25 years ago: free, easy, software begins

PC-Talk was clearly a pioneer in helping PCs do something easily that initially was addressed as a clunky afterthought

Twenty-five years ago, a writer named Andrew Fluegelman became the editor of a new magazine--this one. He was already something of a celebrity in the wider world of personal computing as the father of "freeware," a concept that he had popularized, starting in late 1982, with the release of his trailblazing communications program, called PC-Talk.

PC-Talk was clearly a pioneer in helping PCs do something easily that initially was addressed as a clunky afterthought: communicate across vast distances. But I've recently come to understand that Fluegelman's little gem also pointed to a concept that went nameless at the time--open-source software--and to today's cornucopia of free applications and services.

Before March 1983's introduction of the IBM PC XT, a serial port was a pricey optional extra. Getting a PC online meant adding the serial port, typically on a big card that included extra RAM and perhaps a video or printer port as well. Then you'd need a modem running at 300 or maybe a "blazing" 1200 bits per second.

Throw in a serial cable to connect the two and an RJ-11 cord for the phone line, and you still weren't ready to go online. COMM.BAS, the communication program that came with IBM's machine, couldn't even save files to disk, and the $50 IBM program called something like Asynchronous Communications Support was unusable.

So into this yawning breach stepped Fluegelman with his PC-Talk software. Remarkably, the program was:

Free. Since you probably couldn't exchange files over phone lines without PC-Talk in the first place, the official distribution method was to send Fluegelman a blank disk with a self-addressed postage-paid mailer. The program did its job in 34 kilobytes; the manual weighed in at a whopping 39.

Viral (in the most positive way). The opening screen read "If you have used this program and found it of value, your contribution ($25 suggested) will be appreciated... Regardless of whether you make a contribution, you are encouraged to copy and share this program." The application and Jim Button's PC-File were the great-grandparents of shareware.

Open to view and change. PC-Talk was written in interpreted BASIC and saved without encryption "protection," so the source code was totally open. Although the documentation said "PLEASE NOTE that it should not be necessary to make any user modifications to the program," it also went on to detail several changes that users might want to make.

Licensed with reasonable restrictions. The license terms, which didn't appear on screen unless you called up the program code, amounted to just two basic items: You couldn't distribute the program to others in modified form, and you couldn't charge money for it. Where were the lawyers?

PC-Talk's brilliantly simple interface and its straightforward, ultracheap license terms (in an era of particularly clunky copy protection) made it a de facto standard for a couple of years. Then other programmers delivered better knock-offs using programming languages that were faster and more flexible than sluggish interpreted BASIC. But through his efforts to enable new methods of PC communication, software distribution, and program openness, PC World's (and Macworld's!) first editor--who apparently took his own life in 1985, alas--broke ground that today is more fertile than ever.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Stephen Manes

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?