Computer Chronicles Revisited 106 — PC-File+, Automenu, HotDIR, ProComm, Artisto+, and StuffIt

There were three basic means of distributing software in the 1980s: retailers, mail-order catalogs, and bulletin board systems (BBS). The latter provided the earliest form of “online” distribution, albeit one that was difficult to commercialize. After all, a developer couldn’t ask users to post their credit card number on a BBS.

But you could attach a message to a program uploaded to a BBS that invited people to pay you for software they found valuable. That’s exactly what Andrew Fluegleman did in 1982. Wendy Woods profiled Fluegelman in a January 1985 Computer Chronicles episode that I previously covered. His IBM PC communications program PC-Talk became the first example of “shareware” (although Fluegelman used the term “freeware,” which he trademarked.)

Fluegelman wasn’t the only programmer to have this idea. Author Richard Moss explained in his 2023 book, Shareware Heroes: the renegades who redefined gaming at the dawn of the Internet, that a guest in our next Chronicles episode from March 1988, Jim Knopf, had his own epiphany around the same time as Fluegelman:

IBM employee Jim Knopf (a.k.a. Jim Button) had fallen in love with personal computing years earlier. He’d written two programs on his Apple II–one to print mailing labels for a local church congregation, the other to house general-purpose databases. Then when the IBM PC came out, he’d sold the Apple II, bought a PC, and converted the database program from the Apple dialect of BASIC to IBM BASIC.

He’d then share his program, Easy File, with his colleagues at IBM, many of whom were taking their first steps into the world of personal computing. Before long, its use had spread beyond IBM’s Seattle offices into the wider Seattle area. Knopf had tried to track all these users by recording their details in his own copy of the program, so that he could notify them when he had updated Easy File with new fixes and improvements. But quickly his costs–both in time and in postage stamps–had begun to spiral out of control.

To help cover his expenses, Knopf added a message to the program that asked for donations–purely on a voluntary basis–of $10 from each user. In exchange for the donation, a user would then gain access to his mailing list.

Knopf posted a similar message on CompuServe. Then, Moss said, another user saw Knopf’s post and suggested he get in touch with Fluegelman. The two men met and decided to cross-market each other’s programs. To match Fluegelman’s PC-Talk, Knopf renamed Easy File to PC-File. Within two years, Knopf was earning enough from “donations” to PC-File that he was able to quite his IBM job to run his own company, Buttonware.

By the time this Chronicles episode debuted in 1988, shareware had taken hold as a legitimate, if still somewhat underappreciated, marketing tactic for smaller software publishers to gain a foothold in the market. In the cold open, Stewart Cheifet briefly spoke with another earlier shareware developer, Vernon Buerg, whom Wendy Woods also [profiled in a previous episode. Burerg created The Buerg Utilities, which Cheifet said was one of his favorite pieces of software, although he never actually bought it. Instead, a friend gave it to Cheifet after downloading it from a BBS. Cheifet asked Buerg why he gave his programs away. Buerg said he didn’t need the money and he liked to share what he knew with other people–and he hoped that in turn, others would share their knowledge with him. (As I noted in a prior blog, Buerg passed away in 2009.)

After the main theme and the sponsor messages–incidentally, CompuServe was one of the underwriters for this season–Cheifet showed Gary Kildall a small collection of books on shareware and other free computer programs. Cheifet also demonstrated a shareware program called Pianoman by Neil J. Rubenking, which provided a full-blown music construction set using the PC keyboard. (This should not be confused with Electronics Arts’ definitely-not-shareware Music Construction Set.)

Cheifet said he couldn’t think of another industry where so many people gave away their products. How did Kildall–a programmer himself–explain this mentality? Kildal said there were three reasons. First, it was fun to program. It was really neat to take a concept from one line of code to a full-fledged application. Second, giving away software was part of the social aspect of the hobbyist and user groups. It was similar to ham radio operators giving away circuit diagrams for free. Third, it took a big investment to market, sell, and support a commercial software product.

