Archrival and Knight in Shining Armor
Microsoft and Apple have been business partners and tough competitors for many years. Back in the seventies, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates worked close together. In 1997 the Windows-manufacturer helped Steve Jobs saving Apple.
In the early seventies there was no such thing as a personal computer. I took geniuses and visionary like Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates to invent this new industry. The early computer geeks were energized by the arrival of the January 1975 issue of Popular Mechanics, which had on its cover the first personal computer kit, the Altair. The Altair wasn’t a real computer —more a $495 pile of parts that had to be soldered to a board that would then do little—but for hobbyists and hackers it heralded the dawn of a new era. Bill Gates and Paul Allen read the magazine and started working on a version of BASIC, an easy-to-use programming language, for the Altair. It also caught the attention of Jobs and Wozniak.
Later Steve Jobs had to ask for the Microsoft BASIC because his friend Wozniak didn’t finish his own version of NASIC for the Apple II. “He was very childlike,” said Jobs later to the author of hi biography, Walter Isaacson, abou “Woz”. “He did a great version of BASIC, but then never could buckle down and write the floating-point BASIC we needed, so we ended up later having to make a deal with Microsoft. He was just too unfocused.”
With the rise of the Apple II in the late seventies Microsoft became more and more successful – even before the IBM PC was invented. When Apple developed the Macintosh Bill Gates and his team were the most important software partner – despited the fact that Microsoft was also the driving force behind the IBM PC and the PC clones. And Steve Jobs even invited Bill Gates for the preview of the Mac: The high point of the October 1983 Apple sales conference in Hawaii was a skit based on a TV show called The Dating Game. Jobs played emcee, and his three contestants, whom he had convinced to fly to Hawaii, were Bill Gates and two other software executives, Mitch Kapor and Fred Gibbons. As the show’s jingly theme song played, the three took their stools.
Gates, looking like a high school sophomore, got wild applause from the 750 Apple salesmen when he said, “During 1984, Microsoft expects to get half of its revenues from software for the Macintosh.” Jobs, clean-shaven and bouncy, gave a toothy smile and asked if he thought that the Macintosh’s new operating system would become one of the industry’s new standards. Gates answered, “To create a new standard takes not just making something that’s a little bit different, it takes something that’s really new and captures people’s imagination. And the Macintosh, of all the machines I’ve ever seen, is the only one that meets that standard.”
But even as Gates was speaking, Microsoft was edging away from being primarily a collaborator with Apple to being more of a competitor. It would continue to make application software, like Microsoft Word, for Apple, but a rapidly increasing share of its revenue would come from the operating system it had written for the IBM personal computer. The year before, 279,000 Apple IIs were sold, compared to 240,000 IBM PCs and its clones. But the figures for 1983 were coming in starkly different: 420,000 Apple IIs versus 1.3 million IBMs and its clones. And both the Apple III and the Lisa were dead in the water.
Just when the Apple sales force was arriving in Hawaii, this shift was hammered home on the cover of Business Week. Its headline: “Personal Computers: And the Winner Is . . . IBM.” The story inside detailed the rise of the IBM PC. “The battle for market supremacy is already over,” the magazine declared. “In a stunning blitz, IBM has taken more than 26% of the market in two years, and is expected to account for half the world market by 1985. An additional 25% of the market will be turning out IBM-compatible machines. (Walter Isaacson, p. 159-160)
Apple boss John Sculley’s marketing strategy for the launch of the Macintosh was obvious. The former Pepsi manager, who had been brought to Apple by Steve Jobs, intended to arrange a duel between IBM and Apple, black vs. white, with Apple playing the role of the underdog. Sculley wrote in his book Odyssey:
So we needed a campaign that would focus on a two-horse race to leverage off of Apple’s underdog status. Dozens of other computer companies were coming out with products and I was afraid we were going to get lost in the crowd. If we could create a two-horse race between us and IBM, we might be able to convince people that there are really only two computer companies competing in the marketplace. In any large consumer industry, few people remember the third- or fourth-largest competitor.
In the fight against competitors such as Atari, Commodore, Sinclair and Amstrad, the Apple strategy paid off well. But Sculley, as well as Steve Jobs, had completely underestimated that Microsoft, being an ally from the outset, would, with the aid of Apple, develop into a dominant power of the PC industry and even dwarf IBM.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen had founded Microsoft as a small software company in Albuquerque (New Mexico) in 1975 and developed the programming language BASIC for the legendary computer MITS Altair in collaboration with other co-workers. Due to fortunate circumstances, Microsoft landed the order from IBM to deliver not only BASIC, but also the operating system for the first IBM PC in 1980. In the negotiation phase, the then leading operating system manufacturer Digital Research (CP/M) did not want to engage in page-filling adhesion contracts from IBM – and thus lost this gigantic deal.
Though Microsoft did not have any operating system at that time, this did not prevent Bill Gates and his companion Steve Ballmer from playing for high stakes while facing IBM. From their neighboring software shack Seattle Computers (in the mean time, Microsoft had moved to the northwest of the USA) they bought all rights for QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) for no less than 50,000 dollars in July 1981 and renamed it as MS-DOS. Gates had been clever enough at that time not to have all rights to the system negotiated away by the IBM crew and was therefore able to win clone companies such as Compaq as customers later.
When Microsoft provided their BASIC for the Apple II, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates constantly ran into each other at that time. “Even before we finished our work on the IBM PC, Steve Jobs came and talked about what he wanted to do, what he thought he could do, sort of a Lisa but cheaper. We said boy, we’d love to help out”, Gates remembers. “The Lisa had all its own applications, but of course they required a lot of memory, ah, and we thought we could do better, and so Steve signed a deal with us to actually provide bundled applications for the first Mac, and so we were big believers in the Mac and what Steve was doing there.”
Apple urgently needed software for the Mac, as there did not yet exist any program for the new system except for their in-house products MacWrite and MacPaint. Gates promised to have the programs Chart and File written for the Mac in addition to the spreadsheet program Excel. Steve Jobs appreciated the risk Microsoft took, but was not content with the first results though. “Most people don’t remember, but until the Mac, Microsoft was not in the applications business… it was dominated by Lotus. And Microsoft took a big gamble to write for the Mac.”
Apple still could have coped well with having given Microsoft’s new application business a leg up. However, Bill Gates had tasted blood in the Macintosh project. Jeff Raikes, who was responsible for the Office business at Microsoft until early 2008, reviews: “And so we got started in early 1982 on our Macintosh software effort and I think at that point in time, you know, it really clicked with Bill that, you know, graphic user interface was going to be the way, the way of the future. But while Bill was having his own GUI revelation, Jobs believed that Apple’s true enemy was IBM.”
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