Among questions on his favorite sandwiches (“Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger”) and whether he can still jump over a chair (probably not), Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates got asked whether his company had copied Steve Jobs during a Reddit Q&A on Monday.
Gates denied copying Cupertino — but reminded everybody that Microsoft and Apple both borrowed liberally from another Silicon Valley pioneer.
“The main ‘copying’ that went on relative to Steve and me is that we both benefited from the work that Xerox PARC did in creating graphical interface,” Gates said during the Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), which was his fifth time taking questions from the Reddit community. “It wasn’t just them but they did the best work. Steve hired Bob Belville, I hired Charles Simonyi. We didn’t violate any IP rights Xerox had but their work showed the way that led to the Mac and Windows.”
Gates is 100 percent correct. The common perception that Microsoft copied Apple comes from the fact that, for most casual users, the Mac was the first time they saw a WIMP interface (windows, icons, mouse pointer) in action. Very few people saw the revolutionary work that was being carried out at Xerox PARC.
A terrible deal for Apple
The fact that Microsoft wound up emulating a lot of the fine tweaks Apple added to the graphical user interface came down to a disastrous deal signed by Gates and then-Apple CEO John Sculley in the mid-’80s.
As I’ve written before in my daily “Today in Apple history” post, on November 21, 1985, Apple agreed to grant Microsoft a “non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, nontransferable license to use [parts of the Mac technology] in present and future software programs, and to license them to and through third parties for use in their software programs.”
At the time, the Windows operating system was hilariously clunky compared to what Apple was offering. Furthermore, Microsoft was a valued Mac developer. Keeping Gates on Cupertino’s side seemed worth surrendering some of Apple’s intellectual property in the unlikely event that Microsoft could pull together a halfway decent operating system in the near future.
All was well and good until Windows 2.0 arrived a few years later, looking far closer to the Macintosh interface. Apple promptly filed a copyright violation lawsuit on March 17, 1988, which included 189 different elements the company argued Microsoft was illegally using.
Apple marched Microsoft to court, only for 179 of 189 of Cupertino’s copyright-infringement allegations to be thrown out due to the earlier agreement. This paved the way for Microsoft’s dominance over Apple in the coming decade.
More on Xerox PARC
The Xerox PARC story, incidentally, is well worth reading if you’re a fan of computer history. I’d particularly recommend Michael Hiltzik’s Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age.
Even decades later, it seems that Xerox PARC’s debt to modern computing is a topic of conversation — not just in Gates’ AMA, but also in the naming of Apple’s new Apple Park campus, which sounds like a tribute to the legendary Silicon Valley R&D center.