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Mattering NABOBs

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... ;-)

Sections: 2

BOBbing for Laughs
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

Al Kalian still had a transcript from Palladin BBS, which he sent along. I've added it below for posterity. ;-)

Messages from ...the Palladin BBS.
Compiled and Downloaded on 08-26-1989 @ 06:44:03.

Section 1: General Messages
Message #13064  Dated 08-23-89 @ 17:14.
   From: ROBERTO GAHDJA                 
     To: SYSOP                           (Received: on 08-23-89 @ 18:39:34)
Subject: Beta-Test copy of NABOB.ARC     (New Message)

I would like to ask if you wish to participate in the beta-testing
of what I feel is the most incredible breakthrough in compression
programming yet.  This program significantly improves the gains gotten
by using a compression program, without too much loss in calculation
I am asking your callers to participate by downloading the file and
testing it on their own systems.  I remind them that it is pre-release
and not entirely bug-free, (though I haven't found one for quite a
while, it is my nature to be conservative and say they still exist.) 
Since I have no dependable means of getting a quality replies from the
users, I am asking that they leave their messages here, and I will log
on to collect feedback as often as possible.
If you think that your users would be interested in helping me, feel
free to re-set this message to be public, (or do whatever means are
called for) and then allow NABOB.ARC to be downloaded by users.
Thank you for your help, in advance.
Roberto Gahdja, Ph.D.

Replies: 13070, 13072, 13085, 13098.

Section 1: General Messages
Message #13070  Dated 08-23-89 @ 19:54.
   From: MICHAEL DEW                    
     To: ROBERTO GAHDJA                  (Received: on 08-25-89 @ 18:49:52)
Subject: Beta-Test copy of NABOB.ARC     (Reply to Message #13064)

   I think we can find some takers around here <grin>... 

No Replies.

Section 1: General Messages
Message #13072  Dated 08-23-89 @ 21:06.
   From: MICHAEL DEW                    
     To: ROBERTO GAHDJA                  (Received: on 08-25-89 @ 18:50:00)
Subject: Beta-Test copy of NABOB.ARC     (Reply to Message #13064)

  Wellllllll..... haven't gotten real far with your program thus
Did several variations of the following, both singular aRoberto,
  Wellllll having some problems with NABOB..... makes real small
files... unfortunately all are only 1 byte and contain only 1 smiley
face character... command line like:  NABOB A TEST NABOB*.* or 
NABOB A TEST NABOB.DOC result in the same.... Seems to go thru its 
proper charming compression... on screen.... very quickly, alas rather
monotonous results..... Also if I add the .BOB extention the program
aborts with I/O error F1, PC = 3736....
   I'm running an XT turbo using an NEC V20 chip, no TSRs loaded, 512k
available RAM, and 3 megs on the hard drive.... your move...

No Replies.

Section 1: General Messages
Message #13085  Dated 08-24-89 @ 14:34.
   From: RICHARD FINK                   
     To: ROBERTO GAHDJA                  (Received: on 08-25-89 @ 18:50:36)
Subject: Beta-Test copy of NABOB.ARC     (Reply to Message #13064)

Well, one might say that another compression program in the wind is the
last thing we need.  But hell, lets keep the creative juices flowing ! 
If you have something better... good for you.  It's all this  thinking
and energy that eventually produces the REAL Improved Product that makes
things better for all of us.  Good luck.

No Replies.

Section 1: General Messages
Message #13098  Dated 08-25-89 @ 06:40.
   From: JIM MORAN                      
     To: ROBERTO GAHDJA                  (Received: on 08-25-89 @ 18:50:48)
Subject: Beta-Test copy of NABOB.ARC     (Reply to Message #13064)

Dr. Gahdja:
     Thank you for enhancing my professional career.  I will save my
company several thousand dollars in phone charges due to the release of
your excellent NABOB program.  I transferred an entire hard-drive from
San Francisco to a tiny directory on my machine at home using PC
Anywhere, and the file transfer took 2 seconds.
     Sure hope that Jim Derr has BOB support in his new SHEZ release!

No Replies.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13075  Dated 08-24-89 @ 03:39.
   From: STEVE SHELTON                  
     To: AL KALIAN                       (Received: on 08-24-89 @ 05:14:32)
Subject: .BOB Files                      (New Message)

  SO Like, I'm on Jay's Board and I see this NABOB archiver.  It was
Uploaded by Al Kalian!  Wow!  It's a Beta and it 'sposed to beat ZIP
and lhARC!  Wow!  And I'm the type of guy who converts his entire BBS
to the latest whiz-bang-Beta packer at the drop of a hat!  Wow!
  SO Like, I download this thing.  I unpack it and run it without any
parameters and it looks like a Beta packer to me!
  SO Like, I pack these Files up.  Wow!  Does this thing make SMALL
archives or what?  It Stranges.  It Minces.  It Dices!  Wow!  It's the
best damn archive file maker I have ever seen!  thanks, Al!

Replies: 13077, 13099.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13077  Dated 08-24-89 @ 05:15.
   From: SYSOP                          
     To: STEVE SHELTON                   (Received: on 08-25-89 @ 11:39:12)
Subject: .BOB Files                      (Reply to Message #13075)

Glad you like it. Ought to get Katz to looking over his shoulder, huh?

Reply: 13087.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13087  Dated 08-24-89 @ 15:30.
   From: JIM SWITZ                      
     To: SYSOP                           (Received: on 08-24-89 @ 17:38:56)
Subject: .BOB Files                      (Reply to Message #13077)

   I like it too, Al; very impressive indeed!  One thing you should
caution other users about though - be VERY careful to close all your
floppy drive doors *before* running NABOB!  The compression occurs so
fast, and compresses so much, that the resulting file vacuum started to
suck stray bits of paper into my poor AT clone through the 2 floppy
drive slots!  It was a real mess to clean out, especially the Post-It notes.
   Keep them doors closed, man.

