALTO was never sold, nor could it have been - Xerox did market a later machine called the Star, but never really sold well (and I think it was only leased). It was more a document management system than a personal computer, and it never got off the ground.

The Mac team (which later included more defectors from Xerox PARC) took some of the concepts they had learned, and created many many new ones and created the GUI. Those PARC defectors were interested in taking the concepts and turning them into products (something that would not happen at Xerox). While they had some great ideas from PARC, there was a lot of work to be done, and all those involved have stated that the GUI as we know it came about because of the Mac. The people involved states that they were not able to leverage much, other than very loose concepts from their previous work.

Technically the Mac and Lisa teams were cross talking and leveraging each others designs (and often code) despite the fact that Management was trying to keep nice little seperate kingdoms. Jobs made the Mac into a baby-Lisa. He changed processors and just about everything was done his way -- this condemed Raskin into second fiddler. Raskin quickly left, and Jobs got control of the whole project. Management was happy because Jobs was out of their hair. From what I can tell, there are more of Jobs fingerprints on the Mac than Raskins. Raskin left early, and his concepts for what it should be (other than a GUI) were substantially different than what it became.

The Mac (and Lisa) programmers made rules and rules and rules for how a computer should interact, what a desktop metaphor was, how a user could interact with windows and menu's, etc. There was not a single line of code, or a piece of code design that really came from the Xerox ALTO. They were designed in different languages with different limitations. The ALTO had multiple windows, but windows in the background could not be updated - while the Macs could. Windows on an ALTO did not have direct manipulation (you couldn't move them or resize them without going into a menu, selecting a command, and then typing in the location or size in numerical values). There was no menu bar, no shortcut keys, no disk or trash or printer icons. Apple created all these things and more. People that claim the Mac was a ripoff of the ALTO really do not know what the hell they are talking about. (It is like saying a 747 airplane is a ripoff off of the ox-cart because they both have wheels).


While Apple was creating the Mac (and LISA) they realized they needed applications for it. Microsoft was not happy with just OS's and languages - they wanted to write Applications. But the PC market had bigger competitors and better products than MS could do, so they wanted to play in a smaller pond first. Apple and MS agreed to have MS write some Apps for the Mac. Bill Gates was awed by the Mac and its capabilities. When the Mac was getting close to release, Bill Gates threatened NOT to release his applications (Multiplan and Word) if Apple didn't agree to a few things - allow him to make a windowing based group of applications (later to become Windows) and for Apple NOT to release their Basic they had written - because Bill Gates was going to release MS-Basic for the Mac and he didn't want any competition.

Ironically the Basic Language that Apple had created was MacBasic and was a psuedo object based and very structured basic. Later Bill Atkinson (of Apple) also created HyperCard (object based prototyping and programming) that was done because he was pissed that MS had dropped their basic for the Mac and Apple didn't have theirs either, and so he created what he thought was an easy to use programming tool. Microsoft ripped-off of those two technologies (MacBasic and HyperCard) and created VisualBasic for PC's. In many ways MacBasic and HyperCard were both superior and existed for years before Visual Basic - if only Andy had chosen Basic as the syntax, or if MacBasic had existed long enough to mature its visual aspects a little more - then the product would have existed on the Mac for a decade before the PC. But I digress, it is only meant to show that nothing original seems to come from MS.

Later Bill Gates took his lead Macintosh Application programmer and had him create Windows. This is not like where when Apple took some rough concepts of GUI and engineered everything and did all their own creation. Microsoft copied procedure names, variable names, API's, and most of the Mac concepts. It was a ripoff job, and worst of all it was a poor one. Microsoft did not really understand what they were doing, or why Apple had done some things - and so many of the changes they made were from ignorance and were for the worse. Anyone who claims that Windows is not a ripoff of the Mac is not a programmer that was around then or has used both. Worst of all it was a poor rip-off of the Mac. (At least you can forgive ripoffs if they improve things or help progress the industry).

The future

Founders personalities effect corporations. It happened with IBM and Apple and MS. Apples biggest problems started because they lost Steve Jobs and sort of lost their guidance. But Steve Jobs was an egomaniacal charismatic young kid who was not making the best business decisions at the time of his leaving ('86). He needed to mature and grow - which he has done a lot. Having him back at Apple gives apple back a piece of their soul - and may give them a visionary which they need. Jobs has more money than he wants or needs - and his motivation does not appear to be wealth or power - he wants to dent the universe, to make a difference to make products that are insanely great - and his company picks up that spirit and tries to do the same. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail - but they try.

Microsoft has Bill Gates. Gates is an insecure ex-dweeb who seems to hate the world for his geekiness and now the world is going to pay. His motivations are not good products, any ideals, not progress nor making a difference - he wants power (and money). He only values winning - not how he wins, not what he creates, just the ends. He will cheat, steal, break every moral rule (and maybe law) to get what he wants. Microsoft products are often reflections of Bill's philosophy. They don't want to make the best - they want to sell the most. They sell boxes that happen to contain software - but they could be full of bricks for all MS cares (and are about as useful for many users) as long as MS get the power and the control and they win. There is no friendly competition for MS, no sharing of industries or concepts. They take from the industry, harm the users, make buggy products - and then charge for upgrades or fixing those bugs. They are not evil so much as amoral and self-serving - but their interests are often diametrically opposed to my own (and most computer users). It is for these reasons that MS is disliked so much. They win not based on the quality of their products - but because of the determination and tenacity of their leader. Each win for MS seems to be a loss for the industry as progress is slowed, a superior product is driven out (or down), productivity is reduced, all so that one man can try to compensate for his fear of losing and getting the attention he never got as a kid.

Even if you ignore the philosophy of the companies, or its leaders - I still know which company will create the better product for me to use (most of the time). And those with open minds, and that use both are often raging Mac (or Apple) advocates for a reason. And the industry hates MS for a reason - and that reason is not jealousy as the truly myopic claim.

Note: Many of my documents are live and will change. Many of the facts are from my memory of events as they happened or as I have read about them. I need to fill in names and dates and double check some things - so there is a certain grain of salt factor here. If you have any corrections or clarifications then I welcome them. There is also some editing done for the sake of brevity (believe it or not) and many stories are more complex than presented and I'm just giving you the highlights.

Created: 2/16/97
Updated: 01/19/99

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