The Soul of the New Machine

By Ed Lazowska '72 / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007
Bob Wallace, employee number nine at Microsoft and the inventor of shareware, died unexpectedly on September 20 in his home in San Rafael, California. He was fifty-three.

Gentleness and integrity are adjectives that recur frequently in the many newspaper articles noting his passing. "I remember Bob as a gentle soul, but creative, persistent, and meticulous in his programming and thinking," Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen told the New York Times.

Bob decided to become a programmer in 1961, at the age of twelve. As a freshman at Brown he fell under the spell of computer science professor Andries van Dam, who had joined the faculty two years before as an early practitioner of interactive computer graphics, focusing in particular on text processing and hypermedia systems. Bob was a key designer of Brown's FRESS system, which provided what-you-see-is-what-you-get word processing with hypertext links - essentially, the editing and formatting capabilities of today's Microsoft Word combined with the hyperlink structure of the World Wide Web. But Bob and others on van Dam's team accomplished this on a room-size mainframe in the late 1960s, decades before the personal computer was even invented.

I first met Bob when we were both teenagers in Washington, D.C., and I was a year behind him at Brown. Having fallen under Andy van Dam's sway myself, I cut my computing teeth implementing some of the aspects of FRESS that Bob had designed. Sadly for me and for Brown, Bob left the University at the end of my freshman year, before he'd completed his degree. I remember standing on the steps of the Watson Computing Center waving goodbye as he and his girlfriend headed west in a used bread truck, whitewashed to cover the jolly balloons on the sides.

After Brown, Bob enrolled for a year in theater arts at UC Santa Cruz, then studied another year of computer science. He made his way north to Seattle, completing his bachelor's in computer science at the University of Washington in 1974. I didn't know any of this. But in 1977, fresh from graduate school, I arrived at the University of Washington as a faculty member and found Bob - now a UW computer science master's student - sitting front-row-center in the first course I taught.

Bob joined Microsoft after completing his master's degree. Uncomfortable with various aspects of the industry he helped create, he left in 1983 to found Quicksoft, which marketed a text-processing program Bob had designed called PC-Write. PC-Write was the first shareware program - it was distributed for a nominal fee, but satisfied users were asked to pay an additional fee to register the program and receive documentation and support. At its peak in the late 1980s, Quicksoft had thirty-two employees and more than $2 million in annual sales. When Bob was asked by Seattle Times columnist Paul Andrews why he continued to distribute PC-Write as shareware rather than selling it in the traditional way, Bob said, "I'm out to make a living, not a killing." Andy van Dam points out that in the 1960s, no one thought of software as a way to make money: "It was a way to bring the power of the hardware to the users, and it was a mind-expanding exercise for the programmer. Bob was a flower child in the nicest sense of the word."

Bob had a long interest in psychedelic drugs. In 1991 he sold Quicksoft, and in 1993, "looking for other mind-expanding technologies," he moved from Seattle to northern California with his wife, Megan Dana, eventually starting Mind Books and the Promind Foundation, both focused on psychedelics.

Paul Andrews, of the Seattle Times, writing about Bob's passing last month, said: "Truth integrity honesty. Not terms readily associated today with the software business - or the business landscape in general. With Wallace's passing we are reminded that a person's legacy ultimately rests more on principle and example than on how much money, fame, or power he or she accumulated."

Bob is the second early Brown computer science alumnus and van Dam disciple to die too young: John Gannon '70, '71 Sc.M., chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, passed away in June 1999.

Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science at the University of Washington. He serves on the board of directors of the Washington Software Alliance, a software-industry support organization that Bob Wallace founded in 1985.
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November / December 2002