SRI Scientists Turned to Shareware for Word Processing

Wendy Woods presented her first remote segment from the offices of an old Chronicles friend, SRI International in Menlo Park, California. Woods said that SRI’s life sciences department collected a lot of data from laboratory tests on potentially toxic substances. The department also produced a lot of paper output, such as proposals, reports, and test results. And the word processor that many SRI researchers used was a shareware program called PC-Write.

Jon C. Mirsalis, SRI’s director of genetic toxicology, said they had a lot of staff members with a background in biology, and very few of them had laid hands on a computer terminal or PC until recently. So it was his job to convince those researchers that computers would make their lives better. And what he liked about PC-Write was that it only required a very brief introduction to enable a novice to begin working with the software.

Woods noted that PC-Write was well-known for its 45 different help screens and its rapid search-and-replace function. The program also had the same kinds of features found on most word processors, like block editing, embedded printer commands, and single-key commands. But PC-Write also had some uncommon features. For example, Mirsalis said the program worked in “straight ASCII” mode. So you didn’t need a lot of crazy control characters the way some other programs did. That made it easy to move text output from, say, a database manager to a mainframe.

Of course, Woods said the biggest difference between the PC-Write shareware and the big-name programs was the price. You couldn’t spend more than $89 for a fully registered copy of PC-Write. And most users got their first copy for free.

A Graphing Database from One of Shareware’s Founding Fathers

Jim Button and Rusel DeMaria joined Cheifet and Kildall in the studio. As previously noted, Button was the shareware developer of PC-File and founder and CEO of Buttonware. DeMaria was a technology writer and the author of the book Public Domain Software. (Jim Knopf used “Button” as a pseudonym. Knopf is the German word for “button.”)

Kildall asked Button if any money exchanged hands with shareware. Button said shareware was a distribution method that provided full-function demo disks that users could share with their friends. Money changed hands when the user decided they really liked the program, wanted to put it into productive use, and develop a relationship with the author. That relationship included things like receiving a written manual and customer support. Kildall asked about the typical price of shareware. Button said prices it from $15 to $100 depending on the program.

Cheifet asked DeMaria to explain the difference between shareware and freeware. DeMaria said they were different words that meant the same thing. They both described a “marketing principle.” It allowed a user to get software that was as good as commercial programs but cheaper. You could also get programs, such as utilities, that were not available in the commercial market.

Turning back to Button, Cheifet asked about the latest release of PC-File, which was PC-File+ 2.0. In this new version, the user could create graphs summarizing the data from a database. Using an IBM PC, Button pulled up a sample database of sales figures for the past five years that were “close to Buttonware’s sales revenues.” He used a keyboard macro to run the graphing summary, which produced a horizontal bar chart of monthly sales numbers. Button then showed how you could pull up a vertical bar or pie chart using the same data. Basically, it was an easy-to-use graphics extension for PC-File. Cheifet asked about the price. Button said it was $69.95 to register a copy.

Button then handed the keyboard over to DeMaria, so he could demonstrate a couple of his favorite shareware programs. While DeMaria got his first demonstration running, Cheifet asked Button to elaborate on the marketing principle behind shareware. Button said that shareware was simply about how the software was marketed and distributed. It said nothing about the quality of the program or what it did.

DeMaria finally got his first program running. It was Automenu by Marshall Magee, a front-end menu program used for hard disk management. The program came with a built-in menu. The user could then add to that menu or build their own. DeMaria showed a special “Computer Chronicles” sub-menu that he created for the demo. It listed several other shareware utilities installed on the disk.

Using Automenu, DeMaria pulled up his next shareware demo, HotDIR 2.1, which provided a multi-color directory listing of the MS-DOS filesystem. He exited that demo and went back into Automenu. DeMaria then demonstrated ProComm, a communications program. Basically, you used ProComm to dial into BBSes and download software. DeMaria said his Public Domain book explained the underlying protocols used in ProComm.

Kildall asked how the customer could be assured of quality control when using shareware. DeMaria said the quality control came from using the software before paying for it. The user actually had the program in their hands and could see if it was fit for their purposes. If it wasn’t, they didn’t have to continue using or pay for it.

