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Bill Gates Remembers 1979 310

Hugh Pickens writes "Last week Gizmodo had a special celebration of 1979, the last year before a digital tsunami hit, that put Bill Gates in a nostalgic mood this week. Bill chimed in with his own memories of that seminal year when everything changed. 'In 1979, Microsoft had 13 employees, most of whom appear in that famous picture that provides indisputable proof that your average computer geek from the late 1970s was not exactly on the cutting edge of fashion,' wrote Gates. 'By the end of the year we'd doubled in size to 28 employees. Even though we were doing pretty well, I was still kind of terrified by the rapid pace of hiring and worried that the bottom could fall out at any time.' What made Gates feel a little more confident was that he began to sense that BASIC was on the verge of becoming the standard language for microcomputers. 'By the middle of 1979, BASIC was running on more than 200,000 Z-80 and 8080 machines and we were just releasing a new version for the 8086 16-bit microprocessor. As the numbers grew, we were starting to think beyond programming languages, too, and about the possibility of creating applications that would have real mass appeal to consumers.' Gates remembers that in 1979 there were only 100 different software products that had more than $100 M in annual sales and all of them were for mainframes. 'In April, the 8080 version of BASIC became the first software product built to run on microprocessors to win an ICP Million Dollar Award. Today, I would be surprised if the number of million-dollar applications isn't in the millions itself' writes Gates. 'More important, of course, is the fact that more than a billion people around the world use computers and digital technology as an integral part of their day-to-day lives. That's something that really started to take shape in 1979.'"
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Bill Gates Remembers 1979

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  • way offtopic, but... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 27, 2009 @10:21AM (#28836795)
    This is in no way related to TFA, but the mention of old school Bill Gates reminded me of an article someone recently pointed me to. It's about Bill playing a game called "Petals Around the Rose" [] in 1977. While the game itself is pretty interesting, the story about how Bill approaches the problem says a whole lot about how Microsoft operated in the early days. Notably that he could completely miss the point of something, but he'd get close enough by bruteforcing things. It's an interesting parallel to how Microsoft has always mimics its competitors, and why their imitations don't always hit the mark.
  • by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @10:22AM (#28836809)
    But it shouldn't be too surprising that there might be so many million dollar products today compared to 1979 since the dollar has been decimated in value since in the last 30 years by inflation. A million dollar app in 2009 dollars would be worth nearly $3M.
  • by shoppa ( 464619 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @10:22AM (#28836813)

    By William Henry Gates III
    February 3, 1976

    An Open Letter to Hobbyists

    To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software courses, books and software itself. Without good software and an owner who understands programming, a hobby computer is wasted. Will quality software be written for the hobby market?

    Almost a year ago, Paul Allen and myself, expecting the hobby market to expand, hired Monte Davidoff and developed Altair BASIC. Though the initial work took only two months, the three of us have spent most of the last year documenting, improving and adding features to BASIC. Now we have 4K, 8K, EXTENDED, ROM and DISK BASIC. The value of the computer time we have used exceeds $40,000.

    The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however, 1) Most of these "users" never bought BASIC (less than 10% of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) The amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent on Altair BASIC worth less than $2 an hour.

    Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

    Is this fair? One thing you don't do by stealing software is get back at MITS for some problem you may have had. MITS doesn't make money selling software. The royalty paid to us, the manual, the tape and the overhead make it a break-even operation. One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

    What about the guys who re-sell Altair BASIC, aren't they making money on hobby software? Yes, but those who have been reported to us may lose in the end. They are the ones who give hobbyists a bad name, and should be kicked out of any club meeting they show up at.

    I would appreciate letters from any one who wants to pay up, or has a suggestion or comment. Just write to me at 1180 Alvarado SE, #114, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87108. Nothing would please me more than being able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.

    Bill Gates

    General Partner, Micro-Soft

  • Re:BASIC is good. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by stjobe ( 78285 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @10:26AM (#28836863) Homepage

    I too taught myself programming with BASIC, but a tad bit earlier than you - around the year the article is about to be honest, maybe a year or two later... Sinclair ZX-80, let me count the ways I'm thankful to you :)

    BASIC -> Z80 assembler -> DOS batch -> bash -> Perl -> Java, sometimes I miss the early days of typing in code listings from ZX Magazine and the like, trying to find out why the code worked (or not, more likely). Aah, better days - or maybe it was just that I was better then ;)

  • by Rambo Tribble ( 1273454 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @10:37AM (#28837005) Homepage
    . . . actually started a decade earlier with IBM. The MTST and MCST word processors first brought microprocessors to the desktop.
  • Re:BASIC is good. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by UnixUnix ( 1149659 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @10:37AM (#28837009) Homepage
    The horny divorcee, huh (Remembering a classic, [])
  • Early BASIC with DRM (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gr8_phk ( 621180 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @10:53AM (#28837217)
    I still have my 8080-based Interact computer from back then AND a (legal) copy of MS BASIC for it on tape. One thing I distinctly recall is that the Peek and Poke commands did not work out of the box. For Poke, you had to first enter "poke xxxxx,yy" or poke would result in an error. The poke command itself would execute, and then check this address for yy and return an error for any other value. A sort of lock. Not sure if Interact or MS decided to put this in. There was another series of things to do to unlock the peek command. IIRC there was a separate lock on the 2K rom address range. Do I still get in legal trouble if I post the values of XXXX,YY?? They are still burned into my brain. Does anyone at Microsoft still have this basic or know how to unlock these commands? I wonder...
  • by Paul Fernhout ( 109597 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @10:53AM (#28837221) Homepage

