Micro History part 6

History of the Microcomputer Revolution

Part 6 - What good is a computer without software?

Ed Roberts realized that his Altair 8800 computer needed software - a computer language - to make it really useful. Only hackers would tolerate programming in zeros and ones. An easier language was needed. The problem was - there was no Basic language available anywhere for the newly invented Intel 8080. But one day Ed Roberts got a letter from a company which said they had already created a version of Basic. He immediately called the company but reached a private home in Seattle - where nobody knew anything about the letter.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates had written and sent the letter using letterhead they had created for their high school computer company - Traf-o-Data. Bill was attending Harvard, and Paul was working in the Boston area for Honeywell. They had sent the letter - planning to do a phone followup. They soon called Ed Roberts in Albuquerque to see if he'd be interested in their Basic, (which didn't actually exist yet), and he said that he would be as soon as he could get some memory cards for the Altair so it would have enough memory to try to run Basic; maybe in a month or so.

Herein begins some of the most misunderstood facts of the microcomputer revolution, so pay close attention. Also remember that way back in the 2nd show of this series I told you that DEC minicomputers played an important role, and now we'll learn how.

Gates and Allen figured they had a 30 day window (if you'll pardon the pun) to get a version of Basic ready to run on the Altair microcomputer. But they didn't have didn't have a microcomputer to develop this with, because the only microcomputer in the world at that time was sitting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Seems like a Catch 22 situation - but wait.

They hadn't had an 8008 processor either, which they used in their high school computer company Traf-o-Data - which measured vehicle traffic flow. So how did they program an 8008 earlier without having one?

Well, when Paul Allen was a student at WSU he had actually tried to create a simulator on the IBM mainframe there, but he wasn't familiar enough with mainframes to make it work. When they later got a summer job at a company that used DEC minicomputers, Paul was able to create a simulator of the Intel 8008 on the DEC computer. Being intimately familiar with DECs from the ground up, and having the Intel manual for the 8008, Paul had written a program on the DEC which would simulate the exact operation of the Intel chip. Then Bill Gates was able to use this simulator to write the program which ran their Traf-o-Data computer.

Having developed this software tool previously, they used it again to create a simulator on another DEC computer at Harvard, this time for the Intel 8080. The Basic language they didn't actually write from scratch. Basic had been released into the public domain, so they used bits and pieces from various dialects of different versions of Basic to come up with their own to run on the Altair. This was a frantic few weeks, while they both worked and attended school, and spent their evenings in the school's computer labs. Then, still having never touched an Altair computer, Paul Allen flew to meet Ed Roberts at MITS in Albuquerque with a paper tape of their just completed version of Basic to try out on the Altair 8800. And miraculously it worked the first time.

Finally there was usable software to make this computer really useful, and to change the world. Paul Allen quit his job and went to work at MITS. Bill Gates soon dropped out of Harvard and moved to Albuquerque too. They authorized MITS to sell their Basic as part of the Altair kit. They also retained the rights to market it themselves. A lot of controversy arose over whether it was really theirs to sell in the first place, as the boys had used government funded computers to develop their Basic on, and as Basic was in the public domain. Many of the early hackers fiercely resented this, and early copies of Altair Basic were pirated and passed from user to user.

Gates and Allen eventually formed their own company, Micro Soft - originally spelled as two words - there in Albuquerque. Within months, they were modifying their Basic to run on other early microcomputers. They got into a law suit with Ed Roberts over the rights to Basic, and eventually won. Ed Roberts sold out and retired from the industry he had started himself within a year, and is now a country doctor in Georgia. Microsoft began doing business with other emerging companies, and next week's show is titled "Send in the clones."

On to Segment 7, "Send in the Clones"

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