Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 91 — Turbo Pascal, Animator, ProKey, and the Norton Utilities 2.01
Before moving on to the fifth season of Computer Chronicles, let’s return to the earliest days of the program to discuss an episode that had been lost until recently. There are several episodes still missing from the Internet Archive’s repository. Thankfully, one was recently located and digitized by the Stanford University library.
This first-season episode from March 1984 focused on software utilities. Herbert Lechner of SRI International joined Stewart Cheifet as co-host. (Gary Kildall was on a business trip to Japan.) Cheifet noted that many people who used computers didn’t know much about utilities. Was there an easy way to define what a “utility” was? Lechner said it was one of those terms that had not been precisely defined. Most people would agree that utility programs were those that helped you perform routine housekeeping functions that would otherwise occupy a lot of the user’s time and energy.
Cheifet then narrated a brief introduction to utilities over some B-roll footage of various computers, including an HP-150 and an Apple IIe. He said the personal computer’s popularity was due in large part to its enormous flexibility and friendly operation. For most PC owners, the machine was a means to speed up work tasks by providing more powerful tools to perform them with.
Programming utilities were the software tools that could increase the flexibility of the machine itself, Cheifet said. Utility functions could copy disks, reorder programs, translate languages, and even help retrieve material from a crashed disk. For a programmer, debuggers helped to uncover software problems by providing “break points” for examining the construction of a program. Once a problem was determined, debugging suppressors could find and correct the error every time it repeated. Other utilities like assemblers and compilers were the “translators” of programming languages, Cheifet continued. Whether a program was written in assembly code or in a high-level language, it depended on a translating utility to convert it into machine code.
Building a Better Pascal Compiler
Phillipe Kahn and Peter Norton joined Cheifet and Lechner for the first part of the next segment. Kahn was the president of Borland International. Norton was an author with Microsoft Press and president of his own company, Peter Norton Computing Inc. Lechner opened by asking Norton how he would define a “utility program.” Norton said the simplest way to think of utilities was as a tool, like a screwdriver or a wrench. They helped people use their computers. Utilities were a type of intermediate software, falling between operating systems and end-user programs like a word processor. Utilities could therefore function as either professional or home-user tools.
Turning to Kahn, Cheifet noted that utilities were often thought of as “programmer’s tools.” How would these apply to end-user applications? Kahn said one example of an end-user utility would be a program that helped a user recover a file they accidentally deleted. There were also utilities that added features the operating system lacked but the user wanted. Then there were professional programmers who needed utilities to supplement the work of compilers.
Cheifet asked Kahn to demonstrate one of Borland’s utility programs, Turbo Pascal. Kahn explained Turbo was his company’s implementation of a compiler for the Pascal programming language. He said it was extremely fast and oriented towards both the professional user and the student. He pulled up an example on the in-studio machine–it looked to me to be an IBM PC/XT–and attempted to compile a sample program. Turbo returned an error message indicating a missing semicolon. Kahn said that with a normal compiler, if there was an error he would have to open up a separate editor to fix the problem. But with Turbo, he could just hit
ESC and the program pulled up the source code and automatically placed the cursor on the line with the error. Kahn then added the missing semicolon and compiled the program successfully. Kahn said this whole process only took a couple of seconds with Turbo yet would required between 20 and 60 seconds with any other Pascal compiler.
Kahn then ran his sample program, which asked for a number and then printed a series of statements counting from 1 to the chosen number. Kahn then ran the program again, this time entering a character instead of a number when prompted. This would create a “type mismatch” error in Pascal. Kahn said that a traditional Pascal compiler would abort the program when presented with this error. Turbo also produced an error, but once again, by pressing
ESC, the user was taken directly into the source code and shown the line where the error occurred.
Animating Your COBOL Debugging
Cheifet stepped over to the other side of the studio at this point to speak with another guest, Joanne Cannel, who worked in technical support with Micro Focus. Cannel was there to demonstrate Animator, which she described as a visual debugging tool for COBOL programmers. Similar to Turbo Pascal, Animator allowed a programmer to see their source code and watch it as it executed on the computer.
