In the 1970s, a man called Bill Gates developed an interpreter for BASIC: the Altair BASIC. Per my understanding, he was able to persuade the guy in charge of a microcomputer company to include the interpreter program on every microcomputer he sold, which I assume brought Gates and his crew some royalties. Apparently this made Gates a fortune. What I don't understand is why programing languages aren't as profitable today. What factors in the past made them profitable, but not today ?

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    Who says they aren't profitable? What are you trying to sell?
    – user40980
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 22:38
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    one thought, back in the day the stack (OS, shell, langs, etc) on a machine was very vendor-specific and niche. We live in a world where we can install Linux on any hardware and have instant access to decades of open source software.
    – Doug T.
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 22:41
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    Why the downvote? I honestly think this is a rather profound question and points to important trends in programming history.
    – Doug T.
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 22:45
  • @MichaelT the link behind "but not today?" says so, and it's right. There are business reasons to develop languages, but developing a language won't make you rich. At the very least, you need some other product or leverage to convince others to lock themselves into your proprietary language. And if you have that, you'll probably have more luck boosting sales of that other product by making the language good, rather than selling the language.
    – user7043
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 23:01
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    Your question is ambiguous. Are you referring to making money by designing a language or making money by selling a compiler or interpreter for a language? Several companies make quite a bit of money selling compilers and interpreters: Microsoft, Adobe, Intel, The Portland Compiler Group, MathWorks, Wolfram, among others. Making money by designing a language is harder because language design is generally not protected as IP, only the implementation. Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 23:17

6 Answers 6


I don't think Bill Gates made a lot of money off of the Alttair (did anyone?). A bigger break was buying a DOS from someone else, fixing it up and selling licenses to IBM for their PC. IBM along with a lot of other makers of PC's had few choices of operating systems so they stuck with MS-DOS. This did include BASIC, which was a big benefit at the time because there was little software on the market. Users were more of the "hobbyist" type who were willing to write their own software.

How many people do you know today that own a computer, tablet, smartphone etc. that want to program them so much, they're willing to pay for the programming language? Not many. There are few devices where you can't get some type of IDE for free. Even Microsoft has several free versions of Visual Studio.

The more people who have access to development tools for your hardware and/or operating system, the more software that is going to get created on your stack. The more people who will buy it. It's sort of a give them the razor but sell them the blades.

Sorry, I'm running on personal memory here and didn't research any of the profitability claims. I know this isn't exact, but if I'm way off, please advise.

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    Microsoft also developed Applesoft BASIC, which I assume gave them royalties on every Apple ][ sold. This was likely a hell of a lot of money.
    – user53141
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 0:28
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    @StevenBurnap - You are correct in that Microsoft developed Applesoft BASIC, but unfortunatelly for Microsoft it was not royalties on each computer but a single $21,000 payment.
    – mouviciel
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 7:14
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    Microsoft also wrote Commodore Basic according to wikipedia for a one off payment of $25,000 - V2.0 being released on the hugely popular C64
    – reevesy
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 12:10
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    @mouviciel Heh, that's funny...Bill Gates making a poor business deal.
    – user53141
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 15:24
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    @StevenBurnap - You can see it the other way: Steve Jobs made a great business deal.
    – mouviciel
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 17:02

He got there early.

Since then the internet has revolutionised the way we share and create sofware. No longer do you need to source a floppy disk with the specific software you need, it is all a mere download away.

The market is saturated and the development community has embraced open-source and free software, the competition is rife and we are late to the party.

Secondly now there is this much competition it is in a language creator's interests to release and distribute tools for working in that language for free. There are a ton of fantastic languages already, if you want adoption then you have to make it easy.

There is just no need for me to buy a compiler/interpreter when I could sooner switch to an open-source, community driven and in my personal opinion, safer option.


The first significant difference is that when Gates wrote his version of BASIC, computer hardware was expected to ship with one or more development languages. Today, people are expected to get languages separately.

The second significant difference is that today, the Open Source community develops robust, free compilers/interpreters for popular languages. That community did not exist then.

Finally, there is a misconception in the question in that Gates wasn't the inventor of the BASIC language. He was the author of a particular implementation of it. It's not clear to me that the inventors of the language made a particularly large amount of money on it. Also consider that today, Microsoft makes a lot of money on their implementation of C++. (And again, the designer of that language didn't become particularly rich on it.) So in that sense, the same sorts of people are making money on languages as in the seventies.

