Remembering Andrew Fluegelman, a Quiet Giant of the PC Revolution

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Andrew Fluegelman Foundation

I’m Andrew Fluegelman. I have made some money giving away some software for free, and I’m also connected with a couple of big magazines who are supported by advertisers who don’t give their software away for free.

Those are the words which Andrew Fluegelman used to introduce himself at the 1984 Hackers’ Conference in Marin County, California, as captured in the above video. The software in question is PC-Talk, a communications application he wrote. It originated the idea that free software could be profitable. The magazines are PC World and Macworld; he was the founding editor of both. Remarkably, they’re both still in business and doing well almost three decades later, both in original dead-tree form and online.

Those three accomplishments alone are enough to make Fluegelman a noteworthy guy. But he doesn’t mention that he spearheaded the New Games, a form of non-competitive, collaborative sport which was a big deal when I was a high school student in the 1980s and is still around today. Or that he edited books on everything from sushi to mime. Or that he was a musician. And a lawyer. And a kayaker.

When I wrote an article about Polaroid’s amazing SX-70 camera last year, I stumbled across the fact that Fluegelman had edited a book of SX-70 photos by the influential artist Norman Locks and was a Polaroid geek himself. Just this moment, I learned that he was managing editor of Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly, a spinoff of the legendary Whole Earth Catalog. I’m sure he did other fascinating things which I don’t happen to know about, at least yet.

I’m writing about Fluegelman in the past tense for a tragic reason: In July of 1985, he went missing. Shortly thereafter, his car was discovered parked near the Golden Gate Bridge, with a suicide note. The video at the top of this story, which was produced by filmmaker Stu Sweetow and commissioned by his PC World colleagues in 1987 for a memorial event, was just recently rediscovered, and is a wonderful way to learn about why he mattered so much.

Fluegelman was 42 at the time he disappeared. I never met the man; actually, I never set foot in California, his home base, during his lifetime. But I eventually held the same job he once had: editor of PC World. I also know many folks who loved and admired him, including Larry Magid of CBS News, who’s in the video and who shares his memories here. I consider Fluegelman a significant influence on my life, and he touched the world in ways which continue to benefit millions of people who don’t know his name.

His life and work are fittingly commemorated by the Andrew Fluegelman Foundation, which awards MacBook Pro laptops and printers to college-bound scholars from challenging backgrounds. The foundation is led by David Bunnell, the founder of PC Magazine, PC World, Macworld and Macworld Expo; it’s holding an awards gala tonight in San Leandro, California and I’m happy to say I’ll be there.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of PC-Talk, which Fluegelman wrote in 1981 in a month-long jag of late-night programming — not as a business project but because he needed the software himself. “I began with 40 lines of code in the back of IBM‘s BASIC manual and then began adding different features as I went along,” he told InfoWorld‘s John Markoff.

PC-Talk was a great terminal program, and in the days before the web, a great terminal program was what you needed to go online and use bulletin-board systems and services such as CompuServe and the Source. It would have been a hit as a standard commercial product.

But instead of duplicating floppy disks, putting them in boxes and shipping them off to computer stores, Fluegelman did something bizarre and daring. He let anyone use PC-Talk without paying — if you sent him a disk and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, he’d even send you a copy for free. He also encouraged people to make copies for friends. He did make a reasonable request in the product’s documentation, as quoted in an excellent PC World column by my friend Stephen Manes:

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.

That was back in a day when that meant stuffing a check (or cash) in an envelope and sending it via snail mail. As Fluegelman mentions in the video above, about 10 percent of PC-Talk’s users did.

He called this concept Freeware, and said it was “an experiment in economics more than altruism.” It became better known as shareware, and it became a phenomenon.

PC-Talk wasn’t really an early example of open-source software. Fluegelman wrote it in the BASIC programming language, and users with a working knowledge of BASIC could customize it for themselves. He asked, however, that it be distributed only as he’d written it, not in modified variants. Still, the fact that he invited PC-Talk fans to share it with abandon foreshadowed the open-source movement that later gave us Linux, Firefox and other important programs.

Fluegelman’s confidence that he could make money even if only a small percentage of his customers forked over any dough was a precursor of the business model, now pervasive on the web, that’s known as “freemium.” Today, everybody gets that notion, and it’s made some entrepreneurs rich. In the early 1980s, however, it was a truly radical epiphany — and we have him to thank for it.

I’m sorry for his friends and family that he left us so prematurely. I’m also sorry for myself, since I regret having missed the opportunity to meet and thank him. And I’m sorry for humanity in general, too. There can be no doubt: If Andrew Fluegelman were still with us, he’d be doing interesting things that made the world a better place.