Bill Gates and copyright infringement. Not even death do them part

Ed Roberts with the Altair 8800 computer in 1997

Bill Gates takes copyright infringement so seriously, he can’t even let it go when he has literally buried his opponent.

H. Edward Roberts, credited by Bill Gates as the inventor of the PC and a native Miamian [Miami Senior High graduate, of course], passed away in 2010. See his obituary in the NYT and WSJ. Mr Roberts invention – the Altair 8800 – created the key opportunity for Paul Allen and Bill Gates entry into the the fledgling computer industry. The relationship between Mr Roberts and Gates and Microsoft had a falling out – excerpts from the NYT obituary:

Over the years, there was some lingering animosity between the two men, and Dr. Roberts pointedly kept his distance from industry events. But in recent months, after learning that Dr. Roberts was ill, Mr. Gates made a point of reaching out to his former boss and customer. Mr. Gates sent Dr. Roberts a letter last December and followed up with phone calls, another son, Dr. John David Roberts, said. Eight days ago, Mr. Gates visited the elder Dr. Roberts at his bedside in Macon.

“Any past problems between those two were long since forgotten,” said Dr. John David Roberts, who had accompanied Mr. Gates to the hospital. He added that Mr. Allen, the other Microsoft founder, had also called the elder Dr. Roberts frequently in recent months.

Allow me a non-politically correct translation:

Mr Roberts was entrepreneurial and innovative, but just missed out on capitalizing on the mega-wealth creation his innovation spawned. Bill Gates did not. Despite his debt to the man and his clear dominance in the industry, Gates pressed his advantage to the point of alienating a person whose true innovation Gates so greatly benefited from. Bottom line, the borrowing [another man's ripping-off] of superior ideas was not something began with Apple or Steve Jobs.

Mr Gates was moved enough to share his remembrance of Mr Roberts in the WSJ. In that remembrance, Mr Gates wrote the following:

So MITS was the pioneer of a lot of things – helping to create computer clubs, getting a software library going, lots of new additions to their personal computer including the disk. Ed kept a firm hand running the company but was frustrated by some of the complexity. He decided to sell the company and reached a deal with PERTEC, a California company that did magnetic tape stuff mostly.

I was surprised when Ed decided to move back to Georgia and give up working in the computer field. Microsoft had a dispute with PERTEC where they interpreted our license with them as giving them an exclusive on our BASIC and that went to arbitration as the contract called for and we won that on many different grounds.

I didn’t see Ed many times after that. I knew he was first a farmer in Georgia and then a doctor. There were a few reunion things and I went to one of those. Six months ago I heard that Ed got pneumonia and went into the hospital. After three months in the hospital he was still not getting well I wrote him a letter talking about his great contributions.

After two more months his situation wasn’t great so I arranged to go see him and I spent several hours with him and his son at the hospital last Friday. Ed was sick enough that he barely knew I was there but I recounted some of these old stories to his son which I hope he understood. In any case his son will have those to pass along to Ed’s five other children and all of the grandchildren.”

My interpretation again:

Sure Ed came up with the Altair, but he was quickly in over his head ["complexity"]. He tried to wet his beak ["interpreted"], but we don’t do compromise and wiped the floor ["many different grounds"] with them. Ed was pissed and I didn’t care ["I was surprised Ed moved"].

When I heard he was sick I felt bad. When it was clear he wasn’t getting better, I dropped him a note. When I realized that he would die, I figured I should go. I got there too late to truly speak with him before he passed, but at least I went.

I hope the reason Mr Gates remembrance took on such a petty tone is that is that the Microsoft legal team did the last rewrite. Pending said disclosure, it’s settled then, money can’t buy you everything, i.e. class or compassion. Just one more thing Mr Roberts could have taught Mr Gates. Hey, maybe they’ll meet again? In whose shoes would you rather be at that meeting? Cheer up Bill, it can’t be as bad as the one between Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne.

A few of the highlights from Mr Roberts interesting life:

  • Born in Miami, September 13, 1941 [exactly 20 years before my family arrived].
  • Father was a household appliance repairman and his mother was a nurse.
  • In preparing to be a doctor, he helped build electronics for an experimental heart-lung machine at the University of Miami.
  • Inspired by his work at the University of Miami, he eventually studied electrical engineering at Oklahoma State University.
  • Served as an officer in the Air Force, based in Albuquerque, N.M., and was trained as an engineer.
  • In 1969 founded MITS Inc., in Albuquerque.
  • MITS created the the first inexpensive general-purpose microcomputer – the Altair 8800.
  • The January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics featured the Altair 8800 on its cover.
  • The Altair 8800 inspired Paul Allen and Bill Gates to travel to Albuquerque and begin working for and with Mr Roberts.
  • In 1977, Mr. Roberts sold MITS and as a condition of the sale, agreed not design computers for five years.
  • Invested in farmland in Georgia.
  • Decided to follow up on his first dream, to study medicine, earning his degree from Mercer University in Macon 1n 1986 – Mr Roberts was 45.
  • Moved to rural Cochran, Ga., where the town’s only doctor had recently died. He set up a clinic with a modern laboratory.

