An Experiment in Economics
Software used to be free. Back in the 1970s, its job was to sell computers. Occasionally it sold services. And even for the customers — the people whose businesses and institutions bought computers — software was seen as a means to an end. It was a way to be more efficient, or more accurate, or sometimes merely to further the needle — to venture deeper into the vast unknown of what computers could accomplish.
Nobody thought about making money from their code. Computers cost millions of dollars. Who in their right mind would be willing to pay that kind of money only to be stung again for the tools that make their computer useful? No, software was free for everyone's benefit. And the most prolific users of computers, those same people who invariably wrote all the new computer programs, liked it that way.
To the idealistic programming whiz-kids profiled in journalist Steven Levy’s book Hackers, code was meant to be uninhibited. Computers and everything connected to them were tools of learning. Value was derived from them in the form of knowledge — knowledge gained through their use, but also through taking them apart — that in turn enabled improved systems.
If software cost money, even if it came without copy protection, then its essential lessons were locked behind what they saw as an unnecessary barrier. This was unacceptable to the hackers whose obsessive fervour drove them to constantly advance the needle in computer software and hardware design. The hacker ethic that fuelled the best computing innovations of the era — including the invention of personal computers such as the Apple II and Altair 8080 and of graphical computer games such as Spacewar! — demanded that information should be free. It should flow, without obstacle, between machines and people so that anyone could come along and make things better — forever edging nearer to the perfect systems, the perfect programs, to change the world for the better.
The makers of popular computer games were no exception to the rule. Whereas games made for coin-operated arcade machines and TV-based consoles such as the Intellivision and Atari VCS had been commercial products from the outset, games developed for mainframe and hobbyist computers emerged out of the same hacker ethic and collective spirit as other software.
The most popular computer games of the era — the likes of first-person shooter Maze, text-based spelunking game Colossal Cave Adventure, and space games Empire and Spacewar! — were nearly all shared freely over the ARPANET, a US military-funded precursor to the Internet, and it wasn't unusual for the authors of computer games to allow anyone to add to or change the code to improve the experience in some way.
Maze, for instance, began life as an experiment. Three high school seniors on a work-study program at NASA Ames Research Center in 1973 took a routine they’d written to rotate a wireframe cube on a screen and expanded it into a three-dimensional maze built out of cubes. By the time they left for college, it had already begun its transformation into a multiplayer shooting game. But it then took on a life of its own after one of the three took it with him to MIT, where various members of the Dynamic Modelling Group optimised, enhanced, refined, and added to it progressively over the next few years.
They rewrote the code so that a mainframe computer could coordinate moves on each Imlac mini-computer running the game, then they got it working across the ARPANET so that MIT and Stanford students could compete against each other late into the night. They made new mazes, multiple viewing modes, robot players, and even — thanks to one clever soul — a spectator program that allowed others to watch matches from an Evans and Sutherland LDS-1 graphics display computer.
Many other early computer games such as Hack and Rogue and Empire went through similar evolutions as their source code passed through dozens of hands, each eager to make their mark upon it.
This was an environment of one-upmanship and showing off to friends. Because, after all, they were the only people anyone expected would actually play these games. As multiplayer combat flight simulator Airfight creator Brand Fortner explains, “The thought that you could make money in software didn't occur to us in the 1970s.”
Slowly but surely, however, as more people took an interest in computers, the idea that you could make money from software would spread around the industry.
In the early 1980s, the company that made the PLATO system that Airfight had been designed for decided to start publishing many programs as commercial products. Airfight was selected as one of these, complete with regular royalty payments to the program authors — what to Fortner and other PLATO software makers was a “mind-blowing” concept.
Computers soon stopped being the sole realm of hobbyists, academics, and big businesses. They got smaller, more powerful. By the late 1970s, microcomputers — computers powered by a microprocessor and small enough to fit on an average desk (what we now call personal computers) — were able to accomplish tasks like bookkeeping and word processing, and to run graphically-rich software. This expanded their market; now computers were useful to working professionals and technologically-inclined children. And they increasingly came preassembled, in cases, ready to use the moment you took them home.
From around 50,000 microcomputer sales by the end of 1976, mostly in the form of kit computers that hobbyists could assemble themselves, the market ballooned in size. In 1979, the year Atari’s 400 and 800 computers launched and the Apple II got its first ‘killer app’, spreadsheet program VisiCalc, there were around 580,000 machines sold worldwide. Come 1982, when the mass-market favourite Commodore 64 first rolled off the production line and the IBM-PC started to pick up momentum, 2.8 million microcomputers were sold.
As microcomputer sales rose, so too did commercial software sales. Software companies like Ashton-Tate and Quark, together with game companies like Muse Software and Infocom, rose up to meet the demand for programs both productive and playful among this new brand of computer user. But there was a problem with distribution.
The software industry was so new that there weren't clear processes in place for getting programs from developer to end-user. Some developers made deals with computer retailers in their region to get products available in-store, which at this point usually meant putting a disk or cassette tape and manual inside a clear plastic bag that could be hung from a hook. Others chose mail-order systems, with their products listed in magazines and catalogues.
A handful had the idea to try something different. They thought to forego the usual retail channels altogether and instead embrace the sharing, communal nature of the early computing industry — an industry that cared little for such annoyances as copy protection and that gleefully passed around software of all kinds, commercial or not, across user groups and bulletin board systems (BBSs; essentially public message boards accessed directly via dial-up modems).
One of these people was called Andrew Fluegelman.
Fluegelman was running a one-man independent book publisher — albeit more often functioning as an imprint in collaboration with larger publishers — called The Headlands Press in Tiburon, California, when he decided to produce and co-author a book about writing with computer technology.
He didn’t actually own a computer at this moment, in 1981, but that was no matter — computers were still so new that he could just buy one and learn everything he needed to know in the process of writing the book.
He’d been thinking about computers for years. He later recalled in a 1982 interview with PC magazine that he’d attended one of the first computer fairs in San Francisco in 1977 or ’78 to learn about this exciting new technology. But he’d left thoroughly intimidated, even by terms as basic as ‘floppy disk’. “I came away feeling that I was going to have to learn how to operate a soldering gun before I was ever going to get into the computer world,” he said in the interview.
Still, computers seemed important, so he’d kept trying to feel out the technology. He’d read computer books and magazines, visited computer stores, and tried using a friend’s word processor, and then when IBM announced its PC in August 1981 — shortly after he signed on to work on Writing in the Computer Age — he knew that was the one for him.
In October he received the machine, along with programming tool BASIC, spreadsheet program VisiCalc, and, after a short delay, word processing program EasyWriter. By November he was knee-deep in learning to write his own programs in BASIC. Fluegelman felt empowered by his computer, which he described as being like an extension of himself that effectively grafted “2,000 extra brains” onto his skull, to use however he saw fit.
He chose to use these ancillary brains to make his life easier. He wrote a communications program to help him swap drafts and edits back and forth with his co-author, and an accounting program to help with his bookkeeping.
As he and his co-author worked on their book, he enhanced his communications tool. He added a dialling directory, so that it could remember what number to dial for each online service and personal contact, and he created macros for automating common tasks. Every time he had an idea for something that would make the program more useful, he’d write code to add it in.
“In the process,” he later told MicroTimes magazine, “I gave [the communications program] to a lot of my friends, and they started using it.” No other programs for the IBM-PC at the time could match the functionality of this PC-Talk program, which could send and receive and preview files via a modem connection between an IBM-PC and any other microcomputer or an online service such as CompuServe. His friends, recognising this, suggested he publish the program commercially. But he didn’t like that idea.
He knew the publishing business. After working in book publishing for eight years, he was well versed in the pitfalls of the business. He worried it would sap the fun — the exhilaration — of software development, and maybe worse. There were already horror stories floating around of copy-protection schemes months in the making that would get defeated in an afternoon — opening the door to mass piracy.
Instead of searching for a publisher and risking derailment from piracy or other business issues, he decided to go it alone. But not through conventional retail channels. He’d heard a local public TV station talk about ‘user-supported television’ during a pledge drive. He’d do the same thing with software.