Excuse me, has anybody seen the FOCAL interpreter?

Raymond Chen

One of my now-retired colleagues joined Microsoft back in the early days when Steve Ballmer was the mail boy.

As I noted, the company at the time was very small. An order arrived in the mail (because that’s how you ordered software back then) for a copy of what I vaguely recall was Microsoft FOCAL, but don’t quote me on that. (I used to a have a copy of a FOCAL manual, but I misplaced it decades ago.)

FOCAL was a simple interpreted programming language similar to BASIC in many ways, but far less popular. Orders for it came in very infrequently.

The FOCAL software was available on paper tape, or if you wanted to splurge, you could order it on plastic tape for extra durability.

Anyway, the order came in, the first order in ages. But there was a problem: Nobody could find the master tape! We lost our only copy of the software.

The order had to be canceled, with an apology that the product had been discontinued.

What we didn’t mention is that it was discontinued because we had lost it.


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  • Bill Potvin 0

    Not ms-focal, but I’ve got two focal interpreters here. The first was originally written by Dave Pitts and released in 2009. Last update was 2017. It builds fine with msc (32-bit) and appears to work. The second interpreter, originally written by Dave Conroy and last updated by Akira Kida in 1995. I’ve not started on this one, yet, but it doesn’t appear to have any big challenges.

    I’m always digging around for old languages. A few weeks ago I found someone had ‘ported’ TMG from pdp-11 assembly to c. The last TMG was with 6th edition research Unix; it was dropped when yacc was created. I also found an interpreter called ‘bs’ on an old Unix tape that no one seems to remember anything about. It’s man page describes it as “remote descendant of BASIC and SNOBOL4 with some C language added”.

    If I come across a copy of ms-focal I’ll be sure to let you know.

    • Mark Tolley 1

      DEC PDP series of machines were terrific. Even with odd word-widths [sic], and BCPL. Loved writing assembler and cross-porting to little endian architectures…

  • Mark Tolley 0

    Used to work as a programmer for a UK based re-seller of the Altair 8800 and MITS boxes in the late 70s. Just wonder what’s in the spare room…

  • cheong00 0

    I wonder if there’s anyone reclaimed the tape later.

    Since Microsoft frequently move divisions between buildings, maybe at some time point, the tape will show up in some corner.

    Curious on what happened to the tape now if it’s indeed found later.

  • Richard Russell 1

    I remember FOCAL fondly, the first programming language I ever used (in 1970 or thereabouts, on a PDP-8).

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