Microsoft Hard Drive Myth and Questions

One of my buddies is fond of telling stories about Microsoft and their early days. Long before that silly made-for-TV movie came out about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, he was telling me the story about how Gates bought a buggy program called DOS off of a tinkerer for a song.

Another story he once told me is that somewhere along the line Microsoft started getting complaints from people that their computers weren’t “doing anything” for prolonged periods of time. MS discovered what was happening was that the computers were in the process of reading long stripes of information off of their hard drives. The result was that the characteristic start-and-stop sound of a HD was often absent.

So MS “fixed” the problem by somehow writing in a regular interruption in all HD reads. It took a little longer to read the data (and probably shortened HD lifetimes, too), but the classic snickety-snick sound was always there to let users know that something was happening.

So here’s the questions:

  1. Is this story true? My pal was right more than once, so I have high hopes in this regard.

  2. If true, how was it done? Specifically, I’m wondering if MS’ occasionally maligned defragging program didn’t work as advertised but instead separated data chunks from one another so the the drive would make a sound.

  3. Is MS still doing this? I just defragged this morning, and yet whenever I open up an application my computer still busily rattles away.

I hope I havent slid all of you a fat red herring. Thanks in advance for your responses.

Not sure about the rest, but Microsoft (not Gates personally) bought DOS (or what eventually became DOS) off of another company for something like 40K. I saw that on TV about a year ago.

[sub]Then again, maybe I just dreamed it… [/sub]

There is a video, Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999) – VHS Tape that explains how it all came about.

No that’s not true. The HD “rattles” when is has to grab different files from various locations on the disk. I have a 600MB music video on my PC. After the intial loading of the media player, the hard drive makes nary a rattling sound. The HD light is flicking furiously, but that’s it.

Defrag should reduce the hunting around, but there’s no was for every file to be physically next to every other file. That would be a neat trick!

I’ve seen that reported – with various variations – in many sources. It does indeed seem like MS-DOS was bought, not developed.

I did once read in a computer magazine that IBM was considering another system of DOS before MS-DOS. While beginning negotiations with the company that owned the system, IBM asked them to sign a nondiscloser agreement. The other company refused, and IBM went elsewhere. It was listed as the biggest error of all time.

Bill’s programmers didn’t write Apple’s Macintosh operating systems, and our hard drives tink and rattle too, so I’m dubious about this one.

I believe the ancestor of DOS that Microsoft bought was called QDOS, or “quick and dirty operating system”. The other contender for running IBM’s PC would have probably been CP/M, “CP for microcomputers” (CP existing in a more robust version as a mainframe OS; I think it stands for Control Program or something like that).

When Project Chess (IBM’s codename for the PC) was near completion, a small team was first sent to Digital Research headed by Gary Kildall, whose CP/M (control program for microprocessors) was a de facto operating system for the S-100 microcomputers.

Digital Research then had readied a version of CP/M called CP/M-86, written for the Intel’s 8086 microprocessors. Unfortunately, IBM’s PC was based on the slightly less expensive 8088, and Kildall needed to rewrite the system.

The IBM team then went to Microsoft, because they needed a version of BASIC for their computer. Somehow finding out that Digital Research wasn’t ready with a product, and knowing that Tim Paterson of Seattle Engineering had what’s called QDOS, which is an illegal clone of CP/M, Gates decided to buy the program with $50,000.

Ignoring the unwritten understanding between DR and MS that MS would do languages and DR would do operating systems, Gates went down to Florida pitch QDOS. The rest is history.

Yes, CP/M stands for Control Program for Microcomputers, and it was the heir apparent to the microcomputer (pre-PC PCs) dynasty until the various DOSes imitated it (aka, blatantly stole from it). MS-DOS was the top dog of the DOSes, mainly because it muscled out DR-DOS by making sure Windows 3 would emit a false error message if run on DR-DOS.

DR-DOS was a better DOS than MS-DOS, and fully compatible (most DOSes are compatible with the others to a large extent, in fact). MSFT knew, post-1984 (launch of Macintosh), that graphical interfaces (windows, in other words) were the future, and that DR-DOS could easily beat them if MS-Windows would run on its superior OS base. So they tweaked MS-Windows 3 (MS-Windows 1 and 2 never achieved any kind of popularity) to only run on MS-DOS by making emit a spurious error message and exit if someone tried to start it on DR-DOS. DR-DOS died the death because only MS-DOS had a GUI (Graphical User Interface).

