The Origin of Shareware

By Jim Knopf

Hi, I’m Jim Knopf. Thanks for stopping in. Pull up a stool and set a spell.

It’s true. I started the Shareware revolution in 1982. Be the first on your block to know the real story about the start of Shareware.

Shareware was born simultaneously in two places. In Tiburon, California, it was born as the program PC-Talk, fathered by Andrew Fluegelman. In Bellevue, Washington, it sprang to life as PC-File, the brain child of Jim Knopf. This is my half of the story. I’m Jim Knopf, the father of Shareware. This is the story I used to call “How did I get into this mess?”

I needed a program to print mailing labels for a local church congregation. I had an Apple computer, so I wrote the program in Applesoft BASIC. I wanted more than just a label printing program, so I wrote a general purpose database program. I liked what I produced so much the program itself became a hobby – something I continued to work on and improve in my spare time.

Soon thereafter, the IBM Personal Computer was announced. I perceived instantly the machine would revolutionize the personal computer industry – so I sold my Apple computer the same day and placed my order for an IBM PC.

The first program I converted from Applesoft BASIC to IBM BASIC was my database program. The conversion was easy. It took only a few days to get the tiny database program running happily on the IBM PC.

I was working for IBM at the time. Many of my fellow IBM’ers were receiving their first personal computers. As an old hand at personal computing, I was anxious to get my comrades off to a good start. So I shared my database program with many of them.

Out of a simple desire to freely share a good thing with others, PC-File was born. It didn’t have its final name yet (I called it “Easy File.”) It soon became a hit at the Seattle offices of IBM and throughout the Seattle area as enthusiastic users of the free program shared copies of it with friends and associates.

I used the database program to keep track of its own public – its growing number of devotees. But problems soon developed. It became increasingly expensive and time consuming to notify users when fixes or improvements became available. How could I identify which of the users were serious ones – those that desired and required enhancements? How could I afford to send mailings to notify them of the availability of improvements?

I decided to place a message in the program. I would ask those who received it to voluntarily send a modest donation to help defray my costs. The message encouraged users to continue to use and share the program with others, and to send a $10 donation only if they wanted to be included in my mailing list.

The first person to receive the program with its unusual request telephoned me almost immediately. He had also received a copy of PC-Talk, a program with a similar message. He was excited by the similarity in the two requests for donations, and felt I should get in touch with PC-Talk’s author, Andrew Fluegelman. I examined the PC-Talk disk. Upon reading Andrew’s request for other programmers to join with him in this unique “marketing experiment,” I decided to mail Andrew my program.

Andrew was impressed. He telephoned me immediately and we decided to jointly reference each other on our distribution disks. I would name my program PC-File, to complement the PC-Talk name Andrew was using. I would request a voluntary payment of $25, to exactly match the amount he was suggesting.

I could not have predicted what would happen next. My wife said I was “a foolish old man” if I thought even one person would voluntarily send me money for the program. I was more optimistic. I suspected that enough voluntary payments would come to help pay for expansions to my personal computer hobby – perhaps several hundred dollars. Maybe even a thousand dollars (in my wildest dreams!) But my tiny post office box was too small to receive the responses from a wildly enthusiastic public.

Everything was right. PC’s were selling like hotcakes, and there were few database programs available. Other programs were burdened with clumsy copy protection schemes. Here was a program that encouraged users to copy it.

Other programs were high priced. Here was one that modestly suggested a small payment.

Other programs had to be purchased before being tried out. Here was one that could be tried out extensively before the purchase.

Other programs were sold from retail stores. Here was a radical new marketing idea, and the computer magazines were hungry for such things to write about. The result: much free publicity for PC-File.

Another phenomenon assured the success of Shareware. The biggest computer clubs the world has ever known sprang up all over the country. Club librarians were hungry for programs to share with their members. The Shareware approach was perfectly suited to these clubs. More free publicity – and a perfect vehicle for giving wide distribution to the shareware disks.

A man named Doug Clapp wrote a stunning review of PC-File for PC-World magazine. My family and I were vacationing in Hawaii when the magazine hit the news stands. The response was overwhelming. Our house sitter had to cart the mail home daily in grocery sacks.

When we arrived home, the grocery sacks were strewn all over the basement floor. We had to step over and around them just to get into our basement office. My son, John, worked days, evenings, and weekends for most of the summer just catching up on the mail. Life would never be the same for any of us!

I had always said I would never consider leaving my secure job with IBM until I was receiving at least twice as much money from another source. I was wrong. By the summer of 1984 I was making ten times as much with my little software business. Still, I would not have left IBM voluntarily.

I didn’t leave IBM voluntarily. My body forced me out. I could no longer work 8 hours each day with IBM, and then come home to another 4 hours of work each evening. Saturday and much of Sunday were also consumed by my second job. I had come to a fork in the road. I had lassoed a dinosaur. He was shaking me around fiercely, and I couldn’t let go of the rope.

“Jim, if you can do this well in the software business by treating it as a part time hobby, how well would you do if you took it seriously?” This thought gave me the courage to do what my body had been demanding of me for months. I resigned from IBM.

It’s 1987 now

Someday someone will write the rest of this story. My software company has over 10 programs in its product line now. There are 18 employees. Shareware has established itself as a respectable marketing method. PC-File, my little part-time hobby database, has a devoted following of nearly a million users.

Supplemental note: at its peak a few years later, the company had over 35 employees and grossed over $4.5 million annually.

1995 Extra credit reading

So you thought Jim Button was the Father of Shareware! He is. That was me. I published under the pseudonym “Jim Button” because it’s a more marketable name. Besides, my own name (Knopf) means “Button” in German. The title “The Father of Shareware” is not self-ascribed. It was given to me in 1985 by Peter Norton, a good friend.

The term “shareware” as applied to this form of software distribution is somewhat new. Andrew and I began by calling it “freeware.” All of these words have taken on different meanings now, and “shareware” has come to be the most commonly used word.

In 1992 I had a heart attack – at the tender age of 49! I realized then the software business was too stressful for us eastern Washington beet kickers farm boys and decided to eliminate the pressures. I sold all my business assets last year and have retired to enjoy my family and the peace and solitude of the Pacific Northwest. You’ll find me now with a grandchild on my shoulders… or a fly rod in my hand!

© Copyright 1995-1996 Jim Knopf All rights reserved PC-File, Buttonware, and “Jim Button” are registered trademarks of Outlook Software