Saturday, January 2, 2010

Gatekeeper Released 21 Years Ago Today

Twenty one years ago today, on January 2nd, 1989, I released version 1.0 of the freeware Gatekeeper anti-virus system for Macintosh. It would have been better to note its twentieth anniversary a year ago, what with twenty being a big round number and all, but, frankly, I forgot.

Anyway, it was 21 years ago today. For reasons now obscure, it wouldn't appear in "comp.binaries.mac" until the 13th. Those reasons may have included the need to be harangued by the legendary Werner Uhrig, who wanted to know why I'd released a Macintosh anti-virus product without first running it past the secret society of Macintosh anti-virus researchers. I actually had to explain that it's impossible to communicate with a secret group, when nobody has let you in on the secret that the group exists. Based on that technicality, I think he let me off with a stern warning. And he had me promptly inducted.

Egads, what an experience Gatekeeper was. To this day, it remains the most punishing software development task I've undertaken. As a sign of things to come, before version 1.0 was even complete, it had already been scoffed at by Apple, probably costing me the chance of a job there – but the interviewer was equipped with a priori certainty that such an anti-virus system was impossible, and no amount of explanation or demonstration would convince him otherwise. After it was released, Gatekeeper seemed to earn me quiet, unshakable contempt from Apple. I never figured-out why. It was true that I believed that I'd had to write Gatekeeper to bring a measure of control to the computational public health mess that Apple had created by overlooking basically all security issues in the design of the original Mac OS (not an uncommon failing in those days, especially in the microcomputer world), but I don't remember making pronouncements to that effect. I admired (most of) Apple's work enormously then, and in spite of everything, I still do.

Apple notwithstanding, Gatekeeper went on to win me an award from the then-existent and prestigious Boston Computer Society; to be almost completely ignored by the Macintosh press (I naïvely believed then that the trade press went looking for stories relevant to its subject matter, but realized years too late that the apocalypse would be hard-pressed to get a column inch unless it sent out press releases first); to get me an all-expenses-paid trip to Scotland to deliver a paper about it (never having seen papers delivered before, I had no idea what was expected, and the less said about the result, the better); to bring me so many picture postcards from users all over the world that my local post office started to reflexively deliver postcards to me, no matter to whom they were actually addressed; to give me the opportunity to get drunk as hell on cheap gin & tonics one night with John Norstad (author of Disinfectant, and clever issuer of press-releases) at some vendor's World-Wide Developer's Conference party; to get itself written-up in an honest-to-goodness book on computer viruses that must be around here somewhere; and, over four+ years of work, to build within me such a fierce case of burn-out that when a company offered me the chance to take Gatekeeper commercial, I couldn't bring myself to do it, even though an industry insider told me that such a deal ought to be worth around a million dollars to me over a few years. I think it was ten years before I had the energy to single-handedly take on another software project of that complexity. So, if your letter or email went unanswered, now you have some idea why.

And, to my initial surprise, in something like the last four or five years Gatekeeper has risen from the dead to take on a new life as prior art in patent cases. I'd hoped to be able to announce years ago that it had triumphed in invalidating some odious software patent or other, but the case I was assured would take no more than a year dragged on for something like four, and then was resolved out of court, as I understand it. That was an interesting experience (for one thing, I had a very fine dinner with Henry Spencer, inventor of grep), but mostly it was a whole lot of no fun. And the blasted lawyers seem to have lost a major portion of the postcards I'd collected from Gatekeeper users. Now, an inquiry from a CS professor turned expert witness, suggests that it is once again involved in a patent case, and not for the last time, I expect.

When I first had the idea for Gatekeeper I thought it innovative in a "why the hell is nobody else doing this" sort of way, and the verdict of time seems to be quietly trending in my direction. So, I'd like to take this opportunity to say something to everyone at Apple who scoffed at, cold-shouldered, or otherwise entirely failed to provide an iota of support for a free product that was saving their Macintosh from itself. And that something would be this: Screw you.

1 comment:

  1. Happy Birthday Gatekeeper! I thought I still had you on my Sheepshaver (Mac simulator), but it's running OS 9. I know I saw your extension icons load somewhere in the past few years tho, all nestled together. Hmm...

    Yes, good times were had. Support list on Zimbazi. TAY 102. Meeting Joanna's mum years before I did. Regaled with tales of epic journeys and demons slain, down at our local, the Dog & Duck. Ahh...

    Re: Apple: Somehow I doubt John Sculley will go down in corporate history as having done much good at Apple (especially if Steve Jobs gets to write it). And I recall Apple saying (in a UT meeting) they don't hire programmers over 30. Wisdom hints that this is because under-30s likely don't have lives or offspring and can be indoctrinated to devote every waking hour to corporate service. "Think Apple".

    Here's looking forward to the next not insanely but nonetheless uniquely great things to come.