Computer Chronicles Revisited 66 — Disk Optimizer, DoubleDOS, XTree, HOT, Above Disc, DBase Programmers' Utilities, and Detente
Business applications and games may garner the most attention when talking about computer software from the 1980s, but for many companies the real key to success was in utility programs. Keep in mind, this was a time when operating systems like MS-DOS and CP/M still came on floppy disks. This meant there wasn’t much room for extra features, even utilities that we would now consider basic features of a modern operating system.
This next Computer Chronicles episode from October 1986 was all about the utilities. Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall opened the program with a computer from fourth-season sponsor Leading Edge hooked up to a printer spitting out a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. Cheifet explained they were using a utility called Sideways, which enabled the printer to output the spreadsheet horizontally rather than vertically, something that 1-2-3 could not do it on its own. Cheifet noted that utilities like Sideways worked with application programs, while other utilities worked with operating systems.
As someone who designed operating systems, did it bother Kildall when someone designed a utility for something he never thought of in the first place? Kildall said not really, because when you designed an operating system, it was really hard to tell what features people wanted, especially when you were trying to keep the memory requirements really small. With respect to CP/M, he said, one of the first utilities that came out was an “undelete” program.
Making Macs Work Better
Wendy Woods narrated her first remote report over some B-roll footage taken at a print shop in Palo Alto, California. She said that for most computer users, utilities were convenient accessories that performed mundane housekeeping chores like copying a disk or telling the time. But as files grew and applications became more complex, utilities took on new importance.
This particular shop provided an elaborate array of electronic publishing services, Woods said, from typesetting to graphic design. The Macintosh-based shop relied on a group of specialized utilities to organize and manipulate their customer files. For example, a utility called TOPS made it possible to transfer IBM text files over an AppleTalk network to a Macintosh, where the files could be reformatted using another utility. To change the size of graphics while retaining the same proportions, the shop’s staff used an electronic proportion “wheel” utility. And to support electronic publishing’s PostScript language, a template utility was also necessary.
Woods said that like many computer users with hard disks, people at this shop faced the aggravation of mislabeled or misplaced files. A utility called Locator could recover them using just a single keystroke and trace the file’s directory and subdirectory. So in spite of their un-glamorous reputation as program accessories, utility packages had grown in popularity and functionality–at least occasionally crossing the barrier from desktop organizers to mainstream software.
You Can Run Two DOS Programs at Once (Sort Of)
Ed Tolson and Dale Sinor joined Cheifet and Kildall in the studio. Tolson was president of New Hampshire-based SoftLogic Solutions, Inc. Dale Sinor was a co-owner of Executive Systems, Inc.
Kildall noted that both guests had made a business out of selling utilities. How big a business was it? Tollson said it was a “pretty big” business. There were a lot of holes in the operating system for utilities to fill up. Kildall asked Sinor how many customers he had for his product, XTree. Sinor replied they’d sold over 100,000 copies.
Kildall asked Tolson for a demonstration of his company’s products, Disk Optimizer 2.0 and DoubleDOS. Tolson said Disk Optimizer was meant to keep a hard disk working as fast as possible. The problem it cured was file fragmentation. Cheifet asked Tolson to explain what that was. Tolson said that DOS stored files in individual packets called clusters. On the demonstration system each cluster was 2 KB. So if you had a 100 KB file or program, it could literally be stored in 50 different places on the disk. What Disk Optimizer did was make all of those pieces continuous, so the drive didn’t have to move around to seek each piece and therefore could load the data faster.
Tolson ran an analyzer program within Disk Optimizer, which displayed on-screen the optimization for each of the files. If a file was 100 percent optimized, that meant all of its pieces were contiguous. The analyzer program displayed the names of 100-percent optimized files in green. The names of badly fragmented files were displayed in red. (Borderline file names were displayed in yellow.) Cheifet asked what the “zero percent” meant next to the red files. Tolson said that meant none of the file’s clusters were contiguous.
Cheifet asked how you would make all of the files 100 percent optimized. Tolson didn’t have time to actually demonstrate this, but he explained that you would run the optimizer program on the disk drive. The program then went through everything on the drive and reorganized the information. Tolson added this was done in a safe fashion to protect the data.