Cheifet asked how someone would accomplish the same task without a tool like Animator. Cannel said that when a programmer inherited someone else’s code and wanted to make a change, they had to be able to understand the program. That usually meant printing out a current listing of the program on paper and manually reviewing the code. With Animator, however, the programmer could watch the program attempt to run in real time.
Cannel then demonstrated this functionality on a sample COBOL program listing taken from Byte magazine, which displayed prime numbers. She explained you could execute a single line of the program by typing
X. You could also type
U to pull up a screen showing the user’s view of the program as opposed to the source code. If the current line required some sort of user input, Animator automatically switched to this user view. You could also reset execution at another point in the source code by typing in its position.
Cheifet asked for an explanation of Animator’s “Go” mode. Cannel said that executed the program at 5 times the default speed, allowing the programmer to review their code quicker. She said you could increase the speed level up to ‘9’.
Cheifet asked if this sort of tool was only useful for programmers. Cannel said it could be used as a learning tool for COBOL. It was primarily for maintenance and debugging, but it could also help someone understand what a program does. Cheifet sought clarification on what Cannel meant by “maintenance.” Cannel said about two-thirds of all programs in existence were already out in the world and needed to be maintained. The maintainer therefore needed to understand what the original programmer was doing with their code. Animator could help in that area.
Adding Macros and Recovering Deleted Files
David Rose joined Cheifet and Lechner for the final segment. Rose was director of product planning with RoseSoft, a Seattle-based software utility developer. Peter Norton also returned for this segment.
Cheifet asked Rose to explain his company’s program ProKey. Rose described it as a “software accelerator.” When people bought off-the-shelf application software, they found it did 99 percent of what they wanted. Rose said ProKey helped the user customize that general purpose software to their specific needs. Cheifet clarified this made ProKey a utility for end users rather than programmers. Rose said it was for everyone who used a computer.
Lechner asked Rose for a demonstration of ProKey used in conjunction with the word processing application WordStar. Rose opened a sample text document in WordStar running on the XT. He explained that he wanted to move a sentence, something WordStar could not do on its own. He first showed how WordStar required you to highlight a sentence using a series of keyboard commands to manually cut-and-paste the selection. You then had to re-format the paragraph to account for the new sentence.
With ProKey, in contrast, this entire process could be automated with a single keystroke. (In other words, it’s using a macro). Rose setup a macro in ProKey that allowed him to simply place his cursor at the start of the sentence he wanted to move, type
ALT-S, and then type a second keystroke in the location you wanted to move the sentence to. ProKey then automatically handled the reformatting.
Cheifet asked Rose what ProKey could add to other popular applications like Lotus 1-2-3 or VisiCalc. Rose said the first thing you could do was “remove the blemishes” from those products. You could also “store knowledge” of one user for another user. For example, one person could create a script to automate the creation of a spreadsheet by a less-experienced user.
Turning back to Peter Norton, Cheifet asked about his utility package, The Norton Utilities 2.01. What did it do? Norton explained it was a toolkit. The first tool he demonstrated was DiskLook, which presented a visual representation of a floppy diskette’s contents. He pulled up the DiskLook menu on the XT. For example, you could pull up a “map” of the diskette that showed the location and metadata for individual files (see below). You could also pull a map of the entire diskette showing all files together. This could help the user identify unused portions of their disk, as well as any “bad” or unusable sectors.
Cheifet next asked Norton about his file-recovery tool. Norton explained that people often accidentally deleted data from their disks. But it turned out that the deleted file didn’t actually disappear from the disk–it was simply rendered unusable. It was like taking a folder out of the filing cabinet and throwing it in the trash. If the trash hadn’t been hauled out yet, you could still pull the folder out and put it back in the cabinet. The same principle applied to Norton’s UnErase utility. It was technically complicated but conceptually simple.
Norton ran UnErase on the XT, which pulled up a similar menu to the one from DiskLook. (All of the Norton Utilities were actually separate programs that could be run from one of two diskettes.) The program produced a list of files that had been recently deleted. He selected a file, which then brought up a screen explaining how much of the original data was still intact. UnErase then scanned the sectors with the deleted data and displayed them. Norton confirmed that he wished to recover each of the sectors. This let you determine if everything was recovered or if there was any extraneous information included. Once he confirmed everything was okay, Norton told the program to save the recovered file.
