The short version
Bob started writing about PCs in 1982. Writing initially for a San Francisco Bay Area weekly dubbed Computer Currents, he then moