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Wed Sep 7, 2005 Link to this message
I was completely surprised—albeit pleasantly so—when Pierce pointed out that I had been mentioned in a Wikipedia article... (well, formerly mentioned... but still carried on the French Wikipedia, and translated by Google) most surprisingly for a seemingly inconsequential lark many, many years ago. I suppose I could be flattered (I am stoked) but really, it probably says more about the every-man aspect of Wikipedia. Even so, somebody felt that this bit of obscure (!) history was worth mentioning in that distinguished compendium, and given that, I'll add this to the record.
Setting the Stage - Some Archeology
The time is August 1989. The Internet is incubating in a handful of labs and universities. Email exists, but generally only on UNIX systems. The PC is still something found mainly in offices—and in the homes of some techno-geeks—and is usually "stand-alone." PC clock speeds are measured in teens of megahertz. Hard disks are measured in megabytes. Floppies really are floppy: five-and-a-quarter inch affairs with 1.2MB capacity; 3.5 inch "coasters" with 720KB, and the more recent 1.44MB are gaining popularity.
In these pre-historic days before the Internet, hobbyists often installed modems (typically 2400 baud affairs) into their computers and connected with each other using dial-up. Novell and Banyan offered true network LANs, but as far as remote computing, modems were the norm.
The really wonky amongst us kept our computers on all the time, running BBS ("Bulletin Board System") software, with message boards and file download services. Since this was done over phone lines, typically only one caller could access the bulletin board at any time. Bigger operations (or the geekier among us SysOps) had multiple phone lines, and could host two or sometimes more callers at one time. For the rest of us, though, the busy signal, automatic redialing, and daily access limits were the norm.
Back then, a company known as System Enhancement Associates (SEA) had created a compression tool called ARC (short for archive) which allowed people to bundle up a bunch of files into one, and compress that whole to be smaller than the sum of its parts. This was huge for shareware developers, and the bulletin boards that distributed their software. Disk space wasn't cheap, and anything larger than the most trivial file took several minutes to transfer over those "break-neck" 2400 baud modems, so having your software library compressed into ARC files meant callers could get an entire software package in one transfer, and in less time, too. It wasn't long before every entry in the downloads listing sported the .ARC extension.
Along came a fellow named Phil Katz. He produced a tool called PKARC which did everything that SEA's tool did, only faster, tighter, and then some. Cool. Less hard disk space per file. Shorter download times. More happy callers. What could be better? Well, the down side was that ARC files created by PKARC were sometimes incompatible with the decompressing tool by SEA. People were downloading ARC files that they couldn't decompress unless they had PKARC.
The outcome of this was that SEA took Phil Katz to court, prevailed, and won a huge settlement. Whether historians consider Phil the David against SEA's Goliath, (it wasn't so—both parties were small operations) or a meddling troublemaker, the upshot was that SEA won the legal battle, but lost in the court of public opinion. They soon found themselves the target of severe backlash as Phil Katz returned to the scene with an entirely new product, PKZIP, ostensibly named to be—as with everything else in his product—as far from ARC as possible. If PKARC was cool, PKZIP was cooler. Originally constrained by the ARC file format, and now legally prevented from coding for it, Phil Katz developed his own compression file format which outdid ARC, and SysOps jumped onto the ZIP bandwagon in droves for the five, ten, sometimes 15 percent improvement ZIP offered.
But soon ZIP wasn't the only alternative. No less than half a dozen other compression formats appeared on the scene thereafter, each which offered an additional one or two percent compression. A few SysOps recompressed their entire download library, forcing their callers to adopt that format's decompression tool. Others just accepted whatever format was uploaded, resulting in a veritable alphabet-soup of formats in their download libraries.
While most folks used ZIP, there were just enough other formats out there—with their strident adherents—to make life miserable for SysOps and average BBS-goers.
The Birth of NABOB
It was against this backdrop that Al Kalian of Palladin BBS approached me about a spoof compression tool he thought we should develop. As the SysOp of a fairly popular PC BBS, he was getting tired of not only every johnny-come-lately compression format, but the nearly religious zeal each one seemed to foster. As a SysOp of my own somewhat less popular (but still sizeable) Gravesend BBS, I could sympathize. He suggested we name the thing "NABOB," after Spiro Agnew's famous quote... He had—we both had—about all the nattering we could take. ;-)
I quickly hacked up a simple command-line tool that pretended to compress files with some silly ASCII flash-and-glitter, then in the guise of one "Roberto Gahdja" uploaded it to Palladin, along with a flimsy back story for yet another compression scheme, the jist of which was that while most compression tools could only compress to a certain level, the New Archive by Bob could achieve the level of compression heretofore reserved only for neutron stars and black holes. NABOB not only compressed data to one byte, it compressed data to one bit.
It was deliciously appropriate that the one bit, (padded with zeros to one byte) resulted in the ASCII smiley-faced character when the file was dumped to the screen.
The Mirth of NABOB, or 'Let the Bits Fall Where They May'
It didn't take long for people to take the bait. It was really great that once people got wise to NABOB, they rolled with it, continuing the lark with good-natured "support" on the board. I think we only had one humor-impaired person complain about it... (but I guess there's one of those in every crowd.)
Those were the days... ;-)
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