    "How to Become As Rich As Bill Gates" []
    William Henry Gates III made his best decision on October 28, 1955, the night he was born. He chose J.W. Maxwell as his great-grandfather. Maxwell founded Seattle's National City Bank in 1906. His son, James Willard Maxwell was also a banker and established a million-dollar trust fund for William (Bill) Henry Gates III. In some of the later lessons, you will be encouraged to take entrepreneurial risks. You may find it comforting to remember that at any time you can fall back on a trust fund worth many millions of 1998 dollars.

    In Bill Gates' own language, "Is this fair?" The guy is born a multi-millionaire, writes his commercial software on publicly funded computer at Harvard, learned to write software by dumpster diving at a computer center, and then, after all that, he writes a letter like this? That's chutzpah. From: []
    "The best way to prepare [to be a programmer] is to write programs, and to study great programs that other people have written. In my case, I went to the garbage cans at the Computer Science Center and fished out listings of their operating system."

    Bill Gate's could have spent his lifetime writing free software. That being born a multi-millionaire was not enough for him is a sign of an illness that causes "financial obesity", not something to be emulated. But, in the end, it is not Bill Gates who has destroyed our society as much as all the people who want to be the next Bill Gates and support regressive social policies they hope to benefit from someday.

    "The Wrath of the Millionaire Wannabe's" []
    Of course eventually, these guy realize that not only are they not millionaires, they're not making much progress toward that noble goal. That's when they get ugly. You see, they see themselves as capable, intelligent, hard working people - and they are for the most part - who "have what it takes" to "make it". They believe that the difference between those who "make it" and those who don't is being "capable, intelligent and hardworking". Things like "having rich parents", "getting just plain lucky" or "being a crook" don't factor into the equation anywhere. No, American society is a natural hierarchy where the most capable are "rich beyond their wildest dreams", and the non-rich are chumps that just don't measure up. ... But here's something I'll bet the dittoheads haven't thought of. Maybe they're the chumps. Maybe they've been sold a bogus "American dream" that never existed. Maybe "the rules" they play by were written by the people who have "made it" - not by the people who haven't. And maybe - just maybe - the people who have "made it" wrote those rules to keep the wannabes chasing a dream that's a mirage. Maybe Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Samuel Adams didn't fight to make the world safe for John D. Rockefeller - or Don LaPre, either. Maybe the Rolls Royce complete with bimbo was left out of our inalienable rights for a reason. Maybe the "pursuit of happiness" Thomas Jefferson wrote about was something a bit more profound than the empty joy of owning things you don't need so you can look down of down on the lesser mortals who lack your "ability". Maybe Thomas Jefferson intended the "pursuit of happiness" to be something attainable not just for anybody - but for everybody.

    See also the way that programmers could afford to work for "free" making free stuff: []

    Bill Gates is a smart and creative and hard working guy, no one can dispute that. It is too bad he did not apply that to helping all of societ

  • Re:Wait a minute... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Helios1182 ( 629010 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @11:10AM (#28837501)

    Yes, why would we recognize the birth of one of the largest and most influential technology companies -- a company that largely defined how personal computer would run. Even if you don't like their products or practices, Microsoft is a huge part of personal computing history.

  • In 1979... (Score:0, Interesting)

    by JockTroll ( 996521 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @11:16AM (#28837597)

    ... I learned fuckin' PASCAL so I could shit on the faces of BASIC geeks. Structured programming. Compilers. Serious fuckin' shit. BASIC was for nerds, PASCAL for jocks. Fuckin' line numbers, who's the loserboy that needs them? Can't you fuckin' edit your instructions without useless references?

    And for the real uberjock, there was Assembler. Fuckin' interpreted languages couldn't hold a candle to Assembler. OK, there was this shit about every damn machine having a different architecture but who cares, no pain no gain.

    Want to know the best thing about computer classes? They were full of nerds. First we gave them all a good beating, then we would put the chairs straight on their twisted backs and sit on them.

  • Re:Dr. Who (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ( 1563557 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @11:33AM (#28837919)

    Are you sure of that? If it weren't for Windows' stranglehold, OS design would be probably a decade ahead of where it is now, millions of man-hours would not have been lost to fixing/cleaning up malware/etc, and we'd all probably be a little bit richer. Is one multi-billionaire philanthropist worth a thousand multi-millionaire philanthropists?

    Do you also think that Billavius Gatus the axe-maker's axe market domination prevented the advancement of the axe for 3000 years? In other words, do you honestly believe that success stifles progress?

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @11:37AM (#28838005)
    I attended the the 2nd West Coast Computer Fair in 1978 in San Jose. I remember Bill as a skinny red hair kid promoting BASIC in the MSFT booth.

