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InterviewBITS with Peter Lewis, Part 1

Peter Lewis <[email protected]> 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 <[email protected]> – 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.]

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