Kildall then asked Tolson about his other product, DoubleDOS. Tolson explained that DoubleDOS was a two-task multitasking system providing classic foreground-background operation within MS-DOS. Basically, you could start up one program such as Lotus 1-2-3 and then run WordStar while keeping 1-2-3 in the background. Cheifet observed this meant you could print out something from one program while working on the other program. Kildall asked if this created any problem with file conflicts. Tolson said no, as long as you didn’t try to edit the same file with both programs at the same time.
Cheifet then turned to Sinor and asked for demonstrations of his company’s utilities, XTree and HOT. Sinor said that XTree was a file and directory management program for DOS. He thought that utilities should do two things: make the computer easier to use and save time. XTree was a big time saver because it showed you clearly what your directory structure looked like and made it easy to move, copy, or delete files.
Sinor then showed a sample screen from XTree. The program divided the screen into several windows. The top window showed the directories and subdirectories on the disk in a tree format. The bottom window displayed the individual files within the currently selected directory. Sinor said you could also show all files in all directories and sort files alphabetically, by extension, by size, or date and time. Kildall asked how long XTree had been on the market. Sinor said about 18 months. Cheifet asked about the cost. Sinor said it retailed for $49.95.
Cheifet next asked about HOT, another utility from Executive Systems. Sinor ran into a bit of trouble getting the demo running. He was using the same machine that Tolson used a few minutes earlier for the DoubleDOS demo, and DoubleDOS failed to allocate enough memory to run HOT. While Tolson fixed that problem, Sinor explained that HOT was an “intelligent menuing” system. For novice users, it automatically built menus for them based on the applications installed on their computer. More experienced users could then tailor those menus to their specific needs.
There was then an extended awkward silence while Tolson continued to try and get HOT running for Sinor. After finally clearing DoubleDOS from the system, Sinor could finally show HOT. He explained that a few minutes earlier, he automatically built a menu system based on the applications installed, which he then showed. (To clarify, this was a demo IBM PC-AT machine provided by the Chronicles production staff.)
Free DOS Search Utility a “Labor of Love”
Wendy Woods presented her second and final report, which profiled Vernon Buerg, a programmer who developed IBM PC utility programs and gave them away for free. Woods noted that Buerg had some 50 programs to his credit–utilities that filed, sorted, archived, and even aided in programming itself. He’d been writing them since 1983.
“When you need something done,” Buerg told Woods, “a utility program to convert a file or to print it out or whatever, you usually can’t find them. Commercial programs don’t do those kinds of things.” So he ended up writing the programs himself. He added that he started out writing his utilities in BASIC before later moving to assembler.
Woods said Buerg was best known for LIST, a utility that allowed you to view and search text files from DOS-level without having to load a word processing program. Like all of Buerg’s programs, LIST was free. People could get a copy by writing to him or calling his electronic BBS, which operated 24 hours a day from his California home. Buerg said the programs were free because writing them was a “labor of love.”
Tackling the Monster Spreadsheet
Karen Lund and Robert Hoffman joined Cheifet and Kildall in the studio for the next round table. Lund was president of Teleware West, Inc. Hoffman was a development manager at Ashton-Tate, the company behind the popular database program dBASE III.
Kildall opened by noting that back in the 1970s the heart of the modern PC–the Intel 8086 microprocessor–was designed to use up to 640 KB of main memory. “At the time we thought we could rule the world with that much memory,” he said. But the 640 KB limit seemed to be a problem now. What was that restriction actually doing to us? Lund replied that it made it extremely difficult for developers to provide adequate software for applications. People wanted to go beyond the 640 KB limit. Lund said there were two ways to do this. One was the LIM Expanded Memory Specification (EMS), which Lund’s company used in developing its utility, Above Disc.
Cheifet noted one of the problems was the “monster spreadsheet,” i.e. a spreadsheet that was larger than 640 KB in file size. To illustrate, Lund pulled up a spreadsheet with 20,000 cells, which could not load in 640 KB. Above Disc provided the expanded memory necessary to actually load that spreadsheet. Lund clarified the “normal solution” to this problem would be to plug in a physical board running the EMS standard. But that could cost upwards of $600 for the additional memory. Above Disc implemented the EMS standard in software. It could take any kind of disk file or AT extended memory and use that as expanded memory, which was transparent to the user and their application.
