Series: Peter N Lewis Interview
A candid talk with the godfather of Internet shareware for the Macintosh
Article 1 of 2 in series
Peter Lewis is one of the best-known Macintosh Internet programmers, with about 20 programs in distribution on the Internet. Most are freeware or inexpensive shareware in the $5 to $10 rangeShow full article
Peter Lewis <email@example.com> is one of the best-known Macintosh Internet programmers, with about 20 programs in distribution on the Internet. Most are freeware or inexpensive shareware in the $5 to $10 range. Peter's hit program is the FTP client Anarchie (pronounced "anarchy"), which surpassed another excellent FTP program (Fetch from Jim Matthews) to become a staple of many Mac users' Internet toolkits. Many of Peter's programs (most notably the public domain Internet Config) are written with the help of Quinn, who goes only by his last name and who recently went to work for Apple. Oh, and if you're wondering, Peter N Lewis should not be confused with Peter H. Lewis, the Internet reporter for the New York Times.
Intriguingly, Peter dwells not in Silicon Valley or even in the United States, but in Perth, a city in Western Australia. Although I did this interview via email, I have met Peter in person. In April of 1994 we were just starting to chat via email when he asked if I planned to attend Mactivity in July. I said no, since I had a different conference to attend several days later. But I did extend a social invitation (hey, these things are usually safe, especially with people from other continents): I told Peter that if he was ever in the Seattle area, he was welcome to visit us. His reply said, "Sure, how's July 12th through 17th?" I gulped, and went to tell Tonya that we'd be having a houseguest for five days in July.
Needless to say, the meeting at the airport was a little tricky, since neither of us knew what the other looked like. I wore my Eudora t-shirt, and printed Anarchie's icon so it filled a sheet of paper, figuring I'd hold it up like limo drivers hold signs with people's last names on them. Peter came right over to me, although he later confided that he'd only seen the Eudora t-shirt, but figured he could go home with anyone wearing a Eudora t-shirt.
We had a fabulous time while Peter was visiting, and he collected shareware fees everywhere he went. In between insulting U.S. money for being all the same size and color (Australian money is cooler), Peter commented that he never had to worry about exchanging money, since so many people paid their shareware fees as soon as they saw him in person that he earned quite a bit in U.S. dollars while visiting. Maybe that's the trick with shareware - world tours where the guilty can come and pay their shareware fees. In any event, when I came up with the idea of doing some email interviews with interesting people in the Macintosh world, Peter was first on the list.
- [Adam] You've written some great programs and at least Anarchie and FTPd could be commercial. I'm sure you've had offers from companies - why have you shied away from that market? Why shareware?
[Peter] Various reasons. Shareware gives me complete control, something I'm unlikely to get in the commercial world. It allows me to provide my programs at much lower prices than would otherwise be the case (with packaging and marketing and channel markups, they would have to cost at least $50 to earn me the same $9 I currently get). It lets me concentrate on writing the programs and not worry about the other issues (like packaging and marketing and channels).
- [Adam] FTPd and especially Anarchie are highly successful for shareware. Roughly what percentage of users pay for them? Is that depressing, or simply the way shareware works?
[Peter] My guess is somewhere between two and twenty percent, probably closer to the four percent mark. It's hard to tell with any accuracy (although SIVC [Simple Internet Version Control] helps by telling me there are at least 14,700 Anarchie 1.6 users and at least 2,300 FTPd 3.0 users). At $10 a copy, that would be a lot more money than I've made in shareware fees. It's a shame: I go out of my way to ensure my programs are useful and inexpensive; it'd be nice to think everyone would pay $10 for a program that's useful to them, but it doesn't work that way. Obviously there are things I could do to force people to pay (time-outs and crippled features and serial numbers and annoying reminder notices and all the rest), but I'd rather not (and hopefully I won't be forced to).
- [Adam] What about Kee Nethery's Kagi Shareware service <firstname.lastname@example.org> - has that significantly helped bring in a larger percentage of shareware fees? If nothing else, it must make it a heck of a lot easier to deal with the issues surrounding international money exchange.
[Peter] Absolutely. The general consensus amongst shareware authors using Kagi is that their income goes up over 50 percent simply because Kagi can accept Visa and MasterCard. I know from my own experience that if I can just send a quick email off to pay for a program, I'm far more likely to just pay it when I start looking at it. If I have to send off snail mail, by the time I get around to finding an envelope, I've probably trashed the program anyway.
- [Adam] So what's the end result of people not paying their shareware fees?
[Peter] It's sad really, because I'd like to hire some people to help me write more cool software, so users who don't pay end up hurting themselves. Think about it: if just half the people paid, I'd have ten times more income, which would translate it to half a dozen programmers working full time to produce other programs. Taking a quick look at my project list, that would probably mean we'd already have an NNTP news server, a DNS server, some interesting Internet messaging services (like sharing clipboards or keyboards), maybe even a shareware equivalent for Timbuktu, and who knows what else.
Still, I do make my living out of shareware, it pays my full time salary (fortunately the cost of living in Perth is much lower than, say, California, and hence so are salaries). So I'd like to thank those people who do pay their shareware fees for allowing me to work full time, and hopefully continue to improve my various programs and write a few more cool ones.
