There are some things that have been around so long now it’s almost hard to imagine that there was even a time when they didn’t exist. Like television, telephones or Microsoft. It’s not often that we wonder what Microsoft means or what it stands for because it just is. There is air and sun and grass and Microsoft.
But the cold, hard truth is that there was actually a time before Microsoft. In fact, the company is only around 30 years old, which by some standards, is quite young. The software company was founded in 1975 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, when Popular Mechanics featured a microcomputer known as the Altair 8800. What the computer, described as the “World’s First Minicomputer Kit,” lacked, though, was an easy, user-friendly programming language.
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Luckily, Gates and Allen had written their own, having spent time together in their school’s computer center. In an interview with Fortune, the two recalled “scrounging for free computer time” in part by testing the machines. “We didn’t have to pay for the time as long as we could find bugs in their system and report them,” Gates remembered. This testing enabled them to grasp the potential of microprocessors, leading them to begin a company called Traf-O-Data.
The machines they built as Traf-O-Data tracked and analyzed the data behind automobile traffic, but they also taught Gates and Allen the details about the ways in which microprocessors work and their relationship with software. It was during this time that they wrote a version of BASIC, a popular computer language, that would work on the wanting Altair. So Gates and Allen did what all entrepreneurs do, they pitched their language to MITS, the makers of the Altair.
Why is it called Microsoft?
“When we signed that first contract with MITS, we referred to ourselves as ‘Paul Allen and Bill Gates doing business as Micro-Soft,’” Gates told Fortune. The name, Micro-Soft, was obvious to them, because what they were doing was developing SOFTware for MICROprocessors, or MICROcomputers like the Altair 8800. “I don’t remember why we spelled it with a hyphen and a capital S. We put a credit line in the source code of our first product that said, ‘Micro-Soft BASIC: Bill Gates wrote a lot of stuff; Paul Allen wrote some other stuff.’ We never officially incorporated [as Microsoft] until 1981.”
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Even though it was obvious, it wasn’t the only option. Gates also admitted to bringing up other names, though mostly in jest, like Outcorporated Inc. or Unlimited Ltd. They even considered naming it after themselves. Allen claimed that in the end, they didn’t call it Allen & Gates because they wanted Microsoft to have an identity beyond its founders, much like IBM.
It was as though they knew then that this would be bigger than themselves. Perhaps because, as Allen recalled, “Microprocessors were instantly attractive to us because you could build something for a fraction of the cost of conventional electronics.” They understood early on that technology would only continue on this trajectory, which might also be why they relocated to Bellevue, WA in 1979.
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After following MITS to Albuquerque, NM, they reportedly had trouble attracting programming talent. It proved not to be an issue in Washington, though, as the Microsoft headquarters remains in Redmond to this day. They’ve come a long way from BASIC, instead becoming widely known for Windows, one of the most commonly used operating systems for personal computers.
Windows was apparently an equally obvious name for Gates and Allen. According to PC World, “Microsoft has inconsistently followed a marketing strategy of using basic, descriptive, one-word names.” Take Office or Word, for example. “ At the time of its original release late in 1985, most operating systems were single-tasking, text-only, and ran from a command line–like DOS if you remember that. Graphic user interfaces (GUIs) were still new… The word windows simply described one of the most obvious differences between a GUI and a command-line interface.”
From two words (microcomputers and software) to one (Windows), Microsoft has made a name for itself that’s recognizable no matter which language you process in. The company is currently CEO’d by Satya Nadella, employs over 114,000 people and is headquartered in Redmond, Washington.
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Annelise Schoups is a contributor at Rewind & Capture. With a degree in journalism, experience in public relations, and an education in travel, she is passionate about cultivating knowledge and storytelling.