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Gary Kildall and the origins of the PC

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Gary Kildall and the origins of the PC 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

Somebody should have asked Gary Kildall to turn out the lights.

Maybe that would have helped him get back to sleep that night in 1973 when he was trying to work out a problem with his computer.

It was a computer that a person, not a company, could use. Nobody called it by the name we know it today—personal computer. It was just a little computer, one that Kildall was experimenting with many months before there was ever an Apple, and 12 years before there was an IBM PC.

He wanted to make his computer store data a lot better. It could store things on paper tape and that was all. The strip of paper ran through a puncher and came out looking like something that was used for BB gun practice.

The patterns of holes made letters and numbers when the paper was fed back through the reader. It was a horrible way to save anything.

Kildall wanted to use the thing that big computers used—a flat disk. They were 8 inches across and droopy. "Flexible" is what the big computer companies called them. "Floppy" is what Kildall said.

But how could he make his experimental computer put letters and numbers on floppy disks? He tried and tried. And failed and failed.

As the story goes, one night Kildall wrote and rewrote computer code from dark till dawn. When the world woke up the next day, the future of computing was changed forever.

Kildall had come up with CP/M—Control Program/Monitor (he changed "Monitor" to "Microcomputer," once "microcomputer" entered the language)—the first program that allowed a small computer to work with a disc drive. It was such an important program that it quickly became known as something much more than a program; it was a way of doing practically everything that had to be done. It was a system—a disk operating system.

Kildall had invented the world's first DOS.

CP/M soon became the standard system for small computers. Without a disk operating system, the computer was just too dumb to do anything useful.

But because CP/M was put together in a hurry, it was not thought out well in many areas. This wouldn't have been a problem in some industries, where the Next Big Thing that comes along can fix whatever is wrong.

But CP/M became so popular that Kildall and his company, Digital Research, had a hard time changing it. The first hackers loved it the way it was, and everybody else resigned themselves to learning how to cope with it.

But the story is only starting. If you have an IBM computer or an IBM-compatible, you've probably never heard of Kildall or CP/M. You've got a DOS, all right, but it's called something else—PC-DOS or MS-DOS, not CP/M. This has nothing to do with you, right?

You should be so lucky. The DOS you're using is facing Gary Kildall and Digital Research again.

Digital Research had the first successful windows-and-mouse system for PCs, called GEM, about six years ago. But Kildall has returned the company to its roots. It's introduced a DOS that is fully compatible with MS-DOS while offering many more features.

It's called DR DOS 6.0. If you look for it in a store, don't ask for "DEE ARE DOS"—they'll look at you in a funny way. Everybody calls it "the doctor," because DR DOS is a cure for many of the big and small problems of MS-DOS. Its commands have many added features over the commands of the same name in MS-DOS, and it should win a prize for being so easy to install.

DR DOS 6.0, which costs about $70, comes with four free utilities that themselves would sell for $100 apiece—TaskMax, a hot-key program switcher, so you can have up to 20 virtual PCs running at the same time; ViewMax, a nifty better-than-Windows file manager (it's just like GEM); a disk cache that automatically frees up memory for programs when necessary, and a file-compression system that gives you 50 percent more storage space.

The doctor also comes with a great memory-management system for 80286, ‘386 and ‘486 computers. It automatically finds areas of memory that are not being used and puts its own operating system there. The result: A lot more space to run programs.

A real plus is that Digital Research is likely to supply better customer support than Microsoft—and DR DOS owners get lifetime support. That's hard to beat. And you don't have to stay up all night to enjoy it.

1997 epilogue: DR DOS lost the battle, to no one's surprise. But it's still around in a new form, having been surrendered to what amounted to public-domain status for a few years. Does it matter any longer? Not really. Windows 95 and Windows 98 have an excellent, no-apologies-needed version of DOS built in. There's no longer any need for an alternative DOS, and Gary Kildall, who died a few years back, can rest in peace.

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