A ‘Thank You’ Letter to Software Pioneer Thom Henderson

Tonight I saw a short but moving documentary on a subject that many folks might think would be the most boring subject on earth: digital file compression software in the early days of the Internet. Laugh all you want, but this was an interesting and moving piece of work. The film covers an old, mostly forgotten controversy: SEA vs PKWARE computer compression “shareware”. But it is, like any good story, a human story. Check it out at:

http://quicksilverscreen.com/watch?video=46195     

It inspired me to write a letter to the doc’s protagonist/antagonist, Thom Henderson. The letter I sent Thom:

“…the bulk of the payments were individual $35 payments, from people; [just] regular people. And they would write letters. I got fan mail. I used to love to go to the post office, with Irene. She’d drive back, and I’d go through the letters.”

Dear Mr. Henderson..
 I suppose this email may seem a bit odd, considering we’ve never met; but, in a way, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write you. Being a card-carrying geek by some definitions, I am also something of an anomaly: I’ve been greatly influenced by computers and technology (particularly the whole idea of networked communications and file sharing), but without having any real technical ability myself. I was born in 1969, so I grew up with computers, video games and technology.
I just wanted to take a few minutes of your time to thank you for all you’ve meant to computer BBS enthusiasts. For me, bulletin board systems, FIDOnet, shareware–all of it–was a big part of my life in my late teens and twenties.
My first computer (being from a lower middle-class family) was a [Texas Instruments] TI-99/4A, which was an extremely extravagant birthday present in 1982, when i was 12. My own promises and lies–with the salesmanship of TI’s celebrity spokesman, Bill Cosby–convinced my parents a computer would do wonders for my education. In truth, I just wanted to play a better class of video games than I could using the family Atari 2600…and I think I also wanted to be Matthew Broderick’s character in ‘Wargames’.

When my family moved to rural Alabama the following year, computers became a kind of surrogate companion for me. Like many geeky, gawky teens that live in small, rural places, I didn’t have many REAL friends. I was lucky enough to attend a summer workshop using Apple II’s at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, where I learned to program BASIC. But my REAL interests were in the “online” applications emerging. To become a part of your world, I had to wait for another birthday gift: my first IBM XT clone, in 1988, before I went away to college. This computer had a (now laughably primitive) Hercules Graphics Card and a modem somewhat slower than a donkey cart. I suppose I had fantasies of hacking databases and becoming some William Gibsonesque “cyberspace cowboy”–though, as I said, I wasn’t really very technically-oriented.
In 1992, my girlfriend’s dad introduced me to BBS systems, FIDOnet and shareware. As silly as this may sound to you, these concepts (and the reality they presented) were revolutionary to me. The idea that like-minded people could interact over vast, invisible distances was a source of fascination and inspiration to me. I’ve always been more of an artist than a technician, but I suppose one of the elements I saw in the world you and your contemporaries were developing was some undefined nexus where the worlds of art and science met, shook hands, and began working together.

My own generation (in the alternative music genre, for example) was very much influenced by DIY ethics. It was very liberating to know that we could make our own way using the tools and examples of computer pioneers such as yourself.
Though I had heard parts of the story presented in the series of documentaries that included “Compression”, I found your story to be very inspiring in a strange way. I also found one particular thing you said (roughly paraphrased: “I did it for the mail”) to be very moving. Mainly because, as a writer and artist, and a guy inspired by the early BBS system, I can relate to the inherent need to feel inspired and accepted by one’s own peers–especially if the medium you are working within is not a part of the “normal” economic model. I recall the first time someone explained the concept of shareware to me–and how “revolutionary” it sounded. I was amazed that there were people developing these incredibly cool (and important) pieces of software, and then pretty much trusting to the community for enough payment to make it possible to continue developing MORE programs, games, etc.
In fact, I see parallels with a concept called “micro-investing” (among other names) that I have recently become interested in. Basically, it is people who (by third world standards) are wealthy (which would even include myself, I was startled to realize–though I earn less than $30,000/year)…people who invest small amounts of money (usually $50 to $1,000) to finance start-up businesses in poor nations. To most of us, that amount of money might not even be enough to buy a business license, but in sub-Saharan Africa (for example) it is enough to lift a family out of poverty–not by giving them a Gideon Bible and a sack of UN-donated corn meal, but giving them a REAL opportunity to make their lives meaningful.
Though that may sound odd–comparing shareware with micro-funding philosophy–for me, I see the similarities and, in particular, the way the two inspire other people to create…and to care about the creation.
And sometimes, maybe even MOST of the time, a person might receive nothing much in the way of a tangible reward for their efforts. In these instances, “fan mail”, encouragement, and kind words are a kind of replacement currency. Not the same (and of course I realize we ALL need money to live) but it does have an important role in making us want to keep going: knowing that somewhere, someone appreciates us.

So let me just conclude by saying: I appreciate the work you have done. I heard you say that (paraphrased, again) in the end, it did not matter, because the programs this documentary discussed were “ancient history”…they were programs developed for computers and operating systems that are no longer even used. Or, among some, not even remembered. In fact, younger people who have ALWAYS known a world in which computers were as common as TV sets, where the Internet provides access to vast floes of information that the old BBS systems could never have hoped to handle even the smallest scraps of…these younger people may not ever know about the BBS systems and the ancestors to the software and hardware they take for granted. which is why your story is so important, and (to me at least) so inspiring.
I just want to say, again: thank you, Thom. We all owe you and others like you a debt we can never repay. Thank you!
Gregory Purvis / EVIL ROBOTS

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10 Comments

  1. You should really be thanking Phil Katz, not this guy who almost ruined BBSing. I ran a bbs back in those days and I remember myself and the rest of my net having to convert all files from .arc to .zip because of this guy & SEA. Katz stood up to SEA and gave us an alternative rather than giving up. Funny how people try to rewrite history.

