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The tragic story of Gary Kildall and the importance of being in the right place at the right time

The tech world brims with stories of triumph, showmanship, betrayal and deceit. But this is not one of those stories. This is a story of fate and confusion undoing what might have been a great testimony of entrepreneurship. This is the story of Gary Kildall.

There was a time in the tech world when very few doubted Gary’s ascension until all of sudden things started crumbling before screeching to a heartbreaking halt.

What happened in between can best be described as a fateful turn of events.

In case you are still wondering who the heck this Kildall guy is, well, he was someone who could have been a multi-billionaire had he been in the right place at the right time.

He was someone who could have been as famous as Bill Gates had he played his cards right.

He was a tech visionary – a central figure in the development of personal computing in the ’70s and the early ’80s.

Gary started his career as a mathematics professor at Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California. With his background in mathematics, he started to lean towards programming. In 1972, he completed his Ph.D in Computer Science and started consulting for Intel.

It was around this time that Gary developed operating software for Intel 4004 microprocessor. He called it PL/M (Programming Language for Microcomputers).

Some time later, he came up with CP/M (Control Programming for Microcomputers) which could help the microprocessor control a floppy drive.

Apparently, CP/M failed to excite the Intel honchos and they decided to give it a pass.

Not happy with the cold response of Intel, Gary along with his wife Dorothy decided to go full hog with CP/M.

The couple started a company called Intergalactic Digital Research out of their old Victorian home in California. Later in 1977, they incorporated it as Digitial Research Inc. (DRI).

Gary Kildall and his wife Dorothy (pic courtesy:

Before CP/M came along, every computer had to have a tailor-made software. Gary changed that. By 1979, CP/M was the most popular 8-bit operating system in the world. Microcomputer companies such as IMSAI 8080, North Star, Osborne were all running on CP/M.

At the same time, a little known company called Traf-O-Data run by a certain Bill Gates and Paul Allen also used CP/M to collect data from the roadway traffic counters.

By the late-70s, the waves of change were sweeping away microcomputers. Gary was going to straddle the change from microcomputers to personal computers. A change even he didn’t see coming.

An old UK advertisement of DRI's CP/M
A 1982 advertisement of CP/M (source:

Steve Wozniak and co. hit the market with first Apple personal computer in 1976 and soon others followed.

The PC market ballooned to $1 billion size within a matter of three years.

It wasn’t long before IBM – the tech giant of that era – took notice and decided to jump into the fray.

IBM knew it was late to the PC market and had to come out all guns blazing.

In 1981, the IBM crack team tasked with creating the first IBM PC decided to buy off-the-shelf components along with software in order to expedite its entry to the PC market.

Bill Gates and Microsoft were on the rise by the early ’80s.

IBM approached Gates who rightly pointed them to DRI citing that Microsoft had yet to build an operating system of its own.

However, before moving on, IBM legal team had Bill sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

What went wrong?

The legend is that Bill Gates called Gary Kildall to inform him about the arrival of an important group of people.

His NDA with IBM forbid him to mention anything about the company and their meeting though. Sadly, Gary failed to decipher the cryptic message of Bill Gates and left for a flying trip in his private plane.

When IBM came knocking, Gary wasn’t home. His wife Dorothy and a team of DRI lawyers met the IBM team and apparently, failed to inspire any confidence in them.

IBM wanted a forever license for CP/M – something Dorothy refused flat-out.

Further, IBM wanted Dorothy to sign a unilateral non-disclosure agreement which she and her legal team weren’t very comfortable with.

By the time, Gary met the IBM team, a fair bit of damage was done. Gary wanted to sell CP/M on a royalty basis, retaining its name. IBM wanted to pay a one-time fee instead.

As a result, IBM team stalked out in a huff and appraoched Bill Gates again, who now sensed a clear opportunity.

The only issue was that Microsoft still didn’t have an operating system.

To solve this problem, Bill Gates scurried to Seattle Computers, a me-too manufacturer of CP/M clone called Q-DOS.

Q-DOS was the shorthand for Quick and Dirty Operating System. Microsoft rechristened it as PC-DOS and presented it to IBM.

This upset Gary.

IBM sensing a legal infringement approached Gary with a solution that it would license both Microsoft’s PC-DOS and DRI’s CP/M with its line of PCs and let the market decide which one is better.

Confusion reigned supreme

When IBM rolled out the advertisements for both products, DRI was in for a rude shock.

Bill Gates had priced PC-DOS at $40 whereas Gary’s CP/M-86 sold for $240. A massive 6-to-1 chasm.

Some industry insiders later commented that IBM consciously priced CP/M six times higher than PC-DOS. It never had the intention to honor the agreement with DRI in spirit.