- [Adam] Have you considered moving away from Australia now that you're supported entirely by your programming skills, especially now that Quinn has left to work for Apple in Cupertino?
[Peter] Not really. I love Perth, it's the most beautiful city in the world, and the most pleasant to live in (well, it does get a bit too hot for my liking in February). Plus my family and most of my friends are here. What I'm thinking of doing is coming down to the USA for more extended visits, but I need to figure out how I can work down there since I don't want to lose months of work time. Besides, I can't go very long without having the urge to program.
- [Adam] Will Quinn's move to work in Apple's Developer Technical Support slow down development of shared projects like Internet Config, and to a lesser extent, Anarchie (with the Apple Guide that Quinn did)? And speaking of Quinn, how much would we have to bribe you to tell us Quinn's first name?
[Peter] Do you think I could get a MacWEEK mug for it? I'd probably tell you for a couple hundred grand, but I'd have to ask Quinn if it's OK first. It's not that hard to find out his first name anyway, I'm sure it's on the net if you look hard enough.
Quinn's move will definitely have an effect on some of our projects. But, Internet Config is now sufficiently mature that we can probably split it into several smaller parts and each do them separately. For instance, I'll probably end up working on the Internet Config application, and Quinn will get stuck with maintaining the component and the rest of the Internet Config API.
It's certainly harder to do late night hacks when you don't even share the same late night time.
- [Adam] You've written a slew of programs, including the main Macintosh Finger and Talk clients and various non-Internet programs. Which of your lesser known programs should people check out?
[Peter] Well, all my programs are available via FTP, and the Web site describes them, so that's one way of finding out about my other projects.
The one that I think is most useful and under-used is Assimilator, which is not an Internet program at all. It's function is to maintain labs of identical Macintoshes (like student labs or demonstration labs). Basically it mirrors the lab Mac's hard disk from a folder on an AppleShare server. I wrote it to help Quinn and Craig maintain their respective student labs at the University of Western Australia, and it seems to work quite well there.
[Next week, Peter talks about the future of the Macintosh, connectivity in Australia, the Netscape explosion, and the virtues of Pascal.]
Article 2 of 2 in series
This week we conclude our interview from TidBITS-304 with Peter Lewis , one of the best-known Macintosh Internet programmers. [Adam] As a developer primarily concerned with the Internet, what are your feelings about Netscape - the company or the program? Netscape has stirred some strong feelings with its non-standard HTML extensions, and the company's IPO in August was certainly astonishing. [Peter] I'm not particularly fond of eitherShow full article
- [Adam] As a developer primarily concerned with the Internet, what are your feelings about Netscape - the company or the program? Netscape has stirred some strong feelings with its non-standard HTML extensions, and the company's IPO in August was certainly astonishing.
[Peter] I'm not particularly fond of either. They seem to announce new things they are going to roll into the browser every week. The last thing I want in a Web client is for it to be larger than a full Microsoft Office install! I'm also not sure who the target audience is for Web versions of VRML, Acrobat, etc. Most people I know are limited to modem speeds. I don't even let it download pictures; it's just too slow, and even text is too slow most of the time. Maybe in a decade or so we'll all have ISDN or a T-1 to our houses, but in the meantime?
On top of that, I don't want to see any one company have too much control over the commercial use of the net, and Netscape would certainly love to control the whole game.
Personally, I use MacWeb. It's the most Mac-like browser available. It's getting a bit old these days, but I've heard there is a new version that's very cool, so I'm looking forward to that.
- [Adam] I'm curious what your perspectives, being an Internet developer and an Australian, are about some of the things proposed by the dunderheads in the U.S. government regarding the Internet. For instance, what do you think about the issue of pornography on the Internet and the Communications Decency Act?
[Peter] Do you think that's limited to the U.S.A.? We already have our state government rushing to enact legislation before the federal government does (our state and federal governments are involved in a bitter feud).
For myself, I'm opposed to any form of censorship. On top of that, any legislation is obviously going to be unenforceable, and I'm very much against unenforceable legislation - it puts too much power in the police force to choose who they want to pick on.
- [Adam] How about the fuss surrounding PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption, and the fact that it's illegal to export it from the U.S. Do you have a copy? What do folks from other countries think about the issue?
[Peter] It's a joke. Of course I have a copy of MacPGP (I don't use it much, my communications are very rarely secret enough to require that kind of messing around). I saw a great signature the other day, it was a three line chunk of Perl code that did RSA encryption (although, naturally, the code looked like it had already been encrypted). The whole thing seems to be caused by amazing egotism on the part of the U.S. government - do they really think only U.S. mathematicians can write encryption algorithms? What's even more insane is the fact that it's legal to export the algorithm, just not the code, so they obviously think there are no programmers outside the U.S.A. Weird.
- [Adam] You and Quinn are known for being major Pascal supporters in a development world that has largely gone over to C and C++. You even had anti-C t-shirts at the last few World-Wide Developer's Conferences. Without getting too technical, why do you continue to stick with Pascal, and does that cause problems at times?
