Video: The Sad End of Phil Katz

We mostly try to stick with games here, but just about everyone in the Windows ecosystem uses ZIP archive files. They’ve long become a de facto standard, with tools for working with them in Windows supplied by Microsoft as early as the Windows 95 Powertoys Plus! Pack. Nowadays, support for them is built right into Windows Explorer, and you can even open them like folders, which felt like some kind of magic when that feature debuted.

The ZIP format was once one of several competing compression and archiving formats, with others being LHA/LZH, ARC, ARJ, CAB, and of course on the Unix/Linux side of things Tar, Gzip and GZ. Other than the Unix types, those others are mostly dead now. There are some relative newcomers, RAR and 7Z, but most people just stick with ZIP without even caring to know of the format’s origins.

ZIP was the format produced by the shareware PKZip compression tools, named for its co-creator Phil Katz. Katz created it in response to a lawsuit from the company behind the (now obscure) SEA format. Rather than fight it, he and Gary Conway designed their own format and made tools to work with it. Then as now, the world loves an underdog, and many people flocked to the format. In 1989 they released the format to the public domain.

Phil Katz’s later life was ruined by alcoholism, which the above video from the Dave’s Garage YouTube channel is about. A sad end to someone who popularized a piece of technology that still sees use millions of times a day.

ZIP is so ubiquitous now that lots of people use it without even realizing. DOCX, ODF, EPUB, and JAR are all secret ZIP files under the hood.

Katz’s company PKWare remains to this day, although they’re now focused on data security, and as you can see from their website they now look exactly like the kind of faceless monolith that all tech companies eventually mutate into. They still steward the format, and in that tonedeaf way of corporations, now hold a forbidding number of patents, and claim, “The free license grant offered in prior APPNOTE publications has been discontinued.” Presumably people just use the last public domain version, since once something is in the public domain, it’s there forever, thank frog.

(EDIT: xot on Twitter mentions that Windows ZIP support first appeared in the Win95 Plus! Pack, correction made above.)

The Dark History of Zip Files (YouTube, Dave’s Garage)

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