An Unapologetic History of XTree - Written in 1991

I'd like to tell you that we had it all planned. That in 1983, the creative geniuses at Executive Systems Inc. (ESI) sat down and, probing the depths of our programming and engineering knowledge, peered into the future and said, "Ah-ha! Hard disks." Then in a round-the-clock hacker frenzy of pepperoni pizzas and Classic Cokes, created XTree.

I'd like to say that.

I'd like to tell you it's going to be a movie and Tom Cruise is playing me.

But, like many great products and inventions, what you now know as XTree just sorta happened while we were involved in other projects. Think of it as a hi-tech version of Woody Allen's statement that life is what happens to you while you're out doing something else.

It was 1983, a critical, pivotal year for the computer industry, and for me. Saying 1983 to someone who really knows the computer industry is like saying 1929 to a stock broker, or 1960 to a Yankees fan.

At the end of 1983, three important events took place: MS-DOS began its ascent as the dominant computer operating system, replacing CP/M; IBM's PCjr, a computer recently cited by an industry magazine as arguably (IBM's) biggest failure of the 1980's, was pronounced D.O.A. by everyone in the computer industry; and ESI gave me a try as an independent contractor. After a month, they hired me as a full-time employee, and I've been part of the company ever since. At the time, ESI was writing the BIOS and utilities for the Epson QX-10.

Nineteen eighty-four rolled in and Epson asked Henry Hernandez, one of ESI's founders, if we could design utilities for their new PC DOS computers. Now, Henry is this great big bear of a guy. Lovable, fun to work with and for, and not one to let a little thing like not knowing any better get in the way, he said "Sure."

So we got the job and everybody (I mean everybody) at ESI was involved in the project: Dale Sinor, Tom Smith, and Henry (the owners); Ken Broomfield and me (the full-time programmers); and Claire Johnson (who did everything to run the company) put in 16-hour work days. Three weeks and no sleep later, we delivered half a dozen utilities to Epson. They thanked us and gave us more work - a lot more work.

A couple of months later we had hundreds of floppy disks and several hard disks cram-packed with files and no idea where anything was. We had no way to manage all the files - and there hangs the tale.

You see nobody had a way of managing files. At least not any reasonably easy way. There just weren't any utilities to do it. there was a utility for CP/M written by a friend of ours, Mike Karas, that we had been using, and some command-line-oriented programs, but none of them addressed the concept of managing a directory structure. You know, paths and stuff like that.

Which made us all say, "Hmmmm?"

So we thought about it. We talked about it. We shouted over it. We threatened one another with ancient Klingon curses. In other words, we sat down like adults and reasoned the thing out.

We discussed different kinds of tree structures, recursive processing, and other technical stuff. Drawings and diagrams came and went like the kitchen trash.

Among the subjects discussed were how the program would represent the DOS directory structure on-screen, and what the screen might look like. I drew a picture of this outline on a white board. It looked like a tree that needed water. It was a swell picture but no one thought it could be done. Impossible, they said.

Famous last words.

I went home on a Friday, programmed like mad until Sunday, and showed it to Henry on Monday. A week later we decided to try out the tree display in a backup program we were writing for Epson. They liked it. And we had the beginnings of a product.

In December of 1984, we began really working on what you now know as XTree. Our feature list was huge, and a lot of these features didn't make it into the original version of XTree but were added later in XTreePro and XTreePro Gold. I was working full time on the program, Ken worked on it between other tasks, and everyone else chipped in as needed. When enough of the program was written so it could be used, we used it ourselves. We felt that if other people were going to rely on the program, it had to be rock solid for everyday use, easy to learn, and a cinch to operate.

If it's not yet obvious, I don't want you to think that I'm some kind of mad genius and created XTree all by myself. Far from it. Whenever you're trying to do something that's never been done before, lots of people are involved.

That's the way it was with XTree. Dale made sure it had plenty of whiz-bang features. Henry made sure we didn't write any bad code. Tom made sure the user interface was consistent. (His unrelenting efforts to maintain consistency in the interface really weren't appreciated until the hundreds of reviews and millions of users began expressing their pleasure at how easy XTree is to use. Of course, back then, every time we thought XTree was ready, Tom had just one more small revision. Right.) Finally, there was Ken, bug catcher supreme.

All that was left was a name.

Arletta, my wife, gets credit for that one. We had been throwing names around the office for months and no one could agree on anything. One night, late at night, very late at night, she suggested, "XTree." You know, like "X-Tree, X-Tree read all about it!"

Pretty stupid, I thought, but jotted it down.