Replies: 13100, 13105.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13100  Dated 08-25-89 @ 06:51.
   From: JIM MORAN                      
     To: JIM SWITZ                       (Received: on 08-25-89 @ 17:02:04)
Subject: .BOB Files                      (Reply to Message #13087)

Jim:  Thanks for the tip on keeping the floppy doors closed.  A little
too late in my case, however.  I lost a throw rug, desk lamp and my new
Nordstrom's necktie before I got to the big red switch to stop the
thing, and my cat was clinging to my leg the whole time with its tail
pointing STRAIGHT at the a: drive!  Now I start it from a batch file and
quickly leave the room.  Thanks again.

No Replies.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13105  Dated 08-25-89 @ 14:32.
   From: RICHARD FINK                   
     To: JIM SWITZ                       (Received: on 08-25-89 @ 17:02:52)
Subject: .BOB Files                      (Reply to Message #13087)

Hey, right you are.  I didn't know what caused the rush through there but
that's it... I was NABOBing my whole 100MB hard disk onto one floppy. 
I'm using this for backup man.  It beats everything.
Shew.  I mean Dr. Gadjha is on to something HOT.  Al, please clue him
into the coming COMDEX.  It will take the show.  Who knows, Western
Digital may want to Make-A-Deal and use his compression method in their
hard disk controller technology.  And dig it.... it's only the Beta
version !!   

Reply: 13110.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13110  Dated 08-25-89 @ 17:04.
   From: JIM SWITZ                      
     To: RICHARD FINK                   
Subject: .BOB Files                      (Reply to Message #13105)

   Nope.  Western Digital and other drive makers are soon to be history,
now that pretty much anything you want can be compressed and stored on a
single 64k DRAM.  Faster, too.

No Replies.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13099  Dated 08-25-89 @ 06:47.
   From: JIM MORAN                      
     To: STEVE SHELTON                   (Received: on 08-25-89 @ 11:39:30)
Subject: .BOB Files                      (Reply to Message #13075)

Steve:  You're right.  NABOB is the best file compression ever!  Phil
Katz, eat your heart out!
     A friend of mine in New York sent me the entire Manhattan telephone
directory (SHISHKA.BOB).  With ZIP or ARC this would have been an
expensive long-distance bill.  But with BOB, no problem!
     As long as Dr. Gahdja doesn't change the next release too much and
we don't end up with incompatible BOB files, it should become the BBS
standard of the 90's.

Replies: 13103, 13109.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13103  Dated 08-25-89 @ 11:46.
   From: STEVE SHELTON                  
     To: JIM MORAN                      
Subject: .BOB Files                      (Reply to Message #13099)

 Shishka ?   sheesh...  it's Shickse you Goyimma!
  I re-bobbed my entire Board last night in a special EVENT.  Worked
Great.  Saved considerable disk space over new "imploded" ZIP Files,
(I have been running the "illegal" pkZIP v1.00 Beta for some time now).
And it's FAST!  too.  I'm glad there are no pleas for money or drugs
or the usual bullsh*t one finds in these shareware utilities.  I was
talking to one of my users (who should KNOW) and he says that Gahdja
was a pupil of Yoshi before he became a master of the Glass Bead Game.
  Apparently Gahdja wrote the thing in Z80 assembler first, and then
converted it to Tiny Basic because all he had to work on was an old
TRS-80 portable computer.  Imagine what the full, 32-bit version with
OS/2 calls will be like!

No Replies.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13109  Dated 08-25-89 @ 17:01.
   From: JIM SWITZ                      
     To: JIM MORAN                      
Subject: .BOB Files                      (Reply to Message #13099)

   Gee, I misread your message there for a minute.  Thought you had a
file called SHIKSA.BOB.  Which, of course, would be a listing of many of
the girls in New York.

No Replies.

Section 2: BBS SysOps Backroom
Message #13116  Dated 08-25-89 @ 20:44.
   From: HOWARD KALMER                  
     To: SYSOP                           (Received: on 08-26-89 @ 05:31:54)
Subject: BOBBING MY FILES                (New Message)

Al:  I have just completed 3 days of extensive, exhaustive, and
exhausting tests of NABOB.  I tried not to let the rave reviews
influence my evaluation and even ignored the SHISHKA faction that
already developed.  Well am I ever disappointed.  In rigorous
comparison testing I found my BOBBED files to be slower to compress than
the 1978 version of WACK (probably the slowest, most cumbersome archiver
ever) and about as slow as as the discredited PLOP (v 3.2).  But speed
wasn't the only problem.  BOBBED files were as large or sometimes larger
than those created under Katz's gamma version of ARC, which only a few
true compression aficionados remember. Looks like it's back to the
drawing boards for NABOB. No Gates or Jobs yet...despite what others are
saying.   Howard

No Replies.

Section 1: General Messages
Message #13122  Dated 08-26-89 @ 05:54.
   From: SYSOP                          
     To: All                            
Subject: corrupted docs                  (New Message)

If you recently downloaded the beta copy of NABOB, you might have
noticed that the DOC's were incomplete. You can either download the file
again, or just extract the DOC file and download it.

No Replies.
End of messages.

As a follow-up, this is only a partial transcript, and no, Howard wasn't the spoiler... dunno if I'd want to publish that... ;-}

Update: Looking back at Phil Katz
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

This YouTube video by content creator and author David William Plummer of Dave’s Garage just came out a few days ago, and is definitely worth a view. In addition to the sad life story of the man that created the ZIP format, David goes into more detail about the SEA-vs-PKWare conflict.