    • Thanks for the info on Phil Katz. I used BBS’s a lot back in the early 90’s, but I was probably too young to pay much attention to the details, so I appreciate your comments.
      Thanks!
      Greg Purvis / Evil Robots Blog (on wordpress.com)

  2. Phil Katz STOLE the bulk of his code for PKARC from Thom Henderson. Pure and simple. Katz was a drunken thief and his death was simply the exclamation poin ton a life wasted. fletchb would do well to look into this matter instead of posting a letter with obvious lies and distortions.

  3. “You should really be thanking Phil Katz, not this guy who almost ruined BBSing.”

    I’m going to be blunt – you are an ignorant putz. Katz was a thief and an opportunist, plain and simple. Yes, he wasn’t a bad programmer, but first and foremost he was a thief – and then tried to bluff his way out of it. When the chips were down, he backpedaled quick. Thom Henderson’s biggest mistake was letting the settlement remain sealed – that just gave Katz a free license for his BS propaganda.

    Did Katz ever distribute the PKZip source code? SEA and Thom Henderson did! It’s still pretty much unheard of – mainly because of snakes like Phil Katz.

    I went through the whole thing in the 80’s and ignorant fools such as yourself were just as common. The whole “David vs. Goliath” thing was very popular – except it was just spin by Katz! SEA and PKware were about the same size employee wise.

    “Funny how people try to rewrite history.”

    Rewriting history? There is nothing funny about it – it’s rather sad and pathetic that TO THIS DAY there are ignorant people such as yourself spreading pure crap. Greg Purvis’s letter to Thom Henderson is absolutely appropriate and spot on – BBSing would have been far less interesting without his contributions not just of ARC but also to the FidoNet community – which were also blatantly ripped off by more opportunistic thief/snakes. He’s remarkably calm for someone who was so routinely screwed by the community he obviously loved.

    Oh well, they didn’t call it fight-o-net for nothing. And unfortunately the perversity of the Internet hasn’t brought any improvement to the discussion. Unlike in the BBS days, where even with FidoNet you had access to lots of information but it was still hard to get the full picture so that your ignorance might be somewhat forgivable, now all you have to do is some googling to discover just how absolutely wrong you are.

    Rewriting history indeed :p This kind of FUD makes me ill…

    • Sorry but 98% of the BBS community would disagree with you. If Katz was such a bad guy like you want to imply he would have just gone away after SEA starting giving him and the rest of the fidonet trouble. But instead he came back a few months later with .zip and gave it away free. SEA and their .ARC quickly went by the wayside and there is no way you can get away trying to re write history because a lot of us who were there and remember it quite well. If what you say is true then where in the heck did .ARC go??

      I will agree that Katz probably had a substance problem but that doesn’t change what he did for the BBL community. I talked to him on the phone once or twice and he was always polite and courteous to me ….

      • “Sorry but 98% of the BBS community would disagree with you.”

        98% of statistics are made up. Look, this isn’t about quantity, but about quality. The portion of the BBS community *I* care about, the portion that were the movers and shakers and made significant and long-lasting contributions would not be in your 98%.

        As for the rest of your comment, please see Matt’s comment below. I didn’t even have to go there – another unsolicited confirmation for me.

      • I guess we will have to agree to disagree on this. I just never heard these accusations till this blog post and don’t think it’s right to make blank statements when the guy is no longer living and can’t defend himself.

      • As usual, it’s little Phil Katz bullied by the giant SEA – Fletchb is simply peddling the tired old David and Goliath myth. Whereas it should actually be Pkware, not “Katz”. You didn’t “have to” convert .arc files to .zip – you CHOSE to do so, presumably based on uneducated hysteria. Thom Henderson is a very amiable person – more than can be said for Phil Katz, I’m afraid.

  4. This is an interesting topic filled with much speculation buy devoid of facts. I was a player in the FIDOnet BBS community and ran a spoke for the FIDOmail system. I had first hand knowledge as to what wend down and found the video to be very informative.

    Katz was not the victim in the PXWare vs SEA lawsuit. He was a cunning player and out witted SEA and most of us in the FIDOnet community. He had good propaganda and we in the community bought into the fear he was selling.

    I never saw a single letter from SEA saying that the use of the ARC format would result in us getting sued. but Katz in his bold move inferred that as SEA sued him (for using their source code to write his software) that ARC was a proprietary file format and using it without a license would get us sued too. That was not the case, but we bought into the fear and changed to ZIP as Katz promoted the file type as being public and free, even though using his software was not.

    Katz was a good chess player who outsmarted the masses. Sadly, we as a society tend to act as lemmings and follow the trend without ever questioning what and why are doing so.

    Mr. Thom Henderson really deserves more credit than he ever got because he played a key roll in the development of the BBS culture and computing as we know it today.

  5. “Mr. Thom Henderson really deserves more credit than he ever got because he played a key roll in the developm”

    Amen.


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