To this day, dosemu (a Linux MS-DOS emulator that aims at full MS-DOS version 3 (for 80386 processors, the generation that ran Windows 3) compatibility) cannot run MS-Windows 3. I wonder if it still emits that false error message if you try… (Otherwise, dosemu can run damn near every other DOS program I’ve found, including an oddball French/English GUI called Deskview.)

To clarify the last part, dosemu emulates MS-DOS 3 running on an 80386 processor. You do not need an actual 80386 processor to run it.


(And the processor it emulates is configurable. You can jack it up to a 486 or even a 586 (early Pentium). If only MS programs were so configurable.)

IBM did try to buy CP/M from Gary Kildall but he was not too interested in selling it to them. Supposedly he did not even meet with them himself but let some other people talk to them. He died about 7 years ago.

A few good books about the start of the PC industry are “Accidental Empires” by Robert Cringley and “Hard Drive” which is about Gates and Microsoft.


I can’t confirm or deny the hard disk rattle, but it is a possibility… Early MFM hard drives like the Seagate ST251 were rather quiet.

The early IDE drives would wake the dead, especially when the bearings went and the drive started spewing smoke :eek:

Anyhoo, it is possible that a long disk load could be quiet enough for someone to think the machine had hung, but long enough? I’m not sure about that part of it.
As for DOS, that was bought by Micro-Soft (the original name) from Seattle Computing something-or-other, after (legend has it) Gary Kildall of CP/M fame blew off IBM when they came looking for an OS. Bear in mind that Microsoft was a producer of BASIC interpreters for Tandy/RadioShack, Commodore and others, and was involved in the MSX project with several Japanese 8-bit PC makers. They had other irons in the fire…
“Just the nonsensical ravings of a lunatic mind”


…engaging hijack mode in 3…2…1…


Are you talking about Desqview from Quarterdeck? That was some great stuff… The GUI portion is kinda hinky, but the multitasking and task management were ahead of their time. A friend of mine still runs his million-dollar company 100% from DOS and Desqview, along with a program called Q&A, a very programmable database/word processor combo…

…we now return you to your regularly scheduled thread, already in progress…

Here’s a fun thing you can do at home to dispell the myth.

Find an old hard drive (100-400mb). Don’t pay too much for it because you are going to break it.

Put the drive in your computer, format it, then load it up with data. Copy a bunch of different files onto it.

Turn off the computer and crack the case on the hard drive. Be very careful when you do this not to damage the inner workings. The hard drive itself looks like a record turntable and “needle” armature.

To take the drive apart, sometime you have to remove the controller board from the underside. Some use a ribbon connector, others used handful of pins. Just becare taking it off and remember how to put it back on.

Once you have the cover off, place the drive disc side up on an old mousepad (to insulate the electical parts from any other metal bits)

Fire up the computer and access the drive. Copy some files off it. Use files on it (mp3 files are a good thought). It will soon become very clear WHY the drives make their noises. The little armature will be all over the place.

I guess I should add, be careful when doing all this. There isn’t a ton of power rushing through an active drive, but if you short out the drive you mught cause damage to your computers power supply. So don’t go dropping paperclips onto the thing.

If you are into computers, this is something you have to do at least once. It’s great fun.

Remember, this renders the drive useless because all the little bits of dust that end up on the discs will end up causeing errors. So DON’T do this on your brand new 100gb hard drive (unless you have access to a clean room.)

But all is not lost with the drive. There are two very strong magents at the base of the armature. After you are done playing, pop those out and use them to hold things on your fridge -like paperback books, small animals, children, etc. The hard drive platters themselves are also very cool to play with. A bit smaller then CD-Rom discs, they make much more interesting coasters then AOL CD’s. Most of the older drives had two or three of these.

As a side note: I have an old 10mb Atari ST harddrive which makes the same sounds. It doesn’t use any MS code in it’s design. :slight_smile:

Upon running the program, no. It’s just called Desktop (version 2 something, in fact). It’s a real unknown with very few features: It’s mainly like ‘Explorer’ for MS-Windows, with a desktop environment you can place icons and such in. I haven’t. It has its own internal text editor, with a hex edit mode, and text file viewer, along with the obligatory calculator. It looks a bit nicer than Windows 3, as I recall (I haven’t used Windows 3 in a while), but it doesn’t have anything on it in functionality. Pretty fast for running on a (simulated) 386, but it suffers from the fact that it was originally writted in French and wasn’t professionally translated. I rarely use it: When I am running dosemu, I’m playing MS-DOS games that are best launched from the command line anyway.

I got it free from some download site (Simtel, perhaps).