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Programming Paradigms

Jan00: Jim Button: Where Is He Now?

Jim Button: Where Is He Now?

Let's not forget the past altogether. Shareware was one of the surprises of the early personal computer industry. Who would have thought that you could make a living from software paid for on the honor system? Make it publicly available, invite people to make copies of it and give them to their friends, and base your income prospects on a little notice asking people to send you a few dollars if they found the program useful: How smart is that? Very smart, as Andrew Fluegelman and Jim Button, the authors of PC-Talk and PC-File, respectively, proved. Those two programmers invented shareware, although they called it "freeware" back then. I hope to write about Fluegelman soon, but this historical note is about the mysterious Mr. Button.

Button was working for IBM in the Seattle area when the IBM PC was released. IBM employees -- including Button -- proved to be a hot market for the PC. Button, an Apple II hacker in his spare time, wanted to get his colleagues off to a good start. So he ported a database program he'd written for the Apple II over to IBM Basic and shared it with his friends and coworkers.

The friends and coworkers in turn passed the program on to their friends and coworkers, and pretty soon, Button had a good use for his database program -- keeping track of its users. He was doing a lot of bug fixes and enhancements and it was getting to be a pain notifying everyone of every change. So he tried an experiment. He included in each new copy of the program a small message encouraging people to copy and pass the program on freely, but also asking that they send him $10 -- almost immediately changed to $25 -- if they wanted to be on his mailing list to be notified of bug fixes and enhancements. And he gave the program the name PC-File. Then he and his wife went on vacation.

When they got home, brown paper bags were strewn all over the basement floor. The housesitter had to haul the checks home from the post office in grocery bags. Their son spent the summer of 1982 catching up on this avalanche of mail. Within two years, Button was making ten times his IBM salary from shareware, and quit his day job. He never had reason to regret that decision.

At its peak in the late 1980s, Buttonware had 35 employees, a broad lineup of shareware products, and a $4.5 million gross annual income. In 1992, Jim Button sold the company and retired, quite comfortably. He can now be found fly fishing in the Pacific Northwest.

Only not under that name. I called him the mysterious Mr. Button because "Jim Button" did not exist. The name was a pseudonym that this programmer chose for marketing purposes. His real name is Jim Knopf (German for button).

I'm not promising, but I'm thinking about starting a collection of "Where Are They Now?" stories on my computer history book site at http://www.fireinthevalley.com/. If I do, there should be a nice little collection of them there by the time you read this.

-- M.S.

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