A significant period of time before a pissed-off Richard Stallman arc-welded politics into programming, for-pay and for-free software makers co-existed relatively peacefully. The general needs for each type of computer user were handled by their type of company or individual. There were the occasional blips here and there, but the type of people who were selling software were generally selling consulting services as well, and the type of people giving away software didn’t think of it that way, or didn’t think much of doing it.
Around this time (let’s call it the 1977-1981 period, but it’s a little more fluid than that) there was this golden situation where one person or an entire company with dozens of employees could create similar packaging and to the casual observer, there would be little difference. This time is the golden age of the Baggie.
The last I checked, little tiny cardboard boxes with fold-out covers and CDs inside are the current method of getting your attention. They’ve come along with some really kick-ass printing methods where parts of the box are conversely shiny and dull, and the art covers every square millimeter of the outside-facing surface. This is a change from the earlier (now seemingly) massive cardboard box with CDs or floppy disks inside. Before that and all throughout the time that software has sold, we’ve had some completely out-of-sanity packaging ideas and innovative “oh please mister, pick me up” boxes. But the “industry” tends to move in packs and this is how it’s been. Small shiny boxes descended from large shiny boxes, descended from cardboard boxes, descended from…. baggies.
The baggie (or the zip-loc bag, depending on your term for it) was the first and primary way for a software company (including individuals) to sell their package with its floppy disk or cassette tape in a store, a way that you could stack it against the wall and get people’s attention. Baggies sealed easily, with a small piece of tape or a sticker holding it closed, and the clear plastic let you put an insert inside that would give you all of the front to tout your title and ware. On the back you might get additional information but you might actually get a view of the floppy and nothing else.
It was in a baggie that Richard Garriott became Lord British and built a pretty large empire and a really neat house. It was in a baggie that you could find all of the original Penguin Software graphics programs. And it was in a baggie that a little place in the mountains called On-line Systems sold the all-text Softporn Adventure, before becoming Sierra On-Line and growing into a company the size of a medium-sized galaxy. A quick browse through a Video Game Museum shows some of the many packages back then, simple on the front, simpler on the back. You picked it up, and more than ever after you could tell that it was put together on some table somewhere, by a person working for a little company in some room somewhere, stuffing a little treat for you to take home. It felt good buying software.
Because all it took was a dream, a lot of late nights coding, and a drive through all the nearby towns to put your baggies on the shelf, some really neat companies flourished where now they would be swallowed up or ignored like so many gnats. Some just put some great little square ads in computer magazines and sat back for the orders. One that comes to mind are the Beagle Brothers, which I might humbly make a suggestion as being one of the all-time great software houses. A quick jog through the Beagle Brothers Museum shows that it was a very small number of people behind it, but whose energy and humor (and a lot of copyright-free clip art) made them a must-have for your Apple II.
These little one-offs lived for many years, some staying as one-man operations and some getting along quite nicely as the industry moved into slicker and slicker graphics, marketing and packaging. While time has turned many of these old grand houses such as Broderbund and Sierra On-line into shells of their former selves, gutted and resold many times, we can still look back on their glory days with full digital clarity.
We’ve had this sort of period in the past with the World Wide Web; certainly between 1993 and 1995 it was difficult to see major differences between websites run by A Guy and websites run by A Company, with a few notable exceptions. Nowadays, you can kind of tell that Amazon and Dell aren’t just somebody’s weekday tinkering, and that your usual weblog is.
This will happen again, and we should enjoy each time it happens; it’s when once again the power of a person shines as bright as any other force, before fading into a part of a chorus. And to be honest, the chorus doesn’t sound all that bad.
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