Stephen Fry rewrites computer history again: This time it's serious

Que, QI host? WHAT DO YOU MEAN Kildall was 'cracked'?


What are we to do with Stephen Fry? Britain's go-to guy for advertisement voice-overs has had another attempt at explaining computing history, in his own unique way. But he's got it wrong, and at the same time sullied the memory of one of the industry's true pioneers.

Writing on his blog and at The Daily Telegraph, Fry - celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Apple Mac - tells us all about the fateful days of the early 1980s, when Bill Gates and IBM came together to produce PCs running Microsoft operating systems, defeating the early Macs and Steve Jobs with them.

Mr Fry tells us IBM needed Gates and his operating system, because:

[IBM's] original operating system CP/M and its creator had, not to put too fine a point on it, cracked. Crucially, Gates insisted that he could licence [sic] his MS-DOS not just to IBM but to other computer manufacturers and plumb spang into that trap IBM fell. They had thought the money was in the box, not in the OS.

Where to start?

Stephen is plainly unaware, to begin with, that CP/M was not a piece of IBM software. It was actually created by Digital Research founder Dr Gary Kildall. With CP/M Dr Kildall (not Bill Gates) had truly pioneered the portable operating system for microcomputers – an operating system capable of running on different kinds of hardware that created a common platform for application developers and users – and the low-cost licensing model that went with it.

Worse, it seems clear that Mr Fry is also unaware that the QDOS which Gates so hastily bought up to offer to IBM under the name MS-DOS was a poor-quality effort (QDOS actually stands for Quick and Dirty Operating System) which had been created by simply copying code straight out of CP/M.

Yet again, Stephen Fry's credentials as a technology guru turn out to be tissue thin.

But that's not the worst of it. What on Earth can Mr Fry mean when he says that Kildall (whom he never mentions by name) - the creator of CP/M, and in truth the man who built the foundations of QDOS, Gates' MS-DOS and the fabulous Microsoft money mountains - had "cracked", and that, moreover, his work was faulty?

The only thing we could imagine Fry means is that Kildall was mentally ill at the beginning of the 1980s. This is a completely brand new idea fresh from the mind of Stephen Fry.

Falling through the cracks

What's the real story? For a long time Kildall's status as a PC industry pioneer was eclipsed, with Gates taking the plaudits for both the technical concept and the business strategy of platform licensing. Fortunately, the true historical record has been restored in recent years - largely thanks to Harry Evans' outstanding 2004 Time TV documentary and its accompanying book, They Made America.

Drawing on extensive primary material and interviews with colleagues and PC luminaries, Evans put the record straight.

Contrary to a long-standing myth ("wrong, wrong, wrong" writes Evans) Kildall was not flying his plane when IBM visited Digital Research. Kildall met IBM representatives and demonstrated MP/M, his multi-tasking CP/M successor. MP/M contained features IBM and Microsoft would introduce many years later with OS/2 and Windows NT which offered a smooth upgrade for 8-bit CP/M developers and users.

Kildall had also held extensive discussions on licensing CP/M for the IBM PC. Upon learning that IBM was also talking to a small languages company called Microsoft, Kildall was relaxed, telling a friend "Bill's a friend of mine. He wouldn't cut my throat," Evans writes.

DRI employee newsletter Q1 1984; Source [20MB PDF]

But in fact Gates went out and acquired the rights to an amateurish copy of Kildall's CP/M - QDOS. "We should have gone in and sued Microsoft very early on," a colleague of Kildall's told your reporter in 2007.

Kildall and Digital Research mounted a legal protest against the IBM/Microsoft hookup, and managed to extract a promise to include CP/M in the box with PCs, but it would later emerge that certain adverse terms and conditions applied ... When the PC was released in August 1981, MS-DOS was priced at $40 and included in the box. CP/M cost $240 and required the user to fill in a form and receive the disks by mail.

Kildall's work didn't end at CP/M, of course. In 1983, he hosted the PBS show Computer Chronicles and subsequently appeared on the show for several years. After completing the multiuser OS MP/M, Kildall oversaw the development of the portable graphical interface GEM and independently developed the Grolier Multimedia Encylopedia - the first CD-ROM encyclopaedia, years ahead of its time.

You can judge for yourself whether Kildall was "cracked" in the 1995 PBS retrospective on the computing legend:

Kildall's health deteriorated in the early 1990s and he died in 1994 of a brain haemorrhage. (The misinformation and even disinformation continues, however.)

Fry's somewhat careless approach to the facts when it comes to technology has been featured here before. A year ago, the actor flew into a rage after we'd pointed out one of his more trivial errors.

This isn't a trivial one, and given that the dead can't defend themselves, we hope that this time Fry will refrain from shooting the messenger and correct his error. ®

Similar topics

Narrower topics


Other stories you might like

  • IBM finally shutters Russian operations, lays off staff
    Axing workers under 40 must feel like a novel concept for Big Blue

    After freezing operations in Russia earlier this year, IBM has told employees it is ending all work in the country and has begun laying off staff. 

    A letter obtained by Reuters sent by IBM CEO Arvind Krishna to staff cites sanctions as one of the prime reasons for the decision to exit Russia. 

    "As the consequences of the war continue to mount and uncertainty about its long-term ramifications grows, we have now made the decision to carry out an orderly wind-down of IBM's business in Russia," Krishna said. 

    Continue reading
  • IBM AI boat to commemorate historic US Mayflower voyage finally lands… in Canada
    Nearly two years late and in the wrong country, we welcome our robot overlords

    IBM's self-sailing Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) has finally crossed the Atlantic albeit more than a year and a half later than planned. Still, congratulations to the team.

    That said, MAS missed its target. Instead of arriving in Massachusetts – the US state home to Plymouth Rock where the 17th-century Mayflower landed – the latest in a long list of technical difficulties forced MAS to limp to Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada. The 2,700-mile (4,400km) journey from Plymouth, UK, came to an end on Sunday.

    The 50ft (15m) trimaran is powered by solar energy, with diesel backup, and said to be able to reach a speed of 10 knots (18.5km/h or 11.5mph) using electric motors. This computer-controlled ship is steered by software that takes data in real time from six cameras and 50 sensors. This application was trained using IBM's PowerAI Vision technology and Power servers, we're told.

    Continue reading
  • IBM buys Randori to address multicloud security messes
    Big Blue joins the hot market for infosec investment

    RSA Conference IBM has expanded its extensive cybersecurity portfolio by acquiring Randori – a four-year-old startup that specializes in helping enterprises manage their attack surface by identifying and prioritizing their external-facing on-premises and cloud assets.

    Big Blue announced the Randori buy on the first day of the 2022 RSA Conference on Monday. Its plan is to give the computing behemoth's customers a tool to manage their security posture by looking at their infrastructure from a threat actor's point-of-view – a position IBM hopes will allow users to identify unseen weaknesses.

    IBM intends to integrate Randori's software with its QRadar extended detection and response (XDR) capabilities to provide real-time attack surface insights for tasks including threat hunting and incident response. That approach will reduce the quantity of manual work needed for monitoring new applications and to quickly address emerging threats, according to IBM.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022