Kildall asked how using a disk file for expanded memory affected performance. Lund said their benchmarks showed the disk file ran about 60 percent as fast as an EMS board. Above Disc could also run on floppy disk, which was obviously slower, but it was an option for users with lower-end machines.
Cheifet then turned to Hoffman and asked him about Ashton-Tate’s package of utilities for dBase III–called, appropriately enough, dBase Programmers' Utilities. Hoffman said the program was designed to help with both programming and the programmer’s day-to-day activities. It was broken up into three groups. The first was a series of assembly language modules that were callable and loadable from dBase. The second group had a database recovery program if a power failure corrupted a file. There was also a debugging, structuring, cross-referencing symbol table-type program, and then a series of DOS-level maintenance utilities. Hoffman demonstrated one of the utilities called drepair, which could be used to repair a corrupted database file.
Kildall asked how much the Programmers' Utilities package cost. Hoffman said it retailed for $89.95. Kildall and Cheifet agreed that was a good price to pay to recover data if you corrupted your disk.
Were PCs Still in the “Model T” Phase?
For the final segment, Jay Eisenlohr and Ezra Shapiro joined Cheifet and Kildall. Eisenlohr was a vice president with Oregon-based Airus, Inc. Shapiro, a consulting editor with “Chronicles” sponsor Byte magazine, previously appeared in an October 1985 episode discussing modems and bulletin boards. George Morrow was also hanging out at the table.
Kildall quipped that the IBM PC-DOS interface was a pretty old one that came from CP/M, and the CP/M interface came from older time-sharing systems, so it was about 20 years old now and it was safe to say that nobody really liked it. He added that the recent approach to this problem has been to replace the entire DOS interface with a GUI like Digital Research’s GEM or Microsoft Windows. But Eisenlohr’s company produced a product called Detente that tried to “enhance” the DOS interface instead.
Eisenlohr said Detente specifically enhanced DOS with an “intuitive processing technology” that went character-by-character or element-by-element and checked the syntax used on the DOS command line. (What he described was basically an autocomplete function.) As the user typed, Detente would present a window with choices for possible completion options. The program then pasted the selection onto the command line.
Cheifet wanted clarification on what specific problems Detente solved. Eisenlohr said it solved the problem of the command line itself. Rather than hitting
Return and getting back a bad command or file name, the user was guaranteed to have a successful command. Kildall clarified this was a memory-resident program. Eisenlohr said yes, and it actually built a dictionary of all the user’s files and pathnames. Kildall asked about the price. Eisenlohr said Detente retailed for $75.
Cheifet wanted to know more about the “intuitive processing technology” behind Detente. Eisenlohr said the software did a comparison against the dictionary. He added that the technology could handle dictionaries up to 1 MB in size.
Cheifet asked Shapiro for his thoughts on Detente. Shaprio said it looked like it would make a “pretty good safety net” for a person unfamiliar with DOS or who was a rotten typist like himself. But if you were a good typist who knew what they were doing in DOS, a program like this could get in your way. Cheifet asked Shapiro to elaborate. Shapiro said if you wanted to type something other than the choices offered by Detente that could be an issue. He clarified that he hadn’t seen the product before today, so he didn’t know if it was configurable, but his “snap impression” was it looked like it might be a nuisance for the experienced user. Eisenlohr said the program was “totally configurable” and the whole idea of intuitive processing was to customize based on how a user typed. You could easily turn any of the features on and off.
Moving to a more general question, Cheifet asked Shapiro if utilities existed merely because programmers didn’t do the right job in the first place. Shapiro said yes. The question from a user perspective was whether you wanted to drive a car or be an auto mechanic. A lot of these utilities were solutions to problems that were a pain to solve when using a machine. Shapiro said he didn’t want to learn how to run a program just to back up his hard disk. He just wanted to push a button and know that his data was safe.
