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Microsoft: The Early Days

Richard Brodie's published books include:

Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme

Getting Past OK: A Straightforward Guide to Having a Fantastic Life

Click to read excerpts on-line!

In May of 1981, I joined my former boss from Xerox PARC, Charles Simonyi, to become Microsoft's 77th employee. The newly born Applications Division I entered then was hardly a Division yet, consisting of only two other employees besides Charles and myself.

At that time, the rest of the company was working under the brilliant vision of Bill Gates on Microsoft's traditional product line of programming languages -- Basic and Fortran -- and our newer line of operating systems -- Xenix, which was a variety of Unix, and an upstart new operating system called MS-DOS.

Our mission, though, was to break into the emerging market of business applications for personal computers. At that time, "personal computer" pretty much meant Apples. It would be a year and a half before IBM would announce its own entry into the field, an entry which would overnight come to mean "PC".

But Charles's mission was to compete against the surprisingly successful VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program. He was to develop Microsoft's spreadsheet, a project code-named "EP" (for "Electronic Paper") and later marketed as Microsoft Multiplan. That task he entrusted to Doug Klunder, programmer extraordinaire, who would go on to lead the development of the unmatched Excel after Multiplan's lukewarm market reception in the face of Lotus 1-2-3.

I had a slightly different mission. I was to write the so-called "p-code C compiler" that was crucial to Charles's business strategy. His strategy came to be known as the Revenue Bomb.

Here's how the Revenue Bomb worked. You would list all the different business products that Microsoft would develop on the horizontal axis. On the vertical axis, you would list all the different personal computers that were coming out from the dozens of hardware manufacturers. The p-code C compiler, which I named "CS" and which was used for more than ten years to develop Microsoft application software, would allow us to create separate versions of each product very easily for each of the different machines.

What we didn't realize -- nor did most people in those days -- was that there wouldn't be dozens of different PC architectures competing for the market. There would soon be only two: IBM's and Apple's Macintosh. But CS gave Microsoft the upper hand for many years in developing Mac and IBM applications hand-in-hand.

I spent my first summer at Microsoft writing CS, then returned the next summer to work on a secret new project. It was to be a modest word-processor to serve as an inexpensive entree to the business software market. By getting people used to our user interface, they would then be able to easily learn Multiplan and our future business products: Chart and File among them. By October of 1983, when Word Shipped, we had more than 30 programmers and one marketing guy in the now-getting-serious Applications Division. The problem was, Multiplan was already done and its user interface was already out there. I had to be compatible with it. My mission: write the world's first wordprocessor with a spreadsheet user-interface.

It took five years to repair the damage.

Microsoft Word, of course, went on to dominate the market and today is by far the most popular PC word processor.

Read more about Richard Brodie's experience at Microsoft on-line, this essay originally printed in the book Heart at Work edited by Jack Canfield and Jacqueline Miller.

Last Edited: May 03, 2000
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© 1996 Richard Brodie. All rights reserved.