PC pioneer Kildall dies in Monterey By Rory J. O'Connor
Kildall lost to Gates with IBM Personal computer giant remembered for deal he didn't make
Personal computer pioneer Gary Kildall, who but for a single failed business deal might have enjoyed the wealth and fame of Bill Gates, died Monday night in a Monterey hospital at age 52.
Kildall was admitted late Sunday to the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. He died around 9 p.m. Monday, said Jean Tierney, the hospital's administrative supervisor. She said the hospital did not know the cause of death.
Kildall apparently was taken to the hospital after suffering a concussion in a fall, said Thomas Rolander, a longtime friend and former business associate of Kildall. While an autopsy report is still incomplete, Rolander said evidence indicates Kildall suffered a fatal heart attack. It is unclear if the two conditions were related.
Kildall's career spans the history of the personal computer, which he was instrumental in popularizing in the 1970s.
"Gary's technical contributions in the beginning days of microcomputing were order-of-magnitude enhancements to the capabilities with which we were working," said Jim Warren, a Woodside consultant who played a key role in early microcomputing. "The were enhancements both in technical power and in equitable consumer-oriented pricing and support practices."
In 1972, Kildall was an associate professor of computer science at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and a consultant for Intel Corp., which the year before had created the world's first microprocessor chip. Kildall wrote a version of the PL/I programming language that worked on the chip, the Intel 4004. A year later, frustrated with the difficulty of making the 4004 work with disk drives and other computer components, he wrote the first personal computer operating system.
A PC Breakthrough
The program, called Control Program for Micro-Computers and shortened to CP/M, offered hobbyists a way to use their microcomputers, as they were then called, in the same way as larger minicomputers and mainframes. Before, the computers were programmed in laborious ways, like flipping switches on the front panel of the machines. With CP/M, they could type instructions on a keyboard, store data on a floppy disk or tape recorder and view results on a screen or printer.
Digital Research, the company started in 1976 by Kildasll and his first wife, Dorth McEwen, sold CP/M for $75 each. Kildall, who disliked business, said in a 1981 interview that he hoped "just to support my computer habits" with the proceeds.
But the typical minicomputer operating system at the time sold for at least $10,000, and Intel's own operating system for microcomputers cost $800. CP/M soon became the standard operating system for personal computers, which could be bought for as little as a thousand dollars. By 1981, Kildall was one of the best known figures in the $2 billion personal computer business, and his $10 million company had sold 250,000 copies of CP/M.
Negotiated with IBM
However, Kildall is probably best remembered for being on the losing end of one of the biggest deals in computer history.
In 1980, IBM contacted Digital Research, hoping to persuatde it to produce a new version of CP/M for the personal computer IBM was secretly developing. Kildall didn't think much of IBM"s chances but met with the company anyway.
"IBM wanted to take the market away from Apple, and they looked at them and saw that the SoftCard (a CP/M add-in card for the Apple II) was an important part of it," Kildall said in a 1991 interview.
Negotiations went badly, Rolander said. IBM wanted Digital Research to sign a non-disclosure agreement but refused to sign one in return. IBM wanted to pay a flat fee for CP/M, with no royalties, and change the software's name.
Silicon Valley legend has it that Kildall, a passionate private pilot, missed a crucial meeting because he decided to go flying instead. While Kildall did fly that morning, Rolander said, he attended the afternoon meeting.
IBM decided to hedge its bets. During a visit to tiny Microsoft Corp., to obtain a version of its BASIC programming language, IBM inquired if the company also could provide an operating system.
Microsoft moves in
Even though he didn't have one, Microsoft founder Bill Gates readily agreed to IBM's request. He bought a CP/M clone called DOS from Seattle Computer Products, a company run by a friend of Gates, for $250,000. That program became MS-DOS, proably the most widely used software in the world, and helped turn Gates into a billionaire.
Kildall had earlier sued Seattle Computer Products for copyright infringement. When he confronted IBM with the fact, IBM responded that it would agree to license CP/M as well -- if Kildall agreed never to sue. He did, only to discover when the IBM PC was introduced that the price of DOS was $40, while the price of CP/M-86 was $200 more.
"It was only through inadequately sharp business hustling that MS-DOS took the IBM cake when, by rights, CP/M should have done so," Warren said.
But hard-nosed business was not Kildall's style.
"Basicly I am a gadget-oriented person," Kildall said in 1981. "I like to work with gadgets, dials and knobs. I'm not a very competitive person. I'm forced into it."
Kildasll remained active in the industry until his death. He was Digital Research chairman until 1991, when Novell Inc. bought the company. He started an early multimedia company in Monterey in 1985, and later moved to Austin, Texas, to persue the field. He recently returned to Monterey and spent the last year and a half writing an unpublished book on the computer industry called "Computer Connections."
Kildall was born in Seattle on May 19, 1942, and studied computer science at the University of Washington, eventually earning a Ph.D. He then took his post at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Kildall met McEwen while in high school. The two married in 1963 and were divorced 20 years later. Kildall married his second wife, Karen, in 1986. They were recently divorced.
Kildall is survived by two children; Scott, of San Fransisco, and Kristin, of Seattle; his mother, Emma; and a sister, Patti Guberlet, both of Seattle.
Kildall, who was also race car enthusiast who collected and rebuilt Grand Prix cars, will be cremated after a memorial service later this week. Details are incomplete.
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