Microsoft now had the game rigged in its favor and it went on to conquer the world. DRI suffered a major blow and started to slip off the industry’s radar and with it did Gary Kildall.

The end of the road

Gary’s life wasn’t the same post-IBM-contract.

In 1991, he sold DRI to Novell as a last ditch effort to put up a fight against Microsoft. Sadly, that failed, too. These failures took a heavy tolly on him.

Everywhere he went, people would bring up IBM, Microsoft and if he was really flying out on that day.

As a consequence, he descended into alcholism and severed his professional connections. In 1991, he stopped appearing in ‘The Computer Chronicles‘, a famous tech show on TV which he co-hosted since 1985.

Then came the worst. In 1994, Gary got into a brawl at a Biker’s bar and later passed away due to head injuries. It was a tragic end to a life full of passion.

Jacqui Morby of TA Associates – a PE firm which invested in DRI – recounts an interesting incident in a video interview to Stewart Cheifet, Gary’s co-host at ‘The Computer Chronicles’.

Gary Kildall and Bill Gates were both on a panel during a tech event. Gary made a point that this (operating systems) is a very large market and there is room for lots of companies.

Gary Kildall and Bill Gates at an event

Bill Gates interjected, No! There will always be one company.

Lost in the footnotes of history?

It’s an acknowledged fact that history remembers winners. The losers often get relegated to the footnotes of the past and sometimes, they just vanish altogether.

All we can do is imagine what might have been but let’s make sure that Gary Kildall’s story is not forgotten.

Do you think it was Gary Kildall’s operating system that underpinned Bill Gates’s empire? Was Gates right to grab the opportunity that presented itself the second time with both hands? Let me know your thoughts in the comments box below.

The Tragic Story of Gary Kildall

©BookJelly. All rights reserved


  1. Wow, such a provocative story, and so sad. Bill Gates aside, the human story of the aftermath of a lost opportunity, and of a person left behind, is intense. Thumbs up for remembering someone others have forgotten, and for sharing. Strong post—something to mull over for awhile.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Alice. Yes, it’s a sad fact of life that only winners are bolded and underlined in the history books, not runner-ups.

  3. Indeed the seeds of disruptive economy were sown way back in the 70s. Granted, nobody could have foreseen the enormous success of the computer industry that underpinned the subsequent information and digital revolutions at the time. But Gary’s innate genius notwithstanding, this story brings the vagaries of the business world and hence of life itself to the fore. Looking back, the question whether Bill Gates should have snatched the opportunity to power IBM PCs need not be asked. In the cut throat competition of today’s business world where opportunities are created, sought and captured by the millisecond, Gates’ move seems more than ethical. It is surprising that Gates even thought of hinting Gary of the opportunity in the first place. However, those were different times. Business was a part of life rather than life itself. In my view, if Gary’s CP/M had made it into IBM PCs instead of MS-DOS, speculatively, the ‘industrial’ origin of computing would have retained itself in the character of how Digital happens in business today. But history chose the ‘garage’ culture over ‘industrial’ culture for the information era. And the rest is … well … History. A fascinating story!

  4. Well, It looks like the “relationship” between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Niokola being the real inventor and Thomas the Thief. Bad Thomas stole many more inventions and almost killed (or started) the movie-industry, the mobs Thomas hired, made the movie-guys move to Hollywood……

    1. Hello, Meine. I wouldn’t say Bill Gates stole anything from Gary Kildall. On the contrary, he gave Gary a fair chance by diverting IBM to his company the first time. But when IBM came knocking the second time,Bill made the most of the opportunity.

      I haven’t really explored the Tesla-Edison thing. Would love to research and write about it, though.

      1. Great writing . What seems like killed Gary deal ..he wanted a royalty and IBM refused and only gave him the total purchase . BUT that is exactly what they gave Gates ?? am I correct in this ? Thanks

  5. It seems like a modernday day Tesla – Edison Story.. Poignanat Ending to a life of possibilities….Excellent research . Thank you for highlighting this story

    1. Thank you, Phil, for dropping by. Indeed it is a poignant story. While doing my research, I watched some of Gary Kildall’s ‘Computer Chronicles’ videos and hearing him talk tells you instantly that the man had skills. Tragic loss, really.

  6. If Q-DOS was a ripoff of CP/M, I would think Kildall would have had a strong legal case for either getting it stopped or getting the bulk of the future royalties, even if it was acquired by Microsoft and renamed. That’s one thing I’ve never understood about this story. Also, the “gone flying” story has been largely twisted into urban legend. The story is typically presented as if Kildall had no idea that IBM was interested in CP/M and was going to come knocking. In reality, it’s more likely that he’d already been in negotiation with IBM and had rebuffed their offer for the same reason that his wife did, IBM’s demand for full ownership of CP/M after making a one time purchase.

