ZIP files changed the way we use computers and they started in Wisconsin | WUWM 89.7 FM

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We use ZIP files in many new ways every day. They allow us to compress files into a smaller package. This compression format revolutionized the way information could travel between computers at a critical time before the Internet.

talk about bubbler questioner John Miller was working at Allen-Bradley when he heard a rumor that a guy who had worked there was responsible for creating the format.

And that rumor was right. It all started in the late 1970s with BBS, the Bulletin Board System.

Jason Scott, a filmmaker who explored the impact of these boards in BBS: the Documentary, says: “From the late 1970s to the 1980s, we saw a small explosion in the number of people using personal computers to communicate with each other and transfer files, leave messages, download files that have been downloaded and do without any supervision could start one, anyone could call, and it was just crazy.”

The front page of the BBS PC Exec. It was one of the largest boards in the world and was based in Milwaukee.

The BBS community was a mix of old school computer programmers and people who were just beginning their exploration of the computer world. It was the perfect environment for Phil Katz, a young programmer born and raised in Glendale, Wisconsin.

Friends and colleagues, like Doug Hay, describe Katz as socially awkward, but incredibly intelligent. His talents flourished in this community of people who were creating the building blocks of computer technology and what would become the cornerstone of our society. But of course computers had to become more accessible for this to happen, and one of the main problems was simply transferring information to different computers.

Phil Katz, creator of ZIP and founder of PKWare.
Phil Katz, creator of ZIP and founder of PKWare.

Hay explains, “When you were transferring a file, like say you wanted to download some kind of word processing program and there were maybe 80 files in total that you needed to download. Well, originally with bulletin boards you had to go in there and upload 80 individual files and that was a big pain in the ass.”

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It could take days. It was also incredibly expensive, because Jim Peterson, chief scientist at PKWareCommentExplain.

“Storage media, like hard drives and very expensive people’s computers, were very limited in the amount of information you could store and it was very expensive because you could buy very small drives but they would cost you thousands of dollars,” he explains. “Sending information via computer modems was extremely slow, so to reduce the cost of transmission, data compression was also very important to help save money for both sending information and storage of information.”

There had to be a way to reduce file size without losing the integrity of the original data; what they needed was a compression algorithm. Simply put: these algorithms reduce file size by reducing redundancy in the data.

“So if I say to you: the cat goes up the hill; and then I say to you: the dog goes up the hill — these two sentences have only one word which is different. So I could take this first sentence without the word ‘ cat” and say: every time I say this one, one character, it means: “the void goes up the hill”. And the result is that, especially repetitive files, can go down sometimes by 70% or 80%,” explains Scott.

ARC was one of the first compression formats to become popular on BBS because it both compressed file sizes and turned them into a single downloadable item. The format was free to use and Phil Katz thought he could improve on it. So he created his own version called PKARC (Phil Katz ARC), named after the company where Hay became the first full-time programmer.

But the creators of ARC weren’t too happy, especially with the brand of PKARC, which focused on the quality of the format compared to the original ARC. Thus, the creators of ARC for follow-up and won, but they also lost. The BBS community was mortified that someone was suing another community member, and they activated the ARC. Scott says people started changing “.ARC” files to “.SUE” and users started turning to alternative compression formats.

Zipped folder isolated on white background.  3D illustration

Destina – stock.adobe.com

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Zip files are often displayed as a file with a zipper.

Katz teamed up with another programmer to create a new format: PKZIP, which eventually became ZIP. The BBS community flocked to the new format. Hay was working at the company during the transition.

“As soon as we created the ZIP format, ARC was dead within six months. It was dead. So, [ARC] basically cut [its] own throat by suing us,” Hay said.

The company changed its name to PKWare and is still based in Milwaukee, but Phil Katz is gone. He died in 2000 at just 37, after a public battle with alcoholism.

It was a tragic end for a man whose life changed our world forever. There are a lot of crazy stories about Katz, who has been through a lot during his 37 years. Here are a few shared by his friend and colleague, Doug Hay:

Today, ZIP compression is part of our lives in ways Katz could never have imagined.

Peterson says, “It started out as a way for day-to-day computer users to save storage space. But now it has become used on all platforms by almost all users. It touches the lives of almost all computer users countless times every day.

“It’s so ubiquitous, it’s invisible. It’s how you get apps on your phone, it’s how you get a program, it’s how you get your games on your console,” says Scott.

And it all started here in Milwaukee.

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