640K Ought to Be Enough for Everybody

January 23, 2008

I was talking with a friend about memory on computers. He said he wanted a computer with tons of memory for Photoshop. I said something to the effect that I've never seen a desktop that can handle more than 16 GB, and that most operating systems now don't want to handle more than that... that Windows will only give a process 4 GB max, 2 GB for the application and 2 GB shared with the operating system. He then said "I can't imagine having to use more than 16 GB!" This immediately reminded me of Bill Gates' famous quote, that "640K ought to be more than enough for everybody." Striving for accuracy, I went to the Internet to find when and where he said this.

Interesting fact came up: HE NEVER SAID IT. He vehemently denies having ever uttered this phrase. Every quote I've seen is always un-sourced, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt. So what makes this quote clog the tubes so easily?

First, the irony that a person renowned for his computer visions of the future would say something so backward causes people to smile. Secondly, there is a nugget of truth. In a 1989 speech, Bill Gates said:

"I have to say that in 1981, making those decisions, I felt like I was providing enough freedom for 10 years. That is, a move from 64k to 640k felt like something that would last a great deal of time. Well, it didn't - it took about only 6 years before people started to see that as a real problem."

Bill never said "640K is enough for everybody." He said "640K should keep everyone happy for the next 10 years." Turns out he was wrong. Within less than 6 years we started hitting the "640K limit"... which wasn't a hard limit at all, it was just a limit proposed by the operating system at the time. Mr. Gates thought that 640K was generous, and in the beginning it was. But as the industry marched forward, it started cramping. Pretty soon, we had DOS memory managers, extended and expanded memory, virtual memory... we would do ANYTHING to escape the 640K limit.

So what's the moral of this story? First, you can't believe just anything you read on the Internet. Sometimes something gets into the tubes because it's funny, not because it's accurate. Secondly, predicting the computer industry is hard. To be a successful computer development company (like the portion of SoftLayer I work in), you have to be able to look to the horizon and attempt to spy the most likely location the software industry is moving in. We developers work on projects 3, 6, 9, 12 months before they're used by our users; we have to make predictions at least double that size in advance to give growth room whilst the next tool is developed. And, I dare say, we've done a good job of that around here!

In conclusion, Bill Gates never said "640K should be enough for everybody." That quote is a myth. It's a funny joke, but a joke nonetheless. However, Bill Gates did actually say this at a Macintosh conference:

"To create a new standard, it takes something that's not just a little bit different; it takes something that's really new and really captures people's imagination — and the Macintosh, of all the machines I've ever seen, is the only one that meets that standard."

And this time there's video evidence. And there's the not-quite-quote where Bill Gates implies that Vista isn't really the best thing since 8086 Segmented Physical Memory Models. Aren't real quotes more humorous fake ones? I think so.

-Shawn

Categories: