Bill Gates and the MSX - 1983 Interview
This vintage interview with Bill Gates was originally featured in the 8/83 issue of LOGiN magazine. It's largely an advertisement for the upcoming MSX, which would be released in Japan two months later, and Gates' vision of a "computer in every home." Gates also shares his thoughts on Atari and the video game landscape, differences between the Japanese and American computer markets, and the meaning behind the 'X' in MSX.
On June 16, MicroSoft and ASCII announced a proposal that will have a major impact on the future of the personal computer. The announcement was made in regards to the MSX, a home-personal computer that puts compatibility with software and hardware first. LOGiN immediately asked Bill Gates, the man behind the project, for more details about the MSX.
Gates: We want to popularize computers for the masses. A computer in every home! Up till now, one company has made the software, and another company has made the hardware. This complexity has made it difficult for computers to find widespread appeal. The MSX home personal computer system is our attempt to do something about this situation.
—When did the MSX project begin?
Gates: Kay (Kazuhiko Nishi) and I started talking at the start of this year, but only recently did our plans begin to take more concrete shape. The project itself is barely 6 months old! When I think about it now, I really wish we had started doing something like this a lot earlier.
—Can you go into a little more detail about the content of the MSX project?
Gates: OK. First, there's a hardware proposal. With the MSX platform, we want the graphics, peripherals, basically all the hardware specs and components to have complete standardized compatibility.1 I mean the joysticks, ROM, I/O addresses, BASIC language, everything. Specifically, it will use a Z80A CPU and 9918A VDP, 256x192 graphics resolution, and 16 colors.
We're also proposing an expansion bus and ROM cartridge, and complete cross-compatibility between any system with the MSX name. We've created a powerful BASIC implementation for use with the MSX, too.
Our goal with this is to have a wider selection of hardware peripherals and software available. Games, educational software, and even a BASIC instruction manual—we want it all for the MSX. Our goal is not to have the best or most powerful chip for the MSX. Actually, it's the opposite. Using existing chips to create a low-cost computer is ideal, and if hardware makers want to take it upon themselves to improve the chips later, that should be possible on the MSX's simplified architecture which runs on only three or four chips. I want the cost to be kept under 200 dollars—at that price, who wouldn't want one? The MSX, in other words, will be the world's first low cost consumer computer.
—Why did you chose the Z80A for the CPU?
Gates: It's a well-known CPU, and it has an excellent implementation of Microsoft BASIC, so I think it's a natural choice. We mulled over whether to go with a 16-bit CPU, but 16-bits doesn't make sense for a personal computer. Graphics and sound effects are two places where we wanted to focus our efforts, and an 8-bit CPU is enough for that.
—I'd like you to explain what the MSX's BASIC implementation will be like...
Gates: Basically, it's the same Microsoft BASIC as always, but it can do some new things that previously were only possible on 16-bit CPUs. It's a full version of Microsoft BASIC, in any event.
—MSX BASIC sounds like the ideal version of BASIC then!
Gates: Well, it's hard to say. But among the 8-bit BASIC versions, I think it is definitely the best. The PC-8800 is amazing, but it's another class. If you look at PCs under 500$, the MSX is the best. We're always thinking of ways to fill the ROM to capacity, and we've filled the MSX's 32kb ROM to the brim.
—How many companies do you have signed up to work with the MSX?
Gates: Let's see… 15 companies. Canon, Kyocera, Sanyo, Sharp, General, Sony, Nichiden, Matsushita, Toshiba, Yamaha, Victor, Pioneer, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Mitsubishi. That number may increase in the future, too.
—The Japanese PC market is still small, but I think it will grow with the introduction of the MSX. How confident are you about that?
Gates: Well, I'm no expert on market research. But I have always had faith in the future of the microprocessor, and I'm willing to bet anything on that. I am certain that, one day, everyone will own a computer. For the MSX, if we can move things along at a good pace, we can probably sell a million units in the next two years. No exaggerating there.
—It all depends on the software, of course.
Gates: I agree.
—I'd like to see a quantity and quality on par with the Apple II. Tell me about the MSX software.
Gates: Software makers will only create software for popular machines, so our #1 task right now is to assure them, in no uncertain terms, that the MSX is going to be a big hit. It's a chicken and egg problem though… which comes first, you know, the software or the hardware? But with Microsoft's promotion and the participation of several famous companies, I don't think it will be long before the software makers also get on board. And creating software on par with what the Apple II can do won't be a problem, either. It was like this with the IBM PC too, by the way. Once it became popular everyone trusted it and things progressed quickly from there. The MSX will be the same.
—Will it be difficult to port previous software running on Microsoft BASIC to the MSX?
Gates: No, I think it's easy. They share the common framework of Microsoft BASIC, after all. The main difference up to now, on the hardware side, has only really been the graphics anyway. So as long as you fix the graphics issues, the rest should be easy to convert to the MSX.
—By the way, about the MSX name... the MS stands for Microsoft, but what does the X mean?
Gates: (laughs) It doesn't have any special meaning, but a logo has to look good and have a nice ring to it, right? "MSX" has an almost artistic sound to it, I feel. It's not because my girlfriend's name is Xaviera, or anything silly like that...! But I think the logo captures our distinctive style, you know? You'll be seeing more of it. Systems that are compatible with the MSX will use it, it's kind of like a guarantee of compatibility.
—The MSX has only been announced for Japan so far, but what about America?
Gates: From a consumer products standpoint, I think the Japanese market is definitely more interesting. There's a lot of potential for market penetration. Truth be told, I'd like to see American companies like GE and RCA get on board with our concept and vision for the MSX and work with us. Even if they don't want to create the hardware themselves, they could just purchase the units from us and re-sell them. But at this point, our announcement today is purely aimed at Japanese manufacturers.
—What do you think will happen with the Atari VCS and the console wars?
Gates: Well, the VCS has been out on the American market for quite some time now. Has it not been released in Japan yet?
—Atari recently established their Atari Japan subsidiary here, but they've only just announced the Atari 2800.
Gates: Ah. Compared to the MSX, I feel like the market there is a lot more limited. I've been thinking about this though, and I want the MSX to be about the same price as the VCS. And I want the MSX to have a lot of high quality game software too.
—What are your plans for Microsoft BASIC outside of the MSX?
Gates: We plan to keep going and developing it as we have been. There's quite a few people out there using Microsoft BASIC, after all. The work we're doing with it right now is centered around 16-bit CPUs, but don't worry, we haven't forgotten the 8-bit users. And also portable PCs. 2 In any event, in terms of popularity 8-bit is still king, and I believe the MSX is the future. But there's different markets, and 16-bit and portable machines are their own independent thing.
—I'd like to shift gears and ask some questions about you. Do you still program?
Gates: I have no time for it these days. But I have a portable computer now so I've been writing some BASIC programs. Before this I never used BASIC myself.3 That's given me the ability to comment on various languages though. I don't think it's good to use one thing for too long. It limits your thinking. Soon we're going to announce a new graph tool called "Multi-tool Chart", and I designed that. I look forward to seeing what everyone thinks of it.
—You've said that an "easy" computer is your ideal, but do you think we will get there?
Gates: Well, I don't know. But given enough time, sure, why not? Seven years ago, the computer I assembled myself was a sensation, but with the passing of time what people desire has also changed. There are many people today who expect to buy a computer and within 2 hours be able to be fully proficient in using it. I've seen their disappointment with my own eyes. Games are another story, but that immediacy people are seeking with computers, it doesn't yet exist today. Give it one more year, though, and with a good selection of MSX software under your belt, you'll be good to go. I think on the hardware front we're already there, the capabilities are sufficient for the average user. I'm really not joking when I say that the time is approaching when everyone is going to have a computer of their own. You'll be seen as crazy if you don't have one, I'm sure of it.
I don't think everyone is suddenly going to be interested in computers, of course, and there will be people who hold out to the bitter end. I mean, I don't like calculators. I prefer to use my own head. In school I'd see people next to me using their calculator while I diligently did the equations by hand. That's why I feel we must try and reach those people who hate computers now, by providing a user-friendly machine at low cost. If we can do that, I believe we can achieve a 90% adoption rate with computers.
—I have a feeling LOGiN readers will soon become MSX users. Do you have any advice for them?
Gates: The thing that people get most excited about when they use a computer, I think, are the graphics. When the Apple II was first released, it had graphics capabilities, but its BASIC wasn't powerful so it took 3 years until the first hi-res games came out. With the MSX there will be no gap like that. It has excellent functions, like sprite capabilities, built right in. The nice thing about BASIC machines is that you can readily learn fundamental programming concepts, as well as the features of the computer itself. We can't let computers be these mystery boxes. I wrote my first program when I was 12 years old, and likewise I would love to see the MSX become a tool for everyone to learn to program on. Don't just sit down and watch missiles fly around the screen. Using your head is a good thing!
—Please give a final message to our readers. Feel free to make one last pitch for the MSX, too.
Gates: I think MSX machines will soon become a ubiquitous sight in Japan. They might become so common that four years from now, you'll be saying "I'm sick of these things!" I want you to think of new ways to use computers. Computers are a form of media, but a bit more dynamic than pen and paper, and there should be many unexplored uses just waiting to be discovered. Whether you can program or not isn't the biggest deal. It's more important that you cultivate your own unique imagination, distinct from others. That is far and away the most important thing, I believe.
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In the early days of home computers, there was very little compatibility (of both software and peripherals) because every company had their own platform. This was a particular problem for the BASIC language and made computing somewhat inaccessible for your average, non-enthusiast home user.↩
The Japanese word used here is literally "handheld" in katakana, but this is an anachronistic Japanese term for a portable PC, IE early "laptops" like the Compaq Portable and Epson HX-20 (which also ran Microsoft BASIC).↩
This is a puzzling statement given that Gates experience writing the BASIC compiler/interpreter, among other things. I wonder if the Japanese translator didn't fumble whatever he originally said in English. (For reference, the exact Japanese given here is 以前はBASICなんて使ったことなかった)↩