Whatever Happened to CBASIC
by John C. Dvorak
Probably one of the most interesting stories from the early days of personal computing is the tale of CBASIC, a dominant force in the applications arena from 1978 to about 1982. During this era there were three BASIC’s available for developers. There was M-Basic or Microsoft Basic, Northstar BASIC and CBASIC. Only Northstar BASIC and CBASIC utilized BCD arithmetic and could be trusted for applications that required numerical accuracy. CBASIC ran on the popular CP/M operating system while Northstar BASIC did not thus making CBASIC the language of choice for the broader market.
CBASIC evolved from a 1976 Masters thesis done at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey. The student was Gordon Eubanks and the thesis was on compiler technology. It’s there that Eubanks developed the Basic-E compiler for his professor, Gary Kildall. Kildall would found Digital Research and develop CP/M shortly thereafter and Eubanks, while remaining in the Navy as a submarine officer, would turn BASIC-E into CBASIC.
It was actually Seymour Rubenstein of MicroPro/Wordstar fame who was working at IMSAI during this period that got Eubanks to do CBASIC for IMSAI. He had gotten wind of the BASIC-E which was in the public domain. While anyone could get the source code for BASIC-E, add features and commercialize it, it seemed appropriate that the guy who invented BASIC-E could do the best job.
As part of the deal Eubanks would share ownership of the product and could sell it himself. Rubenstein helped decide what was needed in the product and Eubanks, while stationed in Vallejo coded at night. It was the eventual coder of Wordstar, Rob Barnaby, who was working at IMSAI, who did the Quality Assurance for the product on behalf of Rubenstein. CBASIC was coded in PL/M with some assembler added.
As the product developed Eubanks ran into two guys in Oakland who needed a solid compiler for an accounting system, Keith Parsons and Alan Cooper. The company was Structured Systems and at one point in the history of computing these two may have had the best desktop computer accounting software on the market. They helped Eubanks make CBASIC rock solid while suggesting practical features, according to Eubanks. Parsons ended up in Australia while Cooper went on to later develop more elaborate software products culminating years later in Visual BASIC, the Microsoft product. Cooper wrote the first manual for CBASIC.
Version 1 of CBASIC was shipped in November of 1977 as Eubanks sat in Vallejo while the Navy overhauled his ship the USS George Washington, the oldest missile sub in the Navy at the time. He soon set sail for Hawaii as CBASIC sales took off. The boost in sales was attributed to Adam Osborne, who would later found Osborne Publishing later to become Osborne/McGraw-Hill and later still, the Osborne Computer Company. Osborne brought out a series of books which contained source code for various business applications such as accounting. The source code was in CBASIC and gave the product a huge boost. Eubanks also credits columnist Jerry Pournelle, who liked the product and boosted it in his Byte columns.
Eubanks, while in Hawaii had his Mom run things at her place in Sierra Madre. The company was now known as Compiler Systems. It was during this period that Eubanks ran into software distributor George Tate at the behest of his Mom. Tate would later follow Eubanks path by taking some public domain code developed at JPL and with coder Wayne Ratliff develop dBASEII. Eubanks believes that it was actually dBASEII that killed CBASIC not the competition from Microsoft or Northstar. But by the time that had happened, Eubanks was out of the picture. In 1981 CP/M vendor Digital Research bought CBASIC from Compiler Systems. Eubanks came along for the ride and worked at DRI for 2 years. Digital Research President Gary Kildall was steamed that Microsoft had done the deal with IBM to use the Seattle Computer Products operating system for its new PC. By this time Microsoft was not that powerful a player and some believe that Kildall had earlier saved Microsoft from possible bankruptcy by inexpensively licensing CP/M to Microsoft so it could sell it on the Microsoft Softcard that plugged into an Apple II. The thanks he got was Microsoft doing a deal with IBM selling them an operating system they didn’t even have. Since Microsoft’s primary product was still BASIC Kildall believed that marketing CBASIC would help assuage his anger. But BASIC was no longer a player as inexpensive Pascals and various programmable database programs such as dBASIC were taking over the market. The product essentially died from neglect in 1983.
CBASIC was unique in that it pre-dated other more modern languages that employed p-code or pseudo-code to execute instructions. UCSD Pascal and later JAVA would be similarly designed. This allowed the product to be used over many platforms. CBASIC, for example, was quickly moved to MS-DOS on the IBM PC. Eubanks was also proud of the way he took the hardware design of the Northstar floating point board that was a popular S-100 bus add-in in the late 1970’s and produced a software version and incorporated it into CBASIC. And finally, while many products at the time had fixed length stings, Eubanks employed a variable length string which saved space and eliminated so-called ‘garbage collection.”
Looking back on the experience Eubanks kicks himself for not recognizing what dBASE was really all about — a modern development tool — because CBASIC could have easily evolved into the language for a modern database manager. He feels he also missed the boat on utilizing interactive tools for development. He credits Philippe Kahn for spotting that trend early on.
Eubanks went on to form C&E software with Dennis Coleman who had made a name for himself by developing the first modern Spell Checker. They were to develop the Q&A integrated word processor/database program. Meanwhile, a languishing artificial intelligence company called Symantec was about to go broke and the venture capitalists behind it masterminded Eubanks and company acquiring Symantec where Eubanks would finish Q&A and eventually turn Symantec into a software giant with the acquisition of Peter Norton Software and Central Point. Eubanks was then President and CEO of Symantec. CBASIC is no longer seen except among collectors of old software.