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Bill Gates on Writing and Selling Basic to MITS

by Michael Swaine

Generic image illustrating the article
  I was going through my files and found a 1983 interview with Bill Gates about writing and selling his first BASIC.  

Paul Freiberger and I are currently writing the third edition of Fire in the Valley, our history of the personal computer—to be published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf, naturally. In the process I came across an interview we did with Bill Gates back in 1983 about writing and selling the original Microsoft Basic to Ed Roberts of MITS for the Altair.

For those who don’t know the story, Ed owned a hobby electronics products company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and had been nearly wiped out in the early 1970s when Texas Instruments started selling calculators for little more than the price of the processor inside. Ed’s company, MITS, had been selling build-your-own calculator kits into the hobby market, and believe it or not that had been a lucrative business. But now MITS was on the ropes, and Ed’s brainstorm to save the company was to build a kit computer. At the time this generally regarded as a pretty crazy idea, but Ed got a sweetheart deal on chips and a smart engineer named Bill Yates and a sympathetic banker and a cover story on Popular Electronics, and it all came together in 1975. Paul Allen saw the magazine cover in Harvard Square that January and ran to tell his pal Bill that the thing they’d been hoping for was happening and they had to jump on board.

Here’s Bill telling about that:

“Roberts has this bankrupt company, makes the computer, crazy idea, they project they’ll sell 3000, they get the orders for 10,000. So we call them up in January and say—well, we had a fairly aggressive posture, we said, ‘We have a Basic, do you want it?’ And he said, ‘Oh sure, sure, a lot of people call me up and tell me they have stuff. Why don’t you come down and show it to us?’ We say, ‘OK, sure, fine, in two or three weeks we’ll come down and show it to you.’

We get the instruction manuals, because we never had the specific one. Paul writes a simulator in macroassembler, I write the Basic. Three weeks I call the guys up. It was a subset of our Basic. It was essentially the 4K Basic, but it was quite an effort and a lot of fun to go back into that clear goal, clear way of measuring success mode and just work. I stayed up the whole time, virtually. And enjoyed it a great deal.

“So we wrote the thing and then we called up Roberts and asked, ‘Hey, how do you read characters in and out of this thing?’ He said, ‘You’d better talk to Yates.’ So Yates gets on the phone and he says, ‘You really want to know that, huh? You’re the first to ask. Maybe you guys really have something.’

“Because everybody was promising these guys software. It’s so easy to do.”