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    You're telescoping the history somewhat. There was a time from about 1980 to about 1984 when computers like TRS-80's and Apple II's shipped with BASIC in ROM. Then there was a period from about 1984 to about 1991 when you pretty much had to pay for a compiler. Starting in about 1991 you could get linux and run gcc on it. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 3:47
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    Yes, true, but I wasn't really trying to give a historical timeline, merely contrast 1980 with today.
    – user53141
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 4:34

Also think how programs are compiled/distributed has changed. Remember, before DOS, most computing was on mainframe-esque systems. Compilers were delivered as part of the hardware because you rarely got off-the-shelf software. If you were lucky, you got source and compiled for that machine. Even today, in many Unix-environments, you still have to compile for platforms because the binaries are not portable. This was the norm back then, not the standard.

So the assumption that there needed to be a compiler was more a reflection on what people thought they needed from a computer to be productive. These days, because so much from a hardware and/or operating system has been standardized, it's possible to compile an application and deliver it to another machine and it will run just fine, thank you.

The money is in the commercialization of compiled binaries because that's how people use computers these days (how many applications do you use that you have not compiled... if you're like me, most of them, if not all). In the time of DOS, the money was in the language / compiler because that's how people used computers back then (the people using the applications either compiled them, or sat down the hall from the people who did).


Short answer: the internet.

Longer answer: The internet provides a cheap, fast, international, searchable, well-known method of communication. The internet technically existed in the 70's, it wasn't until the 90's that it became really well-known.

It is difficult for a bunch of people who want to get together and write a high quality, free compiler (or interpreter) to communicate via printed program listings or floppies sent by snail mail. It's also more difficult for people who are interested in doing things like that to find each other using common communication techniques of the 70's: sure, you can post things like want ads in the paper, but if I put an ad in the paper in California somewhere, and you read your paper in Florida, you remain unaware of my existence.

Even with a bad search engine, typing "free compiler" or "programming language" is likely to get results that might lead people like that to find each other. Searchability makes a huge difference -- I've found a number of interesting things online that I probably would never have even heard of without the internet, and I doubt I'm unusual in that way.

So when people started writing programming tools online, and distributing them for free to all comers, people started using them, and some of them also helped make them better. Programming languages are also something that many programmers find interesting, so this effect would be stronger for programming languages than for some other kinds of software.

Basic economics: you can demand a higher price for something people want if it's harder to find. After the internet took off, programming languages were easier to get from someone other than a company, and free is a pretty low price.

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    I think you will find that GNU C pre-dates the World Wide Web. They did have and internet based newsroom and e-mail but they very primitive and not widely adopted at the time. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 1:34
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    @JamesAnderson Usenet news was fairly widely adopted for its time in the days before the web. Even with dialup modems it was possible in those days. Perl, back in 1988 was released on comp.sources.unix And well, thats how things were done back then.
    – user40980
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 2:18
  • +1 for the spot on right answer. Languages made good money up to and including Delphi and FoxPro in the early 90s. Since the Internet hit around 1995 you can barely give them away.
    – david.pfx
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 10:43
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    @MichaelT: Lesser known, but equally important FidoNet also helped in the proliferation. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 12:19

When PCs were first available, there were few programs available. Without a programming language, the computer would be pretty well useless. BASIC as implemented then was a simple small language which could be run in very little memory.

Microsoft got its start selling MS-DOS to IBM. The availability of programming language is reported to have made the deal. The profit was in selling the operating system, not the programming language.

Legend has it that Bill Gates claimed that he had a Basic interpreter which the competing operating did not. He then wrote the Basic quickly after striking the deal and before demoing the operating system. I don't know if this is true or not.

In those days there were few available languages, and fewer still suitable for the limited memory available on a PC. Memory at that time was measured in Kilobytes, and it was believed a PC would never require a Megabyte.

These days we have a wide variety of languages, most of which are available as open source. The capabilities we have on the simplest cell phones would have been consider wild fantasies in the early days of computing.

  • I believe with your third paragraph you're thinking of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altair_BASIC#Origin_and_development
    – user
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 13:10
  • @MichaelKjörling This is not the legend I heard of, but it would make the accomplishment of developing Basic for MS-DOS over the weekend much simpler. The current tellings vary significantly from the legends told to me.
    – BillThor
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 0:34

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