Cheifet asked for further clarification on what it meant to recover a deleted file. Norton said deleting a file basically told the operating system to “throw it away,” i.e. to move the file from where the work was going on to a “trash” pile. So long as the space on the disk hadn’t been reused, you could go in and still find the information.
Lechner asked Norton how he determined what would be a good idea for a utility program. Norton said you started off by using the computer and finding you needed something. You then created a utility program for your own use. And then you realized the rest of the world could use it too.
Cheifet asked Norton about the other utilities he offered. Norton said Norton Utilities came with 20 programs in all. Five of them provided variants of file recovery for different scenarios, such as dealing with physical damage to a diskette. Other utilities helped users keep track of how much time they spent using the computer.
Norton Turned Lost Term Paper Into $70 Million Business
With their appearances in this episode still relatively early in their respective computer careers, Peter Norton and Philippe Kahn became two of the best-known software developers of the 1980s. In particular, Norton became something of an iconic figure, as his picture adorned a wide range of computer books and software utilities through the 1990s. Norton eventually trademarked his signature “standing cross-armed” pose, as first seen on the cover of his book, The Peter Norton Programmer’s Guise to the IBM PC:
Born in 1943 in Aberdeen, Washington, Norton graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 1965. He spent the early part of his career working for various employers, including Stanford University, Honeywell, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While attending graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982, Norton purchased an original IBM Personal Computer.
After accidentally erasing a term paper, Norton designed his first PC utility program, which he called Undelete. This became the foundation for The Norton Utilities. Norton formally started his business in September 1982–appropriately named Peter Norton Computing, Incorporated (PNCI)–and released version 1.0 of Norton Utilities later that year. The version demonstrated in this episode was 2.01, which likely released in November 1983.
After starting out by selling Utilities by mail order from his California apartment (see the ad below), Norton quickly became a major name in the PC industry. He went on to write the aforementioned Programmer’s Guide to the PC and wrote regular columns for publications like PC Magazine. As Paul Schatt noted in a November 1985 column for the Arizona Republic, “The Peter Norton industry now drives itself; his books sell his programs, which recommend his columns, which push his programs.”
PNCI’s revenues grew from $500,000 in 1983 to $11.2 million by 1987 and $25 million in 1989. By 1990, Norton was ready to cash out. In May 1990, he sold PNCI to Symantec Corporation in an all-stock transaction valued at around $70 million. Norton had never taken his company public, so he still owned 97 percent of PNCI at the time of the sale. That translated into about a 30-percent share of Symantec once the deal closed.
Peter Norton effectively retired from the computer software industry after selling his company, although his name and crossed-armed portrait continued to appear on various Symantec-published utility programs through the end of the 1990s. Symantec later split into two companies, one of which became known as NortonLifelock Inc. In 2022, the Czech Republic-based company Avast Software s.r.o. acquired NortonLifelock and renamed the company Gen Digital Inc. Gen Digital continues to use the “Norton” name to develop and market a range of digital security and online privacy software products.
Kahn Rebounded from Borland Dismissal to Develop Early Camera Phone Prototype
Philippe Kahn got his start in the PC industry around the same time as Peter Norton. Born and raised in France, Kahn spent time as a university mathematics instructor before getting his start in business when he bought a bankrupt shell company in Ireland. Kahn initially planned to use the Irish company to distribute computer software, but when that venture failed, he relocated to the United States in 1982. In May 1983, he founded Borland International.
Turbo Pascal was one of Borland’s first hits, selling more than 200,000 copies in the year following its initial November 1983 release. Kahn followed that up with Sidekick, a memory-resident personal information manager for MS-DOS computers, which sold 80,000 units in its first year.
By August 1985, Borland had shipped over 1 million units of its various software products, Kahn himself was described as “almost a cult figure” by one industry analyst, according to Knight-Ridder’s Mary A.C. Fallon. Much of Borland’s success was based on its low prices relative to other business software companies–in some cases charging up to $300 less than the competition.
At its peak, Borland reported annual revenues as high as $500 million. But things started to decline sharply in the 1990s. Kahn’s aggressive push of Borland into the business applications market was a significant factor in that decline. In 1988, Borland launched Quattro Pro, a spreadsheet designed to compete head-on with Lotus 1-2-3. This eventually prompted a copyright infringement lawsuit from Lotus Development Corporation. Borland would ultimately prevail following a 1996 United States Supreme Court ruling, but in the meantime both companies lost most of their market share to Microsoft’s Excel.