    1. Gary was never a petty guy. He had a case but Bill Gate and Microsoft were many times bigger than Gary’s outfit and let’s not forget Bill Gate Sr was a partner in Seattle’s biggest law firm. That law firm is now one of the top 10 law firms in the country.

      Not only could Kildall not match Gate’s resources, the copyright or IP case was very technical that it would be hard for a jury or judge to pass judgement on it. According to what I read and I haven’t seen either source code, the first 26 system calls from MSDOS were structure the same way as CP/M however I don’t believe the implementation was the same. Gate’s lawyers would have probably been able to dance around it to return a not guilty verdict. Lawyer fee would be in the tens of millions that Kildall did not have.

    2. There is no question that MS DOS was a clone of CP/M. Just like there is no question that Linux is a clone of AT&T Unix.
      It’s been declared legal to make a piece of software that works identically as long as you did it without using any copyrighted code, Q-DOS was a “clean room” re-implementation of CP/M by someone who had no means of accessing the privately held sourcecode of CP/M. Instead, Tim Patterson claimed he implemented CP/M from the detailed specifications available from CP/M’s manufacturer DRI, and from observing the behavior of CP/M, and interrogating its responses while running his own CP/M programs.
      This has been tested in court again and again, it’s highly likely Kildall would have lost in court as IBM did when Compaq cloned their BIOS, or like AT&T did when BSD Unix was made available for free, or like SCO did when they tried to Linux distributors, or like Oracle did when they went after android for using their own version of Java in Android. Judges have even declared that it’s OK to have identical structures in your code if its necessary for interoperability – like Tim Pattersons bug-for-bug CP/M clone.

  7. I have also read the story in Peter Norton’s book “know the IBM PC” . My impression was that Gary was not dareful enough at that moment. DR (Digital Research) did not assess its criticality. There are such moments, not forgiving any hesitation.
    Besides DR was skeptical about signing the non disclosure agreement (NDA), contrary to Microsoft. Probably DR also had the confidence of the future winner, which was not verified. All these helped Microsoft, while DR lost the job.
    Microsoft was right to take the job. Nevertheless one later point might need clarification, if it has not been done already. There was a fame (written also in a few PC magazines of the time) that MS windows 3.1 used to hang, if installed on DR-DOS. How true this was and how purposeful? I understand from web that there were remedies for this, but do not have a clear idea.

    1. Thank you, Kostas, for your valuable comment. Yes, your suspicion could be legit.

      There is a possibility that Gary himself was not convinced with IBM’s NDA. Hence, he kind of flubbed it. And, Bill Gates being Bill Gates, he was not going to pass up the opportunity and that’s exactly what he did, he grabbed it with both hands.

    2. There are a couple of details that people leave out of the MS-DOS origin story; Microsoft already had a relationship with the company that created Q-DOS and Microsoft’s deal hinged on CP/M – without an OS the whole deal was toast.
      Gates had little choice but to go around DRI as he saw his lucrative deal with IBM slipping away. With no obvious competitors to CP/M on the market, buying Q-DOS from Seattle Computer Products was the obvious way to go. That’s not what Gates did, but that’s another story.

  8. At the right moment, at the right place…

    This applies to BG, when he first did not see the opening with IBM. Not his moment…
    The movie relation “Pirates of Silicon Valley” is then a summarized, distorted novelization for the layman media.

    But remember also that Gates would never have been introduced to Big Blue, hadn’t his mother been an active member of a charity where a top brass of the firm was also present.
    Mrs Gates talking a bit about his occupation with the man is said to have suggested a meetup with his son, since he was “also in this computers business”.

    Without this miraculous coincidence, exploited lately at its fullest, the 3 “Micro-Soft” guys may have been stuck in second zone computer biz forever, and forgotten like so many other actors of the industry.

    1. Thanks for sharing those insights, MB. I wasn’t aware of Mrs Gates’ role as a bridge between IBM and Microsoft.

      1. At least this is was I have read somewhere…
        I am French and so far away from the States in so many regards.
        If this is another part of the legend, it sounds true & legit anyway.

  9. I was an “au pair “ in the early 80 th for the 2 children aged 13 and about 10 . Gary was honest , generous, genuine , gentleman, a passionate individual into his work and was trusting people. From what I can read he was abused by twisted business men .

  10. Tragic story and one full of important lessons, Windows 3.11 was written in Garys Basic, as was netware 6 which he later sold off when they wanted to port netwares 6.5 TCP/IP into Unix and he wanted nothing to do with the Unix crowd. Years later, it’s easy to see why!

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