JB: How did developing the WYSIWYG word processor lead you to Microsoft. Or, rather, was Microsoft then in existence?
SIMONYI: Microsoft might well have been founded on the very day we gave that demo to Citibank in 1975.
At that time we already had a Mac, with a bigger screen than Mac, with a mouse and so on. The Alto was a very, very serious machine. It cost fifty thousand bucks; the printer cost two hundred thousand bucks, in 1975 dollars. Gosh, I remember thinking that maybe one day the drugstore at the corner might have one of those machines, and then it might be shared by the whole block, or a whole area in a city. Now I have several of them at home.
Microsoft began at that time by doing Microsoft Basic. I started to hear about microcomputers in E78, E79, and it sounded like a kids toy. I recall that Larry Tesler at PARC had a Commodore 64 in his office, and we sometimes went there to smile at it. I certainly never took it seriously.
Eventually I started to become deeply unhappy because Xerox seemed to be treating these ideas in an incompetent fashion. My fear was that I would be missing out because I was allied with Xerox, and that the world would be missing out because they were not going to get what was possible. It wasn't just the Xerox marketing or management organization, but also the technical organizations, that share a lot of the blame if it should be called blame. Perhaps we should just think of it as evolution in action.
The failure of Xerox saved me from a fate worse than death, which would have been not sharing in the success. If Xerox had been successful, I would have gotten a thousand dollar bonus, and that would have been it. And I would have felt a little bit dumb.
But I didn't see the future until I saw Visicalc running on an Apple II. That was a capability that we didn't have. I thought Xerox suffered from a disease we call "biggerism," which is the bigger-the-better type of engineering mentality. And it always escalates and compounds, and it results in very complicated and very expensive machines, which is very, very risky, because it's very difficult to change or to tune to the market, or even discover what the market wants.
I saw this nimble machine, the Apple II, providing both some functionality which we at Xerox did not possess, and also having an incredible biological advantage.
JB: Then what?
SIMONYI: I met Bill Gates, and I clicked with him right away, very quickly in a very intense way. He was still very, very young, in his early 20's. This was in November of 1980. But the scope of his vision was extraordinary for the time, including his ideas about the graphical user interface. We had a discussion, and I came back a couple of weeks later with a summary of the discussion. Bill saw Microsoft becoming the leading producer of microcomputer software, worldwide. We wanted a worldwide, international market, and to be a leading producer with a full offering of operating systems, applications, languages, and consumer products.
It was easy for me to believe in the importance of applications and graphical user interface because of my experience at Xerox. It was amazing to see it coming from Bill with an equal intensity, when he hadn't seen all that stuff, certainly not with the same intimacy as I had. Furthermore, I realized that he actually had the wherewithal to deliver it. It was interesting to look at a company like Xerox, with a hundred thousand people and billions of dollars, and realize that the success of your project depends on having the right two people that you want to hire, who may not fit into the corporate structure. And then you realize that this single guy can hire anybody he wants to! Bill just said, hire two people, or hire five people. What do you need? Do you need rooms? Do you need chairs? Yeah! We can do that. Computers? Yes. You need this, you need that. Sure. We were talking about only a few hundred thousand dollars which could make a difference, we weren't talking about a billion.
Bill did spend a lot of money on one thing: a Xerox Star. We got one of these biggered, enormous, expensive machines, but it had the germ of the right idea in it. And we just wanted everybody in the organization to get used to the desktop and to the mouse and to pointing and to what's possible. And if it's not perfect, that's fine. We didn't want to use operationally; we used it for education of the people.
I described myself in an interview as the messenger RNA of the Parc virus. I never thought the journalist would use it, because at the time nobody was talking about viruses, about DNA, let alone RNA, let alone messenger RNA, let alone getting the metaphor. But it was used.
It was the biggest thing in my life, certainly, joining Microsoft and getting involved in the tremendous energy of those years. Probably one of the most important things that we did was the hiring. That's one of the enabling factors of growth, and I think we did a super job in hiring. Many those people are still with us, and many of them are in very high positions in the company. But, more than for any of our competitors, they formed a very responsive, very efficient programming organization.
That was key, because we did have problems. In applications, we had to be able to do spreadsheets, we had to do word processing, we had to do the databases. It was a no-brainer to know that. We did a fairly good job in spreadsheets. We were competing very effectively against Visicalc using a strategy that is very much like Java today; it was a platform independent, interpretive, bytecoded system, that enabled us at one point to run on 100 different platforms, so we could fund the international organization and get acquainted with localization problems, and all those things. Actually, Multiplan, our spreadsheet, remained very popular in Europe, for much longer than in the States. What happened in the States was that Lotus 1-2-3, wiped us out. So that was kind of difficult, but it was our fault. We were betting on the wrong horse — the mixed market with a variety of systems, instead of the right horse, which happened to be also ourselves, namely MS-DOS.