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Offline Dan

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An Open Letter to Hobbyists
« on: October 09, 2009, 12:25:32 am »
Here's a letter which is an interesting piece of history.

Quote from: Bill Gates
February 3, 1976

An Open Letter to Hobbyists

To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software courses, books and software itself. Without good software and an owner who understands programming, a hobby computer is wasted. Will quality software be written for the hobby market?

Almost a year ago, Paul Allen and myself, expecting the hobby market to expand, hired Monte Davidoff and developed Altair BASIC. Though the initial work took only two months, the three of us have spent most of the last year documenting, improving and adding features to BASIC. Now we have 4K, 8K, EXTENDED, ROM and DISK BASIC. The value of the computer time we have used exceeds $40,000.

The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however, 1) Most of these "users" never bought BASIC (less than 10% of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) The amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent on Altair BASIC worth less than $2 an hour.

Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

Is this fair? One thing you don't do by stealing software is get back at MITS for some problem you may have had. MITS doesn't make money selling software. The royalty paid to us, the manual, the tape and the overhead make it a break-even operation. One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

What about the guys who re-sell Altair BASIC, aren't they making money on hobby software? Yes, but those who have been reported to us may lose in the end. They are the ones who give hobbyists a bad name, and should be kicked out of any club meeting they show up at.

I would appreciate letters from any one who wants to pay up, or has a suggestion or comment. Just write me at 1180 Alvarado SE, #114, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87108. Nothing would please me more than being able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.


Bill Gates
General Partner, Micro-Soft

It's fascinating how a man's crazy talk turned into a mainstream idea. Sure, the letter might seem reasonable but in context, it wasn't at all. Back then, they didn't have terms like Free Software and Open Source because everything was free software. The product sold was the hardware, the software was just there to give a use to the hardware (which is still Apple's business model). Companies would give computers for free to university because they knew the students would improve on their programs and write new ones and they could use that to give to their customers and put on their new computers.

Hobbyists shared their programs freely, sent them to magazines that would print them so others could retype them. Having a nice program and not sharing was completely alien at the time. Bill Gates getting in the software business and complaining people were copying his code was like complaining that the water is wet.

Of course, around that time, many companies stopped to share and given the primitive means of communication of the time meant that it was more efficient to have a few coders in an office collaborating than people who'd type each other's code via magazines so the new paradigm got some traction.

It's also not surprising at all that Linux was born at roughly the same time that the web went public.

Edit: I forgot to mention that even the law wasn't on Gates' side, it was perfectly legal to copy programs.
« Last Edit: October 09, 2009, 02:16:41 am by Dan »
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