‘An open letter to the hobbyists,’ p. 3 in Computer Notes, Vol. 1, No. 9, February 1976.

Albuquerque, NM: Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, 1976.

First edition, exceptionally scarce, of this key document in the development of home computing, and Bill Gates’ first clear published statement of what was to become Microsoft’s hugely successful business model, the development and marketing of proprietary software. “On February 3, 1976 William Henry Gates III (Bill Gates), in his role as ‘General Partner Micro-Soft,’ Albuquerque, New Mexico, wrote An open letter to the hobbyists, making the distinction between proprietary and open-source software. Gates’ one page letter was first published in Computer Notes, 1, #9 (February 1976). Computer Notes was the house journal of MITS, the company that developed the MITS Altair 8800 and licensed Micro-Soft’s version of BASIC” (historyofinformation.com). “Bill Gates saw the need for software to be a product unto itself, especially software that could be coded once and executed on a variety of computers. In 1976, he wrote an open letter to the hobbyists at the Homebrew Computer Club, encouraging them to stop sharing software, specifically commercial software. In the letter, he pointed out that if no one can make a living from software, why would anyone go to the effort to write and maintain it? The idea of retail software in microcomputers was novel, and it required legal protection. The protection came in the form of the End User License Agreement (EULA), which changed the definition of ownership of software: You never actually own software, just a limited license to use it. Included in those limits is protection for the developer for liability. Any compensation for harm caused by the software is limited to the price of the software, typically. With software as the business and protection in the form of the EULA, commercial software for microcomputers snowballed, and Microsoft was one of the leading companies making software manufacture into their business and staying (for the most part) out of the hardware business” (Campbell). “Gates’ letter induced a fierce debate and the incident made history as the software flap. Gates’ and Allen’s attitude caused a stir because it offended the hacker ethic, which dominated the community of programmers at that time. The hacker ethic assured software developers free access to and the possibility to share all kinds of knowledge and information in the software domain. ‘In the beginning software was free,’ read the credo of programmers back then. Free sharing of information and knowledge resulted in a community of software developers mainly interested in improving each other’s
code. Nondisclosure agreements and secrecy and thus exclusion of other developers increasingly appeared, with software development becoming an industry” (Mocigemba, p. 173). No copies in auction records.

Bill Gates (b. 1955) and his childhood friend Paul Allen (1953-2018) saw in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics the Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) Altair 8800 microcomputer, which is widely regarded as the spark that ignited the microcomputer revolution. Allen suggested that they could program a BASIC interpreter for the device; after a call from Gates claiming to have a working interpreter, MITS requested a demonstration. Since they didn't actually have one, Allen worked on a simulator for the Altair while Gates developed the interpreter. Although they developed the interpreter on a simulator and not the actual device, the interpreter worked flawlessly when they demonstrated the interpreter to MITS in Albuquerque, New Mexico in March 1975; MITS agreed to distribute it, marketing it as Altair BASIC. Allen and Gates officially established Micro-Soft (the combination of the words microprocessor and software) on April 4, 1975, with Altair BASIC as their founding product (the company was later renamed Microsoft). BASIC interpreters remained the core of Microsoft’s business until the early 1980s, when it shifted to MS-DOS.

The Altair was very popular with hobbyists such as the Homebrew Computer Club, an early computer group based in Palo Alto, CA, as was Altair BASIC, MITS’s preferred BASIC interpreter. However, the hobbyists took a “share-alike” approach to software and thought nothing of copying the BASIC interpreter for other hobbyists. Gates responded in 1976 with the present strongly worded ‘Open Letter to Hobbyists’ that accused the copiers of theft and declared that he could not continue developing computer software that people did not pay for: “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?” A copy was sent to the Homebrew Computer Club, and to every major computer publication in the country.

The letter was noticed and the reaction was strong. Many felt the software should be bundled with the machine, the marketing model to be adopted by Steve Jobs for the Apple 1, and that the current distribution method was Gates’ problem. Others questioned the cost of developing software. Nevertheless, the concept of proprietary software, computer software licensed under exclusive legal right of the copyright holder with the intent that the licensee is given the right to use the software only under certain conditions, became and remains Microsoft’s principal business model.

Computer Notes, published from 1975-1978, was commonly referred to as the Altair newsletter. MITS originally offered it to share technical information, sales information, and product news to Altair users and enthusiasts. Buyers who registered their Altair were given a free one-year subscription with an option to renew when it expired. Computer Notes also published the itinerary for the MITS Mobile, the RV that traveled through the western United States demonstrating the Altair and “Micro-Soft” BASIC.

Copies of these early ‘hobbyist’ computer magazines are notoriously scarce, especially in this condition. 

Campbell, ‘When Open Source came to Microsoft,’ Code Magazine, September/October 2020. Mocigemba, ‘Sustainable computing,’ Poiesis & Praxis (2006), pp. 163-184.

Large newspaper format (398 x 291mm), pp. [ONE], TWO-TWENTY (a couple of tiny brown spots at upper and lower edges of last three leaves, folded once for distribution. Stapled as issued in self-wrappers.

Item #5423

Price: $3,500.00

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