Morrow pushed back at that. He noted that in the early days of the automobile, if you wanted to drive one you had to be a mechanic. You had to be able to change your tires and adjust your spark plugs. We were currently at the same point with computers. Cheifet said that ideally you shouldn’t have to be a “mechanic.” Morrow retorted that the ideal world and the real world were usually two different things. His point was that today, computers were at the same stage as Model T automobiles. And utility programs were basically the equivalent of some person charging you money to change your tire for you. He noted that without a program like the Norton Utilities, you could spend weeks of programming trying to repair a corrupted file. (George spoke from experience here.)
Shapiro said he generally agreed with Morrow. But he was still disturbed by the need for computer users to keep checking and protecting themselves in a way that was not particularly fun and he’d love to see next-generation computers smart enough to automatically handle what utilities do now. Morrow noted he and Kildall went back a ways and they could see today that things were better than they were 10 years ago, and 10 years from now things will likely have improved further.
Stewart Cheifet presented this week’s “Random Access,” which was recorded in October 1986.
- IBM and Intel signed a deal to develop customized computer chips based on a new design technology called application-specific integrated circuitry (ASIC). Cheifet said the upshot was that IBM might now move away from its own PC standard in an effort to combat the clones by building a new standard around the ASIC chips.
- IBM also projected lower profits for 1986. Cheifet said if that happened it would be the first time since the Great Depression that IBM experienced a decline in profits for two consecutive years.
- ETA Systems of Minnesota announced a new supercomputer, the ETA-10, that could perform 10 billion arithmetic operations per second, which was 40 times faster than a Cray-2 supercomputer. Cheifet said that Florida State University would be installing the first ETA-10 in a few months.
- Lotus Development Corporation formally introduced its much-touted HAL interface for Lotus 1-2-3, which let users communicate with the spreadsheet software in plain English. Cheifet said that meant you could now command 1-2-3 to
graph column 3 as a pie chartrather than typing
- Paul Schindler reviewed ServTech (Rylos Technologies, $50), an on-line guide to repairing PCs. Schindler noted the program included a diagnostic interpreter to help users understand error messages.
- The Software Publishers Association (SPA) awarded “Platinum” disks to Broderbund’s The Print Shop and Springboard’s The Newsroom, each of which sold more than 250,000 copies. The SPA also awarded a number of “Gold” disks to programs that sold at least 100,000 copies. Cheifet noted that the two top software publishers on the list were Electronic Arts (6 winners) and Epyx, Inc. (3 winners).
- Microsoft said it would remove copy protection from Excel and other Macintosh software packages. Cheifet noted that Microsoft had already dropped copy protection on MS-DOS software earlier in the year. Microsoft now said that with the increased use of hard disks on Macs, copy protection was no longer tenable.
- A hacker known as “Pink Floyd” was suspected of breaking into dozens of university UNIX computer systems including Stanford and MIT.
- Author Dan Gutman recently published a book of 400 “off-beat” applications–Stewart’s description, not mine–for personal computers, including a program written by a Lebanese man for Muslim businessmen who traveled a lot. Cheifet said the program automatically calculated the times for required Muslim prayer and the direction of Mecca.
XTree Ultimately Swallowed Up by Symantec-Norton Monopoly
Dale Sinor co-founded Executive Systems, Inc. (ESI), in October 1978, with Henry Hernandez and R. Thomas Smith, Jr. The company initially focused on consulting and contract programming. In 1983, ESI hired a programmer named Jeffrey C. Johnson, who would go on to create XTree.
Johnson recounted the story in a 1991 article. He said that Hernandez approached him in early 1984 about designing utilities for MS-DOS. Specifically, ESI had recently won a contract with Epson to develop utilities for its new line of PC compatibles. It was in the process of fulfilling this contract that Johnson said the ESI team quickly realized that there was “no way to manage all the files” they were creating, as DOS lacked a file management utility.
After talking the problem over, Johnson said he went home on a Friday and managed to develop a prototype for what became XTree by the following Monday. Formal development began in December 1984. Johnson said his wife actually came up with the name XTree.