Borland had also acquired Ashton-Tate in 1991. Ashton-Tate’s dBase had been the dominant database manager of the mid-1980s. But the disastrous release of dBase IV in 1988 led to that company’s downfall and eventual sale. This led to an internal battle between the newly acquired dBase team and the developers of Borland’s existing database product Paradox. And once again, Microsoft ultimately proved the beneficiary as its Access database manager dominated on the Windows platform.
Faced with an unwinnable war with Microsoft, Kahn sold off a number of Borland’s product lines, including Quattro Pro. He also wanted to sell off the feuding database programs. Borland’s board of directors rejected that plan and instead demanded Kahn’s resignation, which he tendered in January 1995. John Dodge, writing in the Boston Globe two years later, said Kahn had run Borland “into the ground” due to his failure to cede day-to-day leadership of the company to less “ego-driven” executives.
But Kahn didn’t spend much time reflecting on his defeat. He quickly moved to start a new company, Starfish Software, Inc., which actually acquired several Borland software titles, including the legacy program Sidekick. Starfish’s main focus, however, was developing intellectual property for wireless devices. Kahn sold Starfish to Motorola in 1998 for $325 million.
Kahn then moved onto this next venture, LightSurf, where he developed what may be his biggest claim to fame today–the invention of the camera phone. On June 11, 1997, Kahn’s wife Sonia gave birth to their daughter Sophie. Kahn hacked together a setup using a Casio QV-10 digital camera, a Motorola StarTac flip-phone, and a laptop. This enabled Kahn to upload pictures of the new baby to his home server so that family and friends could access the images over the Internet.
Recalling the aftermath of this historic event to Larry Magid in 2017, Kahn said he realized his “Rube Goldberg” setup could be developed into an actual consumer product. He attempted to sell the idea to Kodak and Polaroid, but they both passed. Kahn and LightSurf eventually developed a working prototype in conjunction with Casio and Sprint in 2002.
Kahn sold LightSurf to VeriSign Inc. in January 2005 in a $270 million all-stock deal. Later that year Kahn started his most recent company, Fullpower-AI, where he continues to serve as CEO as of this writing.
Notes from the Random Access File
- This episode is now available at the Internet Archive, having recently been found and digitized by the staff at the Stanford University library. This episode was likely recorded on March 13, 1984, based on a screenshot taken from Peter Norton’s on-air demo.
- The recording from Stanford was part of the Computer Chronicles telecourse series, which included a number of interstitial segments presented by Herbert Lechner. This episode was part of chapter eight of the original course, although it was the 20th episode recorded during the 1983-84 season.
- Micro Focus was the presenting sponsor of Computer Chronicles during this first season. Ironically, Micro Focus acquired Borland International in 2009. In January 2023, Ontario, Canada-based OpenText bought Micro Focus for $5.8 billion.
- RoseSoft’s ProKey, first released in 1982, established itself as the early leader in the market for MS-DOS keyboard utilities. Philippe Kahn’s Borland later entered the market with its own macro editor, Superkey. In September 1992, CE Software Holdings Inc. purchased the privately held RoseSoft and its ProKey intellectual property for an undisclosed amount.
- As long as we’re talking acquisitions, SRI International, Herbert Lechner’s old stomping grounds, recently announced it would “receive” the famed Palo Alto Research Center. This isn’t exactly a merger. SRI is a nonprofit organization. Xerox, which owned and operated PARC as a subsidiary, will instead donate the company’s assets to SRI.
- Peter Norton’s post-software career has largely been spent serving on various boards and building his impressive collection of modern art. According to a 2016 report by Judy Moore, Norton is believed to be one of the top 200 art collectors in the world, with approximately 2,700 pieces in his collection.
- Perhaps the most dated thing about this episode are the two programming languages discussed, COBOL and Pascal. According to the 2022 Stack Overflow Developer Survey, only 0.65 percent of respondents still work in COBOL, the fourth-lowest among all languages listed. Pascal didn’t even make the list.