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The Man Who Could Have Been Bill Gates

A new book says Gates got the rewards due Gary Kildall. What's the real story?

The saga of the computing industry is rich with outsize characters and surprising plot turns, but there's one story that has risen over time to mythic proportions. It's the tale of how software pioneer Gary Kildall missed out on the opportunity to supply IBM (IBM ) with the operating system for its first PC -- essentially handing the chance of a lifetime, and control of tech's future, to rival Bill Gates and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ). In the process, he may have missed out on becoming the world's richest man.

The legend goes like this: One fateful day in the summer of 1980, three buttoned-down IBMers called on a band of hippie programmers at Digital Research Inc. located in Pacific Grove, Calif. They hoped to discuss licensing DRI's industry-leading operating system, CP/M. Instead, DRI founder Gary Kildall blew off IBM to gallivant around in his airplane, and the frustrated IBMers turned to Gates for their operating system. This anecdote has been told so often that techies need only be reminded of "the day Gary Kildall went flying" to recall the rest. While he's revered for his technical innovations, many believe Kildall made one of the biggest mistakes in the history of commerce.