Bill Gates remembrance of Henry Edward Roberts is copied in full at end of post.

———————————————————————-
Bill Gates Remembers Personal Computer Pioneer

April 2, 2010, 5:40 PM ET

Bill Gates, co-founder and chairman of Microsoft, on Friday sent the Wall Street Journal this remembrance of Henry Edward Roberts, who died Thursday at the age of 68. Gates, who argues that Roberts deserves to be called the father of the personal computer, discusses the origins of Roberts’ company, MITS, how Gates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen came to write software for the early machine, and visiting Roberts in his final days.

“Ed Roberts was in the Air Force and ended up at the base in Albuquerque. In his spare time he started a company to sell kits for things you would put on rockets–something to take the temperature when it gets to the top or take a photo. He called the company Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems and it did a small amount of business. Then he came up with a kit calculator and that sold in significant volume and made money.

Then Bowmar (and later Texas Instruments) came out with an assembled calculator that was cheaper than Ed’s kit calculator. MITS (they had renamed it to just the initials at that point) had ordered a lot of parts and had enough costs that it looked like they wouldn’t be able to repay their debts. So Ed looked into the Intel microprocessor and together with an engineer Bill Yates created a kit computer called the Altair 8800.

The name was chosen because the Editor of Popular Electronics liked that name and they wanted to get on the cover. In fact the January 1975 issue (which came out in December 1974) had the Altair on the cover. It sold for $360 which was the same price as just buying a single 8080 chip from Intel so some people wondered if the parts were genuine and high quality. They were since MITS got a good discount on the chip. The kit could not do much once you put it together. If you didn’t have a teletype (think of a typewriter that can send character to the computer and receive commands to type from the computer) all you could do was make the lights flash with simple programs you have to enter in with the switches.

Paul Allen and I saw the Popular Electronics article and called to say we were doing software. They thought that was interesting. We worked hard and a month later we called back to ask what instructions to use to connect to a teletype. They said we were the first people who had asked that so maybe we did have something. We had used a simulator on a PDP-10 to create the BASIC interpreter which ran in 4K bytes. It is hard to believe how little memory these machines had.

Paul flew out to MITS with the paper tape and Ed met him at the airport. Paul figured out how to load the BASIC and it ran the first time on one of the few kits MITS itself had ever assembled. Everyone was amazed. This was in April 1975.

I went on leave from Harvard in June and negotiated the license agreement with MITS in July. Microsoft got a royalty for each BASIC sold. Then we wrote fancier versions of the BASIC – 8k Basic, Extended Basic and Disk Basic. Paul actually worked for MITS as VP of Software although I did not. We got a software library going and wrote regular articles for the Altair newsletter that David Bunnell was hired by MITS to create. I gave my first speech at an Altair convention. MITS got a big GM van and went around the country helping to set up computer clubs.

The Altair was the first personal computer by most definitions of the term. It was before the Apple 1 or any other machine people know. A company in Canada sold a few machines and MCM in France sold a few machines but they were a bit after MITS and not aimed at low price high volume. MITS sold over 10,000 of the Altairs and had to hire people to deal with the volume. Ed deserves to be called the father of the personal computer.

Ed was a strong personality and people were a bit intimidated by him. When they thought he was doing something wrong in the company they sometimes tried to get me to talk to Ed since I was also a strong personality and the least intimidated by him.

Ed was a good entrepreneur. MITS moved into doing assembled machines with far more power and adding an 8 inch floppy disk and building a dealer network. Some competitors came along – people no one knows today like Imsai, Processor Technology, Sphere, Ohio Scientific, Billings,…. One problem was that one generation of memory chips – the 4k RAM turned out to be unreliable and that messed up the whole industry particularly MITS since customers had problems with their machines. This was NOT MITS’ fault at all – I spent 2 months writing test programs to figure out which chips were failing and how.

So MITS was the pioneer of a lot of things – helping to create computer clubs, getting a software library going, lots of new additions to their personal computer including the disk. Ed kept a firm hand running the company but was frustrated by some of the complexity. He decided to sell the company and reached a deal with PERTEC, a California company that did magnetic tape stuff mostly.

I was surprised when Ed decided to move back to Georgia and give up working in the computer field. Microsoft had a dispute with PERTEC where they interpreted our license with them as giving them an exclusive on our BASIC and that went to arbitration as the contract called for and we won that on many different grounds.

I didn’t see Ed many times after that. I knew he was first a farmer in Georgia and then a doctor. There were a few reunion things and I went to one of those. Six months ago I heard that Ed got pneumonia and went into the hospital. After three months in the hospital he was still not getting well I wrote him a letter talking about his great contributions.

After two more months his situation wasn’t great so I arranged to go see him and I spent several hours with him and his son at the hospital last Friday. Ed was sick enough that he barely knew I was there but I recounted some of these old stories to his son which I hope he understood. In any case his son will have those to pass along to Ed’s five other children and all of the grandchildren.”
———————————————————————

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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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