June 8, 1996

A Web's-Eye View of the 'Father of Shareware'

On the Internet, shareware rules. The idealistic and sometimes highly lucrative method of distributing software on a try-then-buy honor system has popularized FTP* sites, spawned commercial repositories on the World Wide Web and sparked the spectacular success of start-ups like Netscape and id Software of DOOM fame.

But shareware can be cruel. These days Jim Knopf, one of the early IBM PC software authors who started it all, presides over the premier site for links for shareware veterans and newbies alike -- a Web home page aptly named The Father of Shareware. Like a grizzled software whittler, his page beckons browsers to "Pull up a stool and set a spell."

Jim Knopf
You could just click ahead to his Father Knows Best! annotated selections of links to more than 50 distributors of shareware programs for PC, Mac, UNIX and VMS systems and nearly 200 shareware authors, but it's hard to resist the appeal of his quirky home page. So you click near the top to learn about the beginnings of shareware, as recounted in "The Shareware Story." Originally written in 1987, this is the tale of a mailing-label program for a local church congregation that was transformed in 1982 as a database shareware application called PC-File.

The author of the program is listed as "Jim Button," a play on the German meaning of Knopf. It was quickly to become the cash cow for Buttonware, a 35-employee company in Microsoft's suburban Seattle backyard.

But a decision not to follow Microsoft's lead into Windows software would bring heartbreak. Ten years after his PC- File program helped invent the concept of shareware, Knopf's business teetered near bankruptcy, and at age 49 he suffered a heart attack.

Two years later, in 1994, he retired from the software business, selling off his pioneering firm's assets, including all rights to his nom de 'ware. Now un-Buttoned, he says that "shareware works best as a cottage industry."

"After you start to build a company," Knopf says, "there's a certain point where you're under too much pressure to change for change's sake." Knopf dedicates the last link in The Shareware Story to aspiring shareware authors, by sending readers to the home page of the Association of Shareware Professionals, an organization he co-founded.

Of the association's 1,500 members, more than half are operating a business or deriving a full-time living from shareware, said the organization's president, Richard Harper. Many have been successful with shareware aimed at niche markets, like Harper's own best-seller, a record- keeping program for police departments.

The ASP's Home Page also offers links to more than 350 members' home pages, to the ASP's shareware catalog, and to its FTP site, where visitors can download members' products. As for shareware's sire, Jim Knopf now only writes freeware (which is given away, with no support). His latest multimedia utilities for Windows are available from the Free lunch portion of his home page.

"Freeware," in fact, was the original term used by Knopf and the late Andrew Fluegelman, author of PC-Talk communications software, to promote readily copied user-sponsored distribution of software. The word "shareware" was coined by another pioneer, Bob Wallace, author of the PC Write word processing program. Wallace, who before developing PC Write had been Microsoft employee No. 9, was also squeezed by the advent of Microsoft Windows. He sold off his QuickSoft shareware firm in 1991 and recently resurfaced on the Web with a site for his latest endeavor, Mind Books, a "mail-order book store focused on the 'mind- expanding' plants and compounds, also called hallucinogens, psychedelics, or entheogens."

While hallucinogens may seem a major leap from shareware, Wallace says he now feels about psychopharmacology the way he felt about computers in 1965: "another way to extend the powers of the mind." His site includes links to pages on philosophy, public policy, religion, plants and chemistry. Not every shareware pioneer goes psychedelic, as evidenced by Knopf's life story on "The Father of Shareware" site. This autobiography is a devout, family- oriented account that carries the wry warning, "Some pages contain spiritually explicit material. If you are offended by references to religion or faith, please turn back now." His home page, which went up on April 1, 1995, as a gathering place for former Buttonware employees and colleagues from his previous job at IBM, has evolved as both a shareware resource and a forum for his views. While many share his philosophy of software distribution, some have been offended by his forays into other areas.

Earlier this year, Knopf, who considers himself "not a very political person" posted at the bottom of his page a "no- Clinton" graphic with the caption "character and integrity are the issues." The statement unleashed a storm of e-mail.

"I thought I might get some response," he said, "but this is beyond anything I expected." His hate mail and his love mail are both available on his site. To criticism that shareware and politics don't mix, Knopf says of his political statements, "They are there because this is a personal home page, I have deep feelings about this joke of a President and the freedom to express them."

And any critic who believes that hate mail will sway Knopf should be forewarned: This is the same independent spirit who ignored his wife's assertion that "I was 'a foolish old man' if I thought that even one person would voluntarily send me money for a program" and went on to launch a concept that would one day rule the Net.

Related Sites
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  • The Father of Shareware
  • "Father Knows Best!" annotated selections of links to more than 50 PC, Mac, UNIX and VMS shareware distributors
  • Association of Shareware Professionals
  • "Free lunch" portion of his home page
  • Mind Books, includes Jim Knopf's Life Story

    Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company