Johnson said that on March 1, 1985, ESI management decided to self-publish XTree as its first commercial product. To make things more interesting, Sinor made the call to have the product ready for the 1985 West Coast Computer Faire on April 1–exactly one month later. Johnson said they made the deadline but not without some challenges:
Two days before the show, [Sinor] went to the typesetters to pick up the final proofs for the manual and discovered the typesetter had been evicted and was ducking everyone. Dale finally tracked him down, but the guy would only exchange the proofs for cash – something we weren’t exactly knee-deep in. While the countdown to the West Coast Computer Faire continued, Dale found the cash, got the proofs, rushed them to the printer, then to the bindery, and waited for them, refusing to let them out of his sight. He left Los Angeles at 1:30 a.m. Four hours later, he pulled into Moscone Center in San Francisco, carried the boxes of manuals, software cases, cover inserts, and brochures inside, and calmly began assembling the booth. The show opened at 9:00 a.m.
XTree proved an instant success and led to ESI developing several revised and expanded versions–notably XTree Gold and XTree for Windows–which were later published under the “XTree Company” label. By the early 1990s, however, the consolidation of the computer software market managed to swallow up ESI as well. In October 1993, Central Point Software acquired ESI by merging it with a subsidiary in a stock swap. Six months later, in April 1994, Symantec Corporation acquired Central Point in yet another stock swap valued at $60 million.
Symantec was already a budding monopolist in the PC utilities market, as I discussed in an earlier post. It had acquired Peter Norton Computing, the Godfather of DOS utility companies, back in 1989. And as the XTree Fan Page explained in its own history, XTree development effectively ended in September 1994 with the release of XTree Gold for Windows 4.0. The following year, Symantec released Norton Navigator File Manager, which incorporated elements of XTree Gold and stayed on the market until 1998. Symantec formally dissolved Executive Systems in April 1997.
Above Disc Maker Fizzled Out Following CEO’s Failed Soviet Perfume Scheme
Above Disc was another utility that had quite a long stay on the market. It was so popular that in 1988, IBM started bundling the software with its expanded memory boards for AT-type PCs. I don’t know exactly when Above Disc faded in the market, but the last media references I could find were dated around 1991.
The fate of the company behind Above Disc also remains something of a mystery to me. On the program, Karen Lund was identified as president of Tele-Ware, Inc. Lund described her role on her LinkedIn page as the owner and chief operating officer of TeleWare Corporation from 1986 to 1990. But there was another person, Robert F. Rafferty, who seems to have been the real power behind the company.
As best I can tell, the original company was organized in Delaware as Teleware West, Inc., sometime in 1986. In July 1987, Rafferty filed to do business in California as Delaware Teleware West Inc., with him listed as the company’s president. In August 1989, Rafferty changed the name of both companies to Above Software, Inc.
So far, that doesn’t sound too complicated. But Rafferty also controlled another company organized in Utah. This second company was originally called Cavalier Capital Corporation. Cavalier owned a discount stock brokerage called Los Angeles Securities Group. In May 1986, Cavalier changed its name to that of the brokerage subsidiary. A February 1990 Los Angeles Times report described Los Angeles Securities Group and Teleware West as the same company, both under the control of Rafferty as chairman and CEO. My assumption here is that Cavalier Capital/Los Angeles Securities Group acquired the original Teleware West from Lund, but it’s not 100 percent clear. (The Times report said Rafferty had recently brought in a new president at Above Software, possibly Lund’s replacement.)
In any case, Rafferty changed the name of Los Angeles Securities Group to Above Technologies, Inc., in July 1990. The following year, Rafferty was apparently interested in getting out of the software business. The Associated Press reported in February 1991 that Rafferty had tried to sell his 34-percent stake in Above Technologies to finance his plan to manufacture and sell a Soviet Union-themed perfume in the United States. When the sale of his Above Technologies stock fell through, Rafferty was left unable to pay the 20 Soviet women he brought to the United States to sell the perfume, as well as the French company he hired to bottle the product.
Following Rafferty’s perfume bust, Above Technologies continued to produce software as until late 1993, when reviews for its file manager utility Golden Retriever appeared in the press. But according to Utah corporation records, the company’s status “expired” in May 1993. California officials suspended the Above Technologies' foreign company registration shortly thereafter.
