PKZip made everything easy.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

Phil Katz left us a smaller and simpler world

April 30, 2000

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright ©2000, Al Fasoldt
Copyright ©2000, The Syracuse Newspapers

   Phil Katz changed your life and got very little for it. He felt lonely despite his success.
   Katz is the guy who made your life on the Internet possible. Back before modems got fast and computers knew how to reach out and touch someone, Phil Katz had an idea. Computers had a hard time communicating not just because everything was slow in those days ¯ this was in 1986, when Macs were new, and Windows was just an odd idea ¯ but because files were ungainly, too.
   Obviously, smaller files could be sent back and forth faster than larger files. Geeks and nerds already knew that, too. They had programs that compressed files before they were sent across a modem and uncompressed them on the other end. But these programs were slow and hard to use.
   So Phil Katz sat down at his mother's kitchen table and wrote out some computer code that could do all this compression and expansion much faster than the programs that were used at the time. He was 23 years old, just a Milwaukee guy with a good idea.
   Except that he added something incredible to his program.
   He made it free. Anybody who wanted the fastest file compression in the universe could get it for free.
   His software came with another benefit. Nobody paid much attention to that part of it at first, but it soon became the most important function of one of the world's most important programs.
   File compression works by making files as small as possible. Wasted space is taken out, and things that just repeat themselves are given the heave-ho. This is very important when you're storing your own files. Take all your school reports or all your Bart Simpson startup sounds and squeeze them down, so they take up less space. It works great.
   But it's the world's biggest bother when you're trying to copy something from one computer to another. When you're trying to download something, in other words.
   You just plain don't have the time and inclination to download 172 separate little Simpson startup sounds. Or 31 separate background wallpaper files.
   Forget sounds and wallpaper and consider programs. Anyone who's ever installed a program knows how you start out with a single file you download and end up with a zillion files when everything is installed.
   Phil Katz made that possible. He pioneered the idea of an easy-to-use file compression program that could put all sorts of separate files together into one single file. When you wanted to share that program with someone, you put it where others could get at it. You put it on the Internet.
   And that's where PKZip came from. Before long, everybody just called it Zip. If you use a Windows PC and do any downloading, you'll come across Zip files at every click. The files you download are squeezed, so they come across faster, but the important part is that many files can be packaged into a single download.
   PKZip made everything easy.
   These days we have WinZip and dozens of other ZIP managers in addition to PKZip. Even though there's a version of PKZip for Windows, Katz never knew how to do a Windows version right. His original PKZip ¯ designed for DOS computers, but still usable in some cases under Windows ¯ is so fast and so simple that nobody was ever able to do it better.
   But Phil Katz had less success with his own life than he had with code. On April 22, in a motel room in Milwaukee, he let go of the bottle of whiskey in his hand and fell asleep forever. Police found other bottles, all empty, littering the floor. Authorities say he died of acute alcoholism.
   He was 37.
   There's another side to the Phil Katz story most people have never heard.
   His first file compression program was called PKArc. The company behind another compression program, ARC, didn't like the way Katz did things in his code, so Katz went back to that kitchen table and worked out a vastly better method. That's where PKZip came from ¯ an improved file-compression and program-packaging method that made ARC look as if it had come from the Stone Age.
   And so Katz just gave it away. If companies with smart programmers kept good software out of the hands of everyday folks, Katz figured, the world would be full of computer haves and computer have-nots.
   But Phil Katz knew that people who could afford to buy his program would gladly pay, too. So he made it optional. The software worked whether it was paid for or not. You could get a fancier version with a good manual by paying for it, or you could just use the version you downloaded.
   And there's a sidelight that makes interesting reading, especially at a time when Microsoft has been judged guilty of unsavory business practices.
   Microsoft's software engineers found PKZip a delight. But the company that came up with Windows could not bear to give support to software it didn't invent itself. So Microsoft developed its own compression method called CAB. Nobody else used it. It was nothing like Zip.
   So that's why you'll see CAB files all over your Windows installation CD. You won't see Zip files. But when you are cruising around the Internet, you'll find Zips all over the place. It's a fitting tribute to what Phil Katz believed in so many years ago.