[Peter] The normal C argument goes like this: "Everyone else is using C, so therefore it must be good." Every Mac user should recognize that statement in a slightly different form, "Everyone else is using PCs, so therefore they must be good."
Basically, I continue to use Pascal because I'm more productive in it. I consider using Pascal to be a strategic advantage, doubly so when compared to C++. I've been reading a C++ book recently (know thy enemy), and every time I turn the page I see new ways to make tiny errors that are catastrophic and impossible to debug. I'm amazed that anyone can produce a working C++ program.
However, programming in Pascal does cause occasional problems. The Apple interfaces tend to be quite broken. I wanted to try out QuickDraw GX, and it took a year of new versions before they finally got one that I could hack to work with Pascal. By then I'd given up on GX. In some ways this is actually a good thing for me: I have way too many projects and not enough time to do them all, so not being able to work with GX or OpenDoc is helpful for limiting my options.
- [Adam] Turning from programming to hardware, what's your favorite model of the Mac, and what would you like to see different in future models?
[Peter] I've never really had a favorite model. I quite like my current 7100/66 (the best price/performance ever - Apple gave it to me for free). I have a theory that people become fond of the models they own. I don't pine for a new machine, I want more disk space more than anything else at the moment.
- [Adam] I know the feeling - my 1 GB drive is now down to about 80 MB available. Apple gave you that 7100 as part of the Apple Cool Tools awards back in October of 1994 (TidBITS-247). Those awards were meant to honor programmers whose work had made the Internet easier to use from a Mac. Do you think Apple should continue such awards for people writing freely distributable software, or perhaps even expand them into other fields? I could see Apple creating five or ten different categories and recognizing an individual or two in each category each year.
[Peter] Absolutely. It would be interesting to survey the eleven people who won last year's award and see how their Macs affected their development. My 7100 is now the center point of my home office - without it I would probably have to have stayed working for Curtin for several more months before I could set up my office. I'm sure that's exactly what Apple had in mind when they made those awards.
- [Adam] Great idea about that survey; I'll have to work on that next. What about future models of the Mac?
[Peter] In future models I'd like to see more colours; grey and beige are so boring. Apple needs to sell computers the same way the car industry sells cars. Have you noticed how lots of Apple's new Macs have started looking like PCs (OK, not quite that bad). The Mac is just a silly box to hold the monitor. I like some of Apple's innovations in the CPUs with built-in monitors, but I prefer the monitor separate (since they're unlikely to build one-piece computers with large monitors). Apple should have more fun with their designs - Macs are fun to use, they should be fun to look at.
- [Adam] Macs are visually fairly boring these days, but what about the clone manufacturers? Perhaps they'd be better suited to pushing the envelope on industrial design more than Apple. Would you consider buying a Mac clone, especially now that Power Computing's Power Wave systems are the fastest Macs available?
[Peter] From what I've seen, the clones are even more boring, most of them look like PCs. Maybe in a few years when (if?) Apple loosens up a bit on their clone deals we'll see some small companies producing designer Macs.
I can't buy a clone Mac yet, since they haven't set up in Australia as far as I know. I'd also be concerned about their ability to support remote locations like Perth at this early stage. I think I'll wait and let them build up some infrastructure first. That said, I had the opportunity to visit the Power Computing folks in Austin earlier this year. They seem to be well in control of the situation, and very much into providing good service and value for money. I recently asked several smart people about their Power Computing machines, and they all said that the machines were as good as Apple's. So if you live a bit closer to the action than I do, I think you should definitely look in to it and compare the prices.
- [Adam] How fast is your Internet connection currently?
[Peter] Well, my personal Internet connection is a 28.8 Kbps modem, permanently connected to the Western Australian hub. I have an Ethernet running around my house, and a 386 running Linux as my Ethernet-to-PPP gateway (another interesting project that might have been funded by higher shareware response is a Mac-based Ethernet-to-PPP router).
Of course, it doesn't much help having a 28.8 Kbps link while Australia's international link is completely saturated. Right now it's running at 20 bytes/second, which is pretty painful.
- [Adam] That kind of speed almost makes you want to dial the U.S. directly. Australia charges on a per/byte basis for traffic that goes out of the country, right? How expensive does that get? I presume it's not quite so bad that you've actually dialed the U.S. directly, but it must be tempting at times.
[Peter] The Australian backbone charges at a rate of about U.S. $0.70 per megabyte. I compared that against an international phone call at 28.8 Kbps, which comes out around $2 per megabyte. So it's about three times more expensive, but on the other hand, a 1 MB file might take six minutes instead of 14 hours. I've been thinking of going back to the bad old days of using an email-to-FTP gateway to retrieve files across the link. Fortunately most FTP sites are mirrored in Australia so it's not an impossible situation, and eventually Telstra will get around to improving the situation.
- [Adam] Thanks very much for taking the time for this interview, Peter, and I'm sure we'll all look forward to your next programs. Maybe a few more people will even support your shareware efforts than in the past.
[Several people wrote in last week to point out the URL we published last week for Peter's Web site was broken (the FTP URL worked just fine). Problems with that server seem to have been resolved and both links are currently working correctly. -Geoff]