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So long and thanks for all the disks!

Fred Fish and floppies filled with freedom

Late 2021

Free as in free

One thing among many others that made the Amiga computer stand out when compared to its contemporary rivals was the freely available software. I don't mean free as in pirated and not necessarily free as in speech, either - but certainly free as in beer. Some of it was truly open source, some of it was freeware - closed source but freely distributable. The programmers sometimes requested a small, voluntary token of appreciation, such as a postcard - this was, after all, before the Internet became prevalent. It was also before computers became really really fast, so there wasn't much room for these programs to do anything nefarious and if they did, they at least couldn't upload your credit card details to some scammer in the cloud.

Not that other platforms didn't have freeware, too - but AmigaOS combined a capable command line with an equally capable GUI. This led to both a breadth and depth in its freeware selection that I believe was unmatched by any other platform. Add to this the fact that it was mainly a hobbyist machine operated by users on fairly limited budgets, many of whom bought and used the machine specifically for the joy of creating software. It's perhaps no surprise that pretty much anything you wanted to do with your Amiga could be achieved using free software: word processing, text editing, painting, composing, programming, communication, spreadsheets, games... And of course the plethora of more or less esoteric applications for which freeware is perhaps most loved, such as circuit board layouting or making your floppy drive motor play music.

Most of these programs were of course less advanced (and reliable) than their commercial counterparts. But for Amiga users in the late eighties and early nineties, with one megabyte of RAM and one or two floppy drives connected to their 7 MHz machine, they were often competent enough. Some of them even killed off the commercial competition entirely. The free music programs, trackers, became an industry standard and for almost a decade they were the go-to choice of many game musicians not just on the Amiga but on the Atari and PC as well - especially after the other platforms caught up with the Amiga's hardware and started offering affordable PCM sound.

Mr. Fish

One of the brightest shining stars in making all of this available to Amiga users everywhere was Fred Fish. Born in the United States in 1954, he was one of the early home computer hackers. In 1978, aged 24, he published a book about the programmable TI-59 calculator's Master Library. This was the first of his many efforts in sharing a fascination with programming and marked the start of a life long commitment to empowering fellow computer users. While working at Cygnus Solutions ("Bringing the user friendliness of Unix to the stability of Windows"), he contributed extensively to various GNU projects, including the GNU Debugger. He was involved with the latter right up until his tragic and far too early passing in 2007.

Thirty-five years ago, in 1986, Fish released the first disk in the AmigaLibDisk series. Later eponymously dubbed Fish Disks, they were 3.5" floppies filled to the brim with freely distributable software. Fish gathered interesting programs posted on Usenet and, after his disk series had gained a following, was also directly sent first releases of new freeware programs for inclusion on his disks.

Diverse Disks

Unlike the IBM PC clones of the time, the Amiga not only featured a standardized graphics architecture (as opposed to the PC's mess of CGA, EGA, Tandy and others) but also an OS designed for GUI applications. If you have an Amiga or emulator kicking about, check out FreePaint from disk #627. It's not exactly Deluxe Paint, but it's not far off - and it's a mere droplet in a sea of various free paint programs, image processors, fractal generators and graphics editors released for the platform.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Atari and Mac lacked meaningful text mode interfaces, a threshold efficiently hampering the porting of many excellent CLI driven programs. The Fish disks, and thus also the Amiga, instead mirrored their curator's interest in open source software and featured ports of GNU and Unix software from the beginning. The second disk in the series contained version of make and MicroEmacs, the third had versions of roff and ff, the fourth disk featured grep, and so on.

Fun and Educational

Thanks to Fish's careful curation and attention to detail, the disk series soon became exceptionally popular. Having your program included on one of his disks ensured it an immense reach (and was of course considered a big deal). Adding a distinct sense of quality, each disk contained a text file with brief but meticulous descriptions of all the included programs.

Fish's descriptions were translated and regularly published in Datormagazin, a (deservedly) mythical and lauded Swedish computer mag. These disk listings, apart from informing seasoned veterans about new software releases, educated me and many others in the strange and wonderful world of Unix programs. This is where I first learned about the existence of formatters like troff and TEX, text editors like GNU Emacs and vi, mysterious shells with "filename completion" and "pipes", tools like lex and yacc, and a plethora of other staples discussed on the Internet forums, geeky events and offices I would later frequent.

Computing Continuum

Free (as in libre) was a tradition that would continue until the very end of the disk series: one of the last floppies compiled contained a version of the touch command. Fish helped bring about wider knowledge of open source, GNU, Unix and its related command line tools to the Amiga user base, preparing a generation of young computer enthusiasts not only for the systems they might encounter at universities and workplaces but also for the coming of Linux. Thus, he contributed to building a foundation for the continued use and growth of free software after both the demise of his disk series and the Amiga platform, a legacy of which the effects are still highly tangible.

Fish would go on to release a thousand disks before switching to distribution on CD-ROMs in 1994. However, the then imminent arrival of dial-up Internet (giving us commoners access to Aminet) meant that only a few of these CD:s were made. Though he and his disk series will live on in memory for as long as there are Amiga users, his real achievement was bringing the joy and philosophy of free software to a world-wide user base outside academia, long before free software itself helped build the Internet that made his disks obsolete.

Here's to you, Fred, 35 years later. So long and thanks for all the disks!