Altair BASIC

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Altair BASIC was an interpreter for the BASIC programming language that ran on the MITS Altair 8800 and subsequent S-100 bus computers. It was Microsoft's first product (as Micro-Soft), distributed by MITS under a contract. Altair BASIC was the start of the Microsoft BASIC product range.

Origin and development

Bill Gates recalls that when he and Paul Allen read about the Altair in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, they understood that the price of computers would soon drop to the point that selling software for them would be a profitable business.[1] Gates believed that by providing a BASIC interpreter for the new computer they could make it more attractive to hobbyists. They contacted MITS founder Ed Roberts, told him that they were developing an interpreter, and asked whether he would like to see a demonstration. This followed the common engineering industry practice of a trial balloon, an announcement of a non-existent product to gauge interest. Roberts agreed to meet them for a demonstration in a few weeks, in March 1975.

Gates and Allen had neither an interpreter nor even an Altair system on which to develop and test one. However, Allen had written an Intel 8008 emulator for their previous venture, Traf-O-Data, that ran on a PDP-10 time-sharing computer. He adapted this emulator based on the Altair programmer guide, and they developed and tested the interpreter on Harvard's PDP-10. Harvard officials were not pleased when they found out, but there was no written policy that covered the use of this computer.[2] Gates and Allen bought computer time from a timesharing service in Boston to complete their BASIC. They hired Harvard student Monte Davidoff to write floating-point arithmetic routines for the interpreter, a feature not available in many of its competitors. The finished interpreter, including its own I/O system and line editor, fit in only four kilobytes of memory, leaving plenty of room for the interpreted program. In preparation for the demo, they stored the finished interpreter on a punched tape that the Altair could read and Paul Allen flew to Albuquerque. On final approach, Allen realized that they had forgotten to write a bootstrap program to read the tape into memory. Writing in 8080 machine language, Allen finished the program before the plane landed. Only when they loaded the program onto an Altair and saw a prompt asking for the system's memory size did Gates and Allen know that their interpreter worked on the Altair hardware. Later, they made a bet on who could write the shortest bootstrap program. Gates won.[3][4]

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