Cheifet asked if there was much abuse of shareware because of how it worked. Button said he didn’t know how you would even define “abuse.” He gave users permission to try out the software for as long as they felt necessary for evaluation. He didn’t see there being much abuse. People paid for the good programs.

PC-SIG Offered 25,000 Shareware Titles on CD-ROM

Wendy Woods presented her second and final remote segment, this time from the offices of PC-SIG, the world’s largest shareware distributor, which had a library of over 25,000 programs. Woods noted that PC-SIG sold over 1,000 shareware disks every day. Mark Barnes, a spokesman for PC-SIG, told Woods that shareware was an alternative to high-priced commercial programs. Indeed, he said the shareware programs currently available were equal if not better than a lot of commercial programs–and hundreds of dollars cheaper.

Woods explained that PC-SIG served as a “conduit” between shareware authors and users. PC-SIG handled advertising and marketing for the authors while also guaranteeing quality for the customers. Barnes said that shareware authors submitted their programs to PC-SIG. A PC-SIG librarian then looked it over and ensured it met good shareware standards. An independent reviewer then conducted a separate review before the program was put into the PC-SIG catalog. Woods added that PC-SIG had full-time staffers providing support for every product.

PC-SIG’s success had allowed it to branch out into new areas, Woods said. It now published a bimonthly magazine called Shareware. You could also purchase all 25,000 shareware titles on a single CD-ROM (for $300.) And you could buy some of the titles in retail stores. The company had also branched out into selling hard-to-find videos.

Berkeley Mac Users Group Presented HyperCard Shareware

Raines Cohen and Stephen Howard of the Berkeley Mac Users Group (BMUG) joined Cheifet and Kildall in-studio for the final segment. Kildall opened by asking if authors actually made a profit selling shareware. Cohen said first-time authors did make a profit. He said that a number of successful developers started out in shareware before moving to more traditional commercial distribution.

Kildall then asked about BMUG itself. Cohen said it started out as a student group at the University of California, Berkeley, and it now had about 6,000 members around the world. Among BMUG’s functions was publishing a newsletter and maintaining a software library and BBS. Cheifet asked how a user group like BMUG saw shareware. What was the point? Cohen said the main point was for the user to “try before they buy.” The user didn’t have to base their decisions on looking at ads and trying to figure out which programs were “vaporware.” From the author’s point of view, it provided a means of distributing the software for very little cost. Other users–including groups like BMUG–essentially handled the distribution for you and got the word out.

Cheifet asked Cohen to demonstrate some of BMUG’s favorite shareware programs on the Macintosh SE. Cohen’s first demo was for Artisto+ by MegaMat, a $10 shareware utility for cutting and pasting a MacPaint image into another program such as MacWrite. He then demonstrated StuffIt, a $15 shareware program by Raymond Lau to compress and decompress data files. Cohen said StuffIt was often used by commercial and public-domain online services to distribute software since it reduced the size of the files that needed to be transmitted.

Cheifet then asked Howard to explain how BMUG priced its own shareware. Howard said BMUG distributed shareware disks for the costs of duplication, about $3 per disk. BMUG had no claims on the individual shareware programs, which were still owned by their original authors. Cheifet asked about the pricing of StuffIt in particular. Howard said the author, Lau, made it available for free to decompress files. But if you wanted to compress or archive files, he requested an $18 donation for registration.

Turning to our favorite subject for the season, Cheifet asked about shareware for HyperCard. Cohen said HyperCard had already had an incredible effect on the development of public domain and shareware software. It made it much easier for a person to express an idea in the form of software. He then showed a HyperCard-based catalog on the Macintosh of other HyperCard stacks available through BMUG. Cohen noted the BMUG library currently had about 25MB of HyperCard stacks available.

Cheifet asked about the relationship between shareware and commercial software. What did commercial software houses think of shareware? Howard said many commercial houses started out as a shareware author with a product that became successful and grew into a full-scale business. Other, smaller products remained as shareware, particularly when customers grew accustomed to the faster distribution. BMUG also planned to release a compact disc with hundreds of megabytes of shareware.