As for Karen Lund, she left the tech industry in 1993 after a three-year stint as a product manager at Microsoft. In the late 1990s she managed a Victorian tea shop in Bellevue, Washington. And during the 2010s she returned to school to pursue a degree in mobile web development.
Notes from the Random Access File
- This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of October 9, 1986.
- During his cold open, Stewart Cheifet mentioned two of the earliest best-selling utility programs, The Norton Utilities by Peter Norton and Sidekick by Philippe Kahn’s Borland Software Corporation. Peter Norton was a guest on a first season Computer Chronicles episode, which as of this writing is a “lost” program not available at the Internet Archive.
- Ed Tolson founded SoftLogic Solutions, Inc., in 1983. The company continued to sell its DOS utilities, including updated versions of Disk Optimizer and DoubleDOS, well into the early 1990s. SoftLogic dissolved in November 1996, according to New Hampshire corporate records.
- Airus Incorporated apparently did not stick around very long. Barry Obrand, a former vice president for the Businessland computer retailer chain, founded Airus Corporation–later renamed Airus Incorporated–in July 1985. By the time this Chronicles episode aired in late 1986, the 12-person company had produced four products, including Detente and Write Now, a word processor with a built-in spell checker. An analyst report from the period said Airus was financed by about $860,000 in venture capital and had “minimal product revenue” as of July 1986. According to Oregon corporate records, Airus dissolved in 1988. InfoWorld reported at the time that Airus licensed some of its technology to Apple and Ashton-Tate. (Obrand actually took an executive position with the latter.)
- Vernon D. Buerg (1947 - 2009) worked as a systems programmer at IBM in the 1960s and 1970s before starting his own company, Buerg Software, in 1976. Although he initially gave away LIST, his most famous program, for free as reported by Wendy Woods, that later changed. Burerg told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat in June 1991 that he now charged a $30 registration fee for a copy of LIST with the manual and he planned to sell a retail version for around $100. Buerg also maintained his computer bulletin board service well into the 1990s. Indeed, he met his wife, Julie Ann Dillon, on his BBS. The couple wed in 1988 and remained married until her death in May 2006. Vernon Buerg passed away four years later, in December 2009.
- Jay Eisenlohr left Airus for Mentor Graphics not long after his Chronicles appearance. He remained with the latter company until 1992, when he founded Rendition, Inc., one of the first 3D graphics chip companies. Micron Technology acquired Rendition in 1998 in an all-stock deal and Eisenlohr served as an executive with Micron for another three years after the deal closed. In 2003, Eisenlohr co-founded another semiconductor company, Ambric, Inc., and served as its executive vice president until 2009. More recently, Eisenlohr joined BSX, a Virginia-based startup focused on explosives detection, as its chief technology officer.
- An Australian programmer, Kim G. Henkel, developed an XTree clone and marketed it under the name ZTreeWin, which still has an active website. Rob Juergens also has a UNIX/Linux clone called UnixTree that still appears to be under development.
- ETA Systems was actually a spinoff of Control Data Corporation. Six CDC employees convinced management to create ETA Systems in 1983 in order to develop a next-generation supercomputer. The ETA-10 would end up being ETA Systems' only product. According to a 1990 newsgroup post from Rob Peglar, a former ETA manager, the company managed to install 27 of the supercomputers before CDC pulled the plug on the company in April 1989. Peglar blamed CDC’s failure to take ETA public and upper management’s decision not to use UNIX as the operating system on the ETA-10 as key reasons for the company’s demise.
- Bill Gross, then a 28-year-old programmer, created HAL for his own startup company that was subsequently acquired by Lotus Development Corporation. Gross told Richard O’Reilly of the Los Angeles Times that the name was in no way inspired by the murderous computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather, Gross claimed HAL “was just meant to be a friendly name.”
- As far as I can tell, the “Pink Floyd” hacker was never identified. News reports from 1987 said the United States Secret Service considered the hacker to be a part of a larger group. But while the Secret Service served a few search warrants, there were apparently no arrests made.
- I’ll publish a separate special post in the near future on the SPA award winners and at least one notable omission from its list.