Tuesday, September 24, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Software pioneer Bob Wallace dies
By Brier Dudley
The son of an official in President Kennedy's administration came to Seattle in the 1970s to study computing at the University of Washington.
He joined a circle of local enthusiasts who early on realized the potential of "microcomputers" that brought the power of computers to the masses, invented a popular early word processor and coined the term "shareware" for software distributed free with the idea that users would voluntarily pay if they liked the product.
Idealistic, straight-talking, political and intense, Mr. Wallace, 53, became a programmer because he thought computing was the best way to expand the mind. He also thought drugs had similar potential, and in 1998 he established a foundation to fund research into psychedelic drugs.
"He was brilliant and died way too young," said his wife, Megan. They were married in 1986 at the Seattle Aquarium but had separated. They had no children. "He was a friendly person but also very focused. Whatever he was interested in at the time was what he focused on."
An autopsy report was still pending yesterday, but it appeared Mr. Wallace died of natural causes, said Gary Tindel, assistant Marin County coroner.
One of the many Internet rumors about Microsoft is that the company was named after one of Mr. Wallace's beloved cats, but his wife dispelled that yesterday.
"No, he named the cat after Microsoft because she's tiny and soft," she said, adding that the 19-year-old animal is doing fine.
Mr. Wallace was born in Washington, D.C., and studied computing first at Brown University.
Before joining Microsoft, Mr. Wallace worked at the Retail Computer Store, Seattle's first computer store and a hangout for hobbyists. It was there that Bill Gates taped up a sign advertising for programmers to work at his new company. Mr. Wallace took the bait and moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where Microsoft started, then moved back when it relocated to the Eastside.
"Bob was a great early contributor to Microsoft," Gates said yesterday. "He was one of our first employees and he built our first Pascal product. I want to extend my personal sympathies to his family and friends."
Microsoft soon grew too big for a man who showed little tolerance for authority. He was used to reporting directly to Gates and chafed under a new supervisor, so he quit to start his own company, Quicksoft, in 1983.
Mr. Wallace was the first to leave Microsoft with a package of stock options, 450 shares that multiplied with stock splits to more than 100,000 shares. But they had little value at first because Microsoft didn't go public until 1986.
Quicksoft sold a word-processing program he wrote called PC-Write, a popular product in the days before Microsoft Word dominated the market.
It was at Seattle-based Quicksoft that Mr. Wallace coined the term shareware. He felt shareware was a way to both make money and do good for the world by getting software into people's hands, said Jonathan Feil, a Seattle software-business attorney and longtime friend of Mr. Wallace's.
"Shareware was something he always compared to public television you could use it, but if you were a frequent user you ought to make your contribution and join up," he said.
Feil noted that approach continued through the Internet era with programs such as Netscape Communications' browser and RealNetworks' media player, which were distributed free so consumers could sample them and be enticed to buy a premium version.
Mr. Wallace moved to California after he sold Quicksoft to another Microsoft retiree in 1991.
Friends said Mr. Wallace was a science-fiction fan and lover of "Star Trek" and whose interest was piqued by things scientific. Several recalled his "electric pickle," a party trick where he would connect a pickle to an electrical outlet in a way that it glowed bright green.
Mr. Wallace was also a man of conviction who advocated passionately for causes. One method was organizing groups such as the Northwest Computer Society, a hobbyist group formed in 1976, and the Washington Software Association, a business lobby he helped found in 1985.
"Bob was a man of great integrity. You really knew where you stood with him," Feil said. "Sometimes people found that intensity hard to take, but Bob was very well-respected by the industry for his opinions and his views of and for his commitment to social and political causes."
Mr. Wallace's early death was a loss for the world, said Ken Berkun, a friend from the early Seattle PC days and now an executive at Singingfish.com.
"He was unconventional, he really cared, he cared about the world and wanted to change the world for the better," he said.
Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687.
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