Cheifet asked about the role of the users group in shareware. Did BMUG see itself as a business or just a users group? Cohen said BMUG was an educational non-profit in the business of giving away information. So they did that by getting the software out there and helping people learn about it. Cheifet asked if Cohen and Howard wrote their own shareware. Cohen said he had written some stuff in HyperCard that he planned to distribute as shareware.

Finally, Cheifet asked about the future of shareware. Would it continue to be a healthy means of distributing software? Cohen said he thought it was, so long as it was still expensive to start a company, take out advertising, and go through a traditional software distributor. Shareware still provided a means for the small programmer to get started. Kildall asked about the best way to access shareware. Cohen said a user could contact a local user group like BMUG.

Button Co-Founded Shareware Trade Association

When this episode first aired in 1988, a number of software developers, distributors, and BBS operators had already taken an important step towards professionalizing the shareware concept–they formed a trade association. In 1985, Nelson Ford of the Public Software Library, a Texas-based shareware distributor, conducted an initial survey of programmers to ascertain interest in such a group. This led Ford to organize a conference in April 1987 in Houston, at which the Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP) formed, with Jim Button as the initial chairman of the board. (The ASP later changed its name to the Association of Software Professionals and remained in operation until 2021.)

Button himself retired from the industry in 1992 after suffering a heart attack. And by this time, his company ButtonWare Inc. had pivoted from shareware to commercial sales of its software products, notably PC-File. In July 1993, McAfee Associates, Inc., signed a letter of intent to purchase Buttonware’s assets and product rights, but the deal fell through a few months later.

Button eventually found a new buyer, Texas-based Outlook Software Corporation, which purchased the Buttonware assets in early 1994. Later that year, Outlook announced the first version of PC-File for Windows. Based on Texas state corporation records, however, it appears Outlook went out of business in 1998.

Jim Button died in October 2013 at the age of 70.

PC-SIG Tried to Monopolize Shareware Distribution

Richard Petersen founded PC-SIG in 1984. According to Nelson Ford, Peterson started out by copying the shareware catalog from a local users group and advertising it for sale in PC Magazine at $6 per disk. This didn’t sit well with many user groups and BBS operators, but Ford noted that Peterson’s service was the first to “nationally advertise shareware disks for sell,” which was helpful for those users who couldn’t access a users group or BBS.

My guess is that Petersen didn’t care at all what user groups thought of him. In January 1987, NewsBytes reported that PC-SIG threatened to sue three user groups in the United Kingdom because they used the “PC-Sig” name for their own shareware and public domain software catalog. As NewsBytes pointed out, this was likely not a case of deliberate trademark infringement, but rather a recognition that “the PC-Sig system is as almost as generic as MS-DOS is on a PC.” And PC-SIG’s real beef may have been that the UK user groups were charging about one-third as much for their disks.

The following year, when PC-SIG launched its shareware collection on CD-ROM, it sued the second-largest U.S. shareware distributor, Blue Sail Software, alleging they had “stolen” the PC-SIG collection. Blue Sail had planned to launch its own CD-ROM in connection with another company. But after learning of the PC-SIG lawsuit, Blue Sail abandoned the project and shut down. (BMUG no doubt escaped PC-SIG’s wrath by focusing on Macintosh shareware, which PC-SIG had little interest in.)

PC-SIG continued to sell its shareware CD-ROMs through the early 1990s. In 1993, the company released the 12th edition of its library. But after that the company effectively disappeared. The last press mention I could find was a December 15, 1993, report from NewsBytes announcing PC-SIG’s plan to sell a new $20 CD-ROM of educational software. PC-SIG went defunct sometime in 1994 based on California state corporation records.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and was likely first broadcast in March 1988. The recording at the Archive is a rerun that likely aired in July 1988.
  • Jon C. Mirsalis has been with SRI International for over 40 years. Since 2005, he’s overseen SRI’s Biosciences Division and is currently a vice president. Outside of his scientific work, Mirsalis maintains a website dedicated to the work of silent film actor Lon Chaney, Sr., which he started in 1996. He also frequently plays music to accompany the screenings of silent films, as detailed in this 2017 profile by film historian Leonard Maltin.
  • Rusel Demaria has been a writer since the 1970s. He’s best known today as the author of dozens of computer and video game strategy books for Prima Games, where he was the founding editor and creative director from 1990 to 1996. He’s also the author of High Score! Expanded: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games 3rd Edition, published by CRC Press. In addition to his books, DeMaria has worked as a contract game designer and writer for a number of studios, including Acclaim, Interplay, Mindscape, and Ubisoft.
  • Raines Cohen graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988, a few months after his Chronicles appearance. While attending Berkeley, he worked as an intern for Lotus Development Corporation, the publishers of Lotus 1-2-3. After graduating he wrote for a number of computer magazines, including MacWEEK, MacAddict, and NetProfessional, serving as the editor of the latter for its entire run in the late 1990s. Since the early 2000s, Cohen has worked as a database developer and a community organizer in the Berkeley area. He remained affiliated with BMUG, which he co-founded, until its demise in 2000.
  • Neil J. Rubenking authored Pianoman. He also created Player Piano, a conversion utility that enabled the user to turn their Pianoman files into a self-running program. Rubenking joined PC Magazine as a columnist in 1986. He remains with the publication today as its lead expert on computer security and privacy issues.
  • Marshall W. Magee authored Automenu, which launched his Georgia-based company, Magee Enterprises, in 1983. According to the website of the Association of Software Professionals, where Magee served as the founding president, he was one of the first shareware authors to report over $1 million in sales. Magee continued to support Automenu until his company closed in 2007.
  • Robert Woeger authored HotDIR. According to the original shareware documentation, Woeger got the idea and name for the program from a friend, John P. German, who wanted to make full use of a color monitor when using the DIR command in DOS. Woeger said, “I subsequently locked myself in my room until I emerged many hours later with a rough version of what is now HotDIR.” Woeger continues to make HotDIR available today via GitHub.
  • Bruce Barkelew and Tom Smith co-authored ProComm in 1984 and initially distributed it as $25 shareware through their Missouri-based company, Datastorm Technologies, Inc. According to a 1986 profile by Frank Ruiz of the Tampa Tribune, Datastorm earned $7,000 in revenues from Procomm during the first quarter of that year. But by December 1986, sales increased to $70,000 per month. And by March 1987, Barkelew told the Chicago Tribune that there were 20,000 registered ProComm users. In February 1988, Datastorm released a commercial version of the program, ProComm Plus, which retailed for $75. Over the next eight years, Datastorm steadily grew its commercial business, and in March 1996 the company merged with Quarterdeck, a server software company. A little over two years later, in October 1998, Symantec purchased Quarterdeck. Symantec continued to support ProComm Plus through the early 2000s.
  • Tom Taylor authored the initial version of Artisto and released it under the label of “Studbull Software.” The shareware demonstrated in this episode, Artisto+, was credited to “MegaMat.” I don’t know if this was another name used by Taylor or whether another author created Artisto+.
  • Raymond Lau authored the original StuffIt and released it as shareware in 1987. As Lau noted on his personal website, StuffIt quickly became the accepted standard file format for online services. And it was the de facto standard for Macintosh file compression. Lau continued to develop StuffIt until 1995, although he sold the commercial marketing rights to Aladdin Systems, Inc., in 1989. International Microcomputer Software Inc. (IMSI) acquired Alladin Systems in April 2004 and changed the company’s name to Allume Systems. A year later, Smith Micro Software Inc. acquired Allume Systems from IMSI for $12.75 million in cash and stock. Smith Micro continued active development of StuffIt until 2010.
  • Paul Schindler’s software review for this episode was Mentor, a collection of IQ testing and brainteaser puzzles for the IBM PC. Interestingly, Schindler showed off one of the puzzles from the program, which is identical to the puzzle featured in a 1998 episode of The Simpsons, “Lisa the Simpson.”