Raymond Lau

Maclopedia Interview

The following interview with Jon Price appears in Maclopedia (Indianapolis, IN: Hayden Books

Conversation with Raymond Lau

Ray Lau invented StuffIt, the most popular compression software in the Mac world, when he was a teenager. He's now a grad student at MIT.

Maclopedia: What was your first experience with a Mac, or, from your early experiences, what stands out?
Ray: My first exposure to a Mac was the original Mac 128K back in the April of 1984. What impressed me the most at the time was the ease with which a printer, the original ImageWriter, can be set up. You just plug it in and pick Print and it worked! My prior experiences with computers were with a wide assortment of home computers (e.g. the Apple II, the Commodore 64, etc.) and in no case was one able to just plug in a new peripheral and have it work immediately. Of course, other early positives included the WYSIWYG nature of MacWrite (the only word processor at the time), the sharp monitor (albeit in black and white), and the mouse-based interface. A big negative at the time was the constant floppy swapping. This was before there were hard drives, so you had to keep your system files, applications, and data files on floppies. Of course, things would never fit on just one 400K floppy, hence the need to constantly swap each time you did anything.

Maclopedia: How did you get the idea for StuffIt and what were your experiences as you developed it?
Ray: The Macintosh was still a new platform in '87 and many enthusiasts, myself included, had an insatiable appetite for trying new software. We would frequent CompuServe, GEnie, the local BBS, and so on. The dominant compression utility for the Mac back then was PackIt III. PackIt was somewhat slow, but it was missing one feature which I, and many others, longed for. Namely, to get to say the fifth file, you had to wait for it to decompress the first four files. There was no way to skip around. An acquaintance with whom I frequently exchanged files by modem showed me several compression utilities on the DOS platform which did allow the user to skip around and to also to list an archive's contents. The seed for a new application was thus firmly planted. During the summer of '87, the first version of StuffIt was created. As an added bonus, the algorithm I had decided to implement also compressed files better than PackIt III. By fall, .sit had become a dominant Macintosh standard. I would say that there were two particularly memorable experiences during my subsequent work on StuffIt. The major one was of course, the initial effort to establish the product as a standard. The other memorable experience, or rather series of experiences, was the transition from a shareware to a commercial product. The lessons learned here are too numerous to list. I've learned several lessons about creating a decent piece of software. Perhaps the most important is: If it isn't easy to use, people will not use it. StuffIt was born in a power-user environment, and quite a few interface enhancements and feature set simplifications were needed along the way. How many jokes have been made about the difficulty of programming a VCR? Along the same lines, there is something to be said about polish. By this I mean that a good piece of software should be pleasant and smooth to use. I am a self-professed utilitarian, but I've now come to believe that the extra effort needed for the final 10 percent is a must for a good product. Putting the finishing touches on a piece of software has also taught me some of my own limitations. I am not that good of an artist, but fortunately, in an advanced society like ours, specialization is the norm and not the exception.

Maclopedia: How did you get the word out about your creations?
Ray: To this date, I am surprised that word got out at all. Certainly, I wasn't a major marketing and distribution powerhouse. All I did was post the early versions on CompuServe, GEnie, Delphi, and several local BBSs. At some point, several New York based BBSs started accepting uploads in .sit, and shortly thereafter, one of the commercial services and then the others followed. Why things worked out is a question to which I will probably never learn the definitive answer. Some of the favorable factors included: 1) The dominant driving forces behind the online community at the time were what might be considered the Macintosh power users, who were more receptive to adopting new standards if technological merits warranted, and 2) The previous standard, PackIt III, did not appear to be actively supported, whereas I exhibited a clear willingness to continue supporting StuffIt.

Maclopedia: Can you tell us about some of the engineers you've met or worked with, to give us a glimpse behind the scenes of the culture that spawned the Mac?
Ray: My personal experiences with people who worked for Apple itself were far and few in between, so I am going to take some liberty and instead mention a fellow programmer who is a true hacker in the Macintosh tradition. This person is Leonard Rosenthal, who Aladdin, my publisher, was fortunate enough to have hired. This was a person who would never tire of playing with the latest system software enhancements Apple has to offer, who would come up with trick after trick, and who knows almost everyone in the Macintosh software engineering community. We met via email, exchanging ideas and comments about each others' products. Because we lived in different cities, it wasn't until years later that we met in person. But Leonard would have an answerQbe it the correct answer, a decent guess, or a referral to someone else in the knowQto every Mac-related programming question I had ever sent his way. And best of all, he would respond very promptly to email. Leonard is also one of the truly best prototypers I've seen. You give him a new API from Apple and within short order, he will have some neat demo employing the new technology.

Maclopedia: Where do you see the Mac's strengths now, and where would you advise the company to go in the future?
Ray: Despite the arrival of Windows 95, I still believe that the Mac remains a smoother, easier, and more pleasant to use platform. Sure, there are some features in Windows which the Mac lacks, but consider doing something as mundane as simple file sharing between two computers on anything but a Mac. The few features which the MacOS lacks can be easily implemented by Apple. I would say that the Mac's greatest strength is probably the loyal support of its users. It is hard to put a finger on exactly why there is an almost cult-like following among many. Perhaps this is so because of its elegance or maybe even because of its status as the alternative OS. Nevertheless, the following needs to be maintained. I guess I am admittedly a power user, so I may not be in the best position to judge how Apple can maintain this loyalty. As far as my loyalty is concerned, I would say that Apple needs to maintain favorable price/performance profiles, particularly at the high performance end of the scale (Pentium Pros are pretty damn impressive in performance at a reasonable cost), maintain a competitive position in terms of software availability (this unfortunately seems to be a particularly vulnerable area), and aggressively roll out improvements in the MacOS, especially in terms of reliability and performance in multitasking environments (I reboot my Mac several times a day due to crashes. I reboot my Sun UNIX based workstation once every few weeks).