    These computer fairs were exciting. Before them, computers were mainly sold by corporations to other corporations. They were locked up then in central IT facilities. (Well, some things never change :-)
  • Re:Dr. Who (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @12:08PM (#28838639)

    Maybe it would be. Maybe, though, that whole "computer stuff" would not have taken off as it did and computers would still be the toys of geeks because nobody else could figure them out, the internet would still be the geeks' meeting place because nobody else could figure out how to connect to it...

    Say about MS what you want, but they knew how to make things easy for the masses. You could connect to the internet using Windows a decade ago without knowing whether TCP/IP was a protocol or the abbreviation for the Chinese secret service.

    Yes, it would have been better for the quality of the 'net if these people never found their way in. But computer prices depend on the number of units sold, and development depends on return of investment. I'm not so sure if the microprocessor was where it is today if you couldn't sell the number of units you can sell because "everyone" uses computers, mostly for recreation.

  • Re:WAIT 6502,0 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by McNihil ( 612243 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @12:26PM (#28839031)

    Well... I would say that it really mushroomed when the Sinclair ZX 80 was made and later on ZX 81 (Timex here in North America.) 99% of my computer literate friends started on these (yes this be Europe.) Note also that these were not running MS Basic.

    I was not dissing Billy not knowing about PET... he definitely knows (how could he not?) I was just referring to the blatant and consistent laps of showing "credit where credit is due." If it wasn't for inexpensive computers like Commodore and Sinclair we might have still worn lab coats at work to operate the monsters (AS/400 regardless of Billy and his associates. Now Jobs is an other matter... more in the veins of expensive jewelery more than anything else... iPhone being the epitome of this.

    Note: I am happy that current "jewelery" is running Unix quite well :-D

  • But this sounds more like a bug than DRM. Presumably the code was attempting to check the value you'd just written, but was actually checking a fixed address due to omitting some indirection. Which is easy to do in assembler.

    That sounds fair enough. And, in any case, Microsoft's product was embedded in ROM - certainly it was for TRS-80 and even the IBM PC has a ROM BASIC. So they didn't really need DRM for a while. Sometimes I still drool over the possibility of Windows in ROM, and am interested in Linux in ROM from the likes of ASUS for the same reason.

  • Re:Dr. Who (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hitmark ( 640295 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @12:58PM (#28839619) Journal

    only that he seems to run his philanthropy like he ran microsoft.

    was there not something on /. a while back about the gates foundation requiring exclusivity agreements from scientists its sponsored?

  • by Backward Z ( 52442 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @03:01PM (#28841781)

    Is that most people who are not millionaires but are working to become one would freely admit that they if they don't get there, its because they weren't good enough. You can work hard, study hard, etc, but, if you aren't good enough, you don't get to make the team millionaire.

    They would freely admit that, but they'd be wrong. Just because people drank the kool-aid and then agree with the guy at the front of the room behind the podium doesn't mean they're all right.

    The America you describe might have existed in the previous centuries, but at this point in time, the system is showing extravagant fault.

    All those guys who already became millionaires? They spend all their time making sure they stay millionaires. In order for them to stay millionaires, it means they have to keep other people out of/from taking over their game. Corportations engage in monopolistic activity constantly. Not only is it advantageous to have a position of financial liquidity as many of them do, many industries pump millions of dollars (in some cases daily i.e. the medical insurance industry right now) into lobbyists and special interest groups in order to manipulate legistation to support their ambitions and of course, to keep other people from taking their slice of the pie.

    I mean, come on! Look at all the anti-competition crap MS has pulled over the years.

    I've seen too many people in my life with strong ideas, know-how, and drive fail time and time again to get their companies off the ground, and I guarantee you, it's not because they're not good enough. Every time, it's because of some asshole venture capitalist wanting a bigger slice of the pie.

    That's not the America I was promised when I was a child and that's not the America I want to be living in.

  • by gr8_phk ( 621180 ) on Monday July 27, 2009 @09:33PM (#28846325)
    To clarify:

    1) I was NOT talking about syntax. xxxx,yy are place holders for specific fixed values that I did not provide so as not to get sued (that's a joke OK).

    2) The interpreter specifically checked fixed address xxxxx for fixed value yy AFTER the command was executed. If yy was not found it errored out. This was not a check that the poke worked, it was to make it appear that the command wasn't supported (which should have been indicated by SN error, but was something else). Having hacked the interpreter myself to add/remove commands I can say it was easy enough that this was not an accident.

    3) The peek command (not poke) specifically disallowed looking at the interpreter or the ROM. And I believe peek itself was also disabled initially. You had to do more poking to circumvent those checks. Who figured this stuff out (or leaked it) I don't know, but it's all documented in the Interaction newsletter - I *might* still have every issue printed.

    4) As I said in my original post, this BASIC is on tape, not in ROM. The Interact ROM provided text display (bitmap gfx only 112x77) rectangle filling and tape read/write functions and not much else.

    For those wondering what this odd machine was, Interact was based in AnnArbor Michigan and only a few thousand machines were produced. In a strange coincidence, years later I had a job working for the guy who originally wrote the Interact ROM.

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