When I mentioned it to everyone at the office the next day, they said, "Pretty stupid," and before you knew it we had a name - XTree.

Okay, we've got a name, we've got a program, we've also got a problem; how do we get it into the stores so people like you can buy it and we can make ba-zillions of dollars? At the time, we had two choices: We could either publish it ourselves or find someone who knew more about software publishing than we did - and in early 1985 there weren't a lot of people to choose from.

On March 1, 1985, we made the decision to publish XTree ourselves. Which is when Dale took charge and in a moment of sheer insanity vowed to have XTree ready to sell at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco on April 1, 1985. Dale promised to have XTree packaged; the manual completed, written, and printed; and all the hundreds other details required to bring a product to market...ready in 30 days. As this was a seemingly impossible task, we thought April Fools' Day was an appropriate choice for our premiere.

What we didn't know was Dale had an ace up his sleeve... Michael Cahlin, president of Cahlin/Williams Communications.

In the next four weeks, Cahlin had the product packaged; the cover designed and printed, press materials created and syndicated columnists; the first XTree brochure, XTree Read All About It, written, produced, and printed; and along with Dale Sinor and Judy Mason, had XTree's booth at the West Coast Computer Faire set up. (Rumor has it that when Cahlin hired Bob Cabeen to actually design the first XTree package, he gave Bob only seven days to create it. When Bob protested, Cahlin is alleged to have said, "Look, Bob, God created the universe in six days - all I want is a package design." When Bob came through in five days, the rumor continues, he replied, "Show that to God!")

Of course, Dale had his own miracles to perform. Two days before the show, he went to the typesetters to pick up the final proofs for the manual and discovered the typesetter had been evicted and was ducking everyone. Dale finally tracked him down, but the guy would only exchange the proofs for cash - something we weren't exactly knee-deep in. While the countdown to the West Coast Computer Faire continued, Dale found the cash, got the proofs, rushed them to the printer, then to the bindery, and waited for them, refusing to let them out of his sight. He left Los Angeles at 1:30am. Four hours later, he pulled into Moscone Center in San Francisco, carried the boxes of manuals, software cases, cover inserts, and brochures inside, and calmly began assembling the booth. The show opened at 9:00am.

And so it goes.

It's ironic that the original XTree was officially introduced on April 1, 1985. The West Coast Computer Faire, at the time, was one of the most popular computer shows in the country. I hate to sound like your father, but this was back in the old days when computer shows were a far cry from the slick conventions you see today. These were end-user shows, and there were so many silicon-type bargains at these shows that they made the 24 bucks the Indians sold Manhattan for seem a bit high.

We sold XTree version 1.0 for only $39.95 at that show, and we were literally selling it from the front of the booth while frantically putting the software packages together in the back! (And now they're a bonafide collectors item.) We shared a ten-by-ten booth with a small software publisher, who, as fate would have it, almost published the original XTree. The president's name was Pete Ryan, and knowing a good thing when he saw one, he became XTree's product manager six months later and eventually worked his way up to marketing vice president and chief wheeler-dealer.

Within weeks after the show, XTree was in the hands of John Dvorak, Jerry Pournelle, and all those other demigods of hi-tech who decide the fate of products. Dvorak, et al., loved the product, and positive reviews appeared one after another. Near as I can figure, XTree was quite simply the right product, at the right price, at the right time: inexpensive software that solved a common problem and was easy to use. A rare beast in those days, or any days. In November 1985, PC Magazine gave XTree their prestigious Editors Choice Award. (XTreePro, released in 1987, received the same award, as did XTreePro Gold in 1990.) Other reviews and awards followed, and following them were orders from distributors and retailers. ...And the rest is software history.

XTreePro, XTreePro Gold, XTreeGold, XTreeEasy, and XTree for Windows were developed as more and more features were added. Gold is now translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, to name a few. With more than three million copies in use, all versions of XTree are well-recognized industry standards for disk management. And that impossible tree structure has been copied by almost everyone who has made a hard disk management system since.

As for the future, the XTree program will continue to grow and expand its capabilities as it has in the past. Our main concern is answering the needs of our customers. We read your letters. We listen to your concerns. And we appreciate your support.

This time we have it all planned.


Jeff Johnson, 1991

Appendix E
The Official XTREE MS-DOS, Windows, & Hard Disk Management Companion
3rd Edition by Beth Slick, (C) 1992 IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.
ISBN 1-878058-57-6.

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Copyright (C) 2000 Jeffrey C. Johnson    All Rights Reserved