|Much like Linus Torvalds, father of the Linux operating system, the name Phil Katz isn’t familiar to most home computer users of today. Mention his name to anyone who’s been involved with the hobby since the very beginning, however, and you’ll likely get a nod of recognition and a grin. Phil’s story is fascinating but cut short by tragedy.|
On April 14, 2000, Phil Katz was found dead in a Milwaukee motel room. An empty bottle of peppermint schnapps was still clutched in his hand, and five more empties were scattered about the room. It was a miserable, lonely end for a man who had created a product now in use by millions of people; a product that revolutionized computer data storage and made file transfers less complicated and more efficient. He was only 37 years old when he died.
Katz made the Internet easier, with an idea he had back in 1986. These were the early days of home PCs... no Web, no instant messaging, no Kazaa. Sure, computers communicated with one another - via slow phone lines and even slower modems. Today’s 56k modem would have been considered a thing of wondrous speed if it had been available. Instead of the Internet, computer users dialed into electronic bulletin board services (BBSes) to exchange messages, play games or download files. A BBS was simply a PC running special hosting software, tied into one or more phone lines. Most BBSes were privately-owned setups run by home computing hobbyists.
Transferring files via modem was a daunting undertaking, and if you had many files to transfer you kept your fingers crossed and hoped line noise wouldn’t corrupt the files before they reached the other end. You would also likely fall asleep if sending large files; it could take hours to send a few megabytes. To get around these problems, a few companies created compression software that would squeeze large files down considerably, and also “package” groups of files into one file as they were compressed. Then the recipient would run the same software and decompress the received file into its many originals. The most popular of these programs was ARC from System Enhancement Associates. ARC was slow at its task and prone to corrupt files. It also had a tendency to crash when compressing or decompressing. However, it emerged as the standard for file compression, and was quickly adopted by both home and business users - anyone who had to send or receive large amounts of files via phone line or floppy diskette.
Phil thought compression could be done faster, more efficiently, and with less keystrokes. Don’t forget this was well before Windows and home computerists worked from the C:\ or command line prompt. No GUI, no mouse. Working at his mother’s kitchen table, he wrote a new program that was very quick at compressing and decompressing files, and was compatible with the ARC file format. He called it PKArc. Katz again relied on BBSes to distribute and advertise his product. He used the then-new shareware approach... PKArc would work forever even if you didn’t pay for it, but registering your copy for a fee entitled you to upgrades and technical support. And people began buying it. Phil was soon receiving checks from all over. This garnered the attention of SEA. They believed Katz had “borrowed” heavily from ARC’s source code, and took him to court.
In a negotiated settlement with SEA, Phil paid their legal bills and agreed to stop selling PKArc. It was back to the kitchen table, and the result this time was a vastly improved program that made both ARC and PKArc look like products of the stone age. It was named PKZip - Phil Katz’s ZIP program. Phil again relied on BBSes to distribute and market the product, and it became wildly popular in a very short time.
BBS operators (“sysops”) were happy to assist the young man who had fallen afoul of the big commercial software developer, and most of them abandoned ARC and embraced PKZip. Computer users now *had* to use PKZip to uncompress the files obtained from their favorite BBSes, but they also loved the program because of its speed and superior compression. Thousands of copies of PKZip were downloaded and checks poured in. Phil gained enough confidence to found his own company, PKWare, Inc. SEA and its ARC program faded away, vanquished by PKZip.
In a bold move, Phil made the ZIP file format an open one. While PKZip’s source code was closely guarded, Katz encouraged competitors to create their own programs that embraced the ZIP standard. He even worked with the Infozip project, an open source movement that created routines very similar to Phil’s “deflate” and “inflate” routines used in PKZip. The free code released by the Infozip project has spawned a horde of PKZip imitators: WinZip, Power Archiver, Turbozip, PowerZip and many more.
PKWare was doing quite well by the 1990s. PKZip hadn’t made Phil extremely wealthy, but it earned him a comfortable living. Additional revenue came from licensing PKZip’s technology to other companies. Unfortunately, Katz made a huge mistake by delaying a Windows version of PKZip. Phil despised Microsoft and thought Windows a passing fad, and PKWare did not release a Windows edition of PKZip until 1996. Nicosoft, now Winzip, Inc., had made their own shareware ZIP utility, WinZip, available to Windows users for several years, and PKWare was never able to snag the market share they lost by refusing to release a Windows version of their flagship product.
Missteps like this aside, PKWare was now a multimillion dollar company. Katz stuck with what he loved, writing code, and left day to day operations to people he trusted. He would typically show up for work in the afternoon or early evening and work the night away, chatting with his programming team. Unfortunately, Phil’s personal problems began to catch up to him. He had battled alcoholism for years, and his background was filled with tickets, arrests and license revocations for DUI. He had gradually shut himself away from family and friends and led an odd kind of double life, shunning his luxury condo for seedy motels and strip clubs. His friends knew he had a drinking problem, but their efforts to help were rebuffed. By the time he died, Phil had become a virtual stranger even to his own company’s employees. The coroner’s report attributed his death to pancreatic bleeding caused by acute alcoholism.
After Phil’s death, PKWare was purchased by a group of investors in March 2001. They bolstered the management staff, brought in a team of sales professionals and changed the focus of the business. PKWare’s target audience is now the corporate market, with a strong emphasis on encryption coupled with compression. Their product line now works on a wide variety of platforms. When Phil Katz headed the company, he and his programmers would often work on things they personally found interesting versus targeting specific needs of potential customers. PKWare today is a purely market-driven company experiencing impressive growth. It currently employs around 90 people based in Brown Deer, Wisconsin; Dayton, Ohio; and San Francisco. California.
No one knows where PKWare would be at today had its founder lived. Under Phil Katz, PKWare was a company driven by technology and the excitement of creating cool programs. The business plan was essentially to sit back and wait for the phone to ring, since PKZip practically sold itself. This wasn’t the wisest marketing plan but Katz was a dreamer and innovator, not a salesman. Whether the company would have continued to be successful under his leadership is anyone’s guess.
Now, PKWare has grown up. It’s become just another successful software company with a board of directors and a long-term marketing plan. Katz would doubtless be proud of its continued success, but one can’t help but wonder if the spark that made PKWare unique died with its creator. Meanwhile, the ZIP format he invented is literally everywhere. If you download a collection of screensavers from the Web, it’s likely a ZIP file. If you archive software onto a CD-R, chances are you zip up the files beforehand. Many software installation wizards are based on ZIP. While hard disks and CD writers are dirt-cheap these days, there will always be a need to maximize storage space, just as there will always be a need for efficiency in file downloads and uploads. The success of the ZIP format has spawned imitators like RAR, LHA and ACE, but ZIP remains the ruler of the roost. It’s still the best combination of speed and efficiency, and nothing indicates this will change anytime soon. Phil Katz knew he had a winner when he wrote it, and it’s a shame that his success and good fortune couldn’t provide him with true happiness or peace of mind.
Thanks, Phil. You made a difference.
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