25 years ago: free, easy, software begins

PC-Talk was clearly a pioneer in helping PCs do something easily that initially was addressed as a clunky afterthought

Twenty-five years ago, a writer named Andrew Fluegelman became the editor of a new magazine--this one. He was already something of a celebrity in the wider world of personal computing as the father of "freeware," a concept that he had popularized, starting in late 1982, with the release of his trailblazing communications program, called PC-Talk.

PC-Talk was clearly a pioneer in helping PCs do something easily that initially was addressed as a clunky afterthought: communicate across vast distances. But I've recently come to understand that Fluegelman's little gem also pointed to a concept that went nameless at the time--open-source software--and to today's cornucopia of free applications and services.

Before March 1983's introduction of the IBM PC XT, a serial port was a pricey optional extra. Getting a PC online meant adding the serial port, typically on a big card that included extra RAM and perhaps a video or printer port as well. Then you'd need a modem running at 300 or maybe a "blazing" 1200 bits per second.

Throw in a serial cable to connect the two and an RJ-11 cord for the phone line, and you still weren't ready to go online. COMM.BAS, the communication program that came with IBM's machine, couldn't even save files to disk, and the $50 IBM program called something like Asynchronous Communications Support was unusable.

So into this yawning breach stepped Fluegelman with his PC-Talk software. Remarkably, the program was:

Free. Since you probably couldn't exchange files over phone lines without PC-Talk in the first place, the official distribution method was to send Fluegelman a blank disk with a self-addressed postage-paid mailer. The program did its job in 34 kilobytes; the manual weighed in at a whopping 39.

Viral (in the most positive way). The opening screen read "If you have used this program and found it of value, your contribution ($25 suggested) will be appreciated... Regardless of whether you make a contribution, you are encouraged to copy and share this program." The application and Jim Button's PC-File were the great-grandparents of shareware.

Open to view and change. PC-Talk was written in interpreted BASIC and saved without encryption "protection," so the source code was totally open. Although the documentation said "PLEASE NOTE that it should not be necessary to make any user modifications to the program," it also went on to detail several changes that users might want to make.

Licensed with reasonable restrictions. The license terms, which didn't appear on screen unless you called up the program code, amounted to just two basic items: You couldn't distribute the program to others in modified form, and you couldn't charge money for it. Where were the lawyers?

PC-Talk's brilliantly simple interface and its straightforward, ultracheap license terms (in an era of particularly clunky copy protection) made it a de facto standard for a couple of years. Then other programmers delivered better knock-offs using programming languages that were faster and more flexible than sluggish interpreted BASIC. But through his efforts to enable new methods of PC communication, software distribution, and program openness, PC World's (and Macworld's!) first editor--who apparently took his own life in 1985, alas--broke ground that today is more fertile than ever.

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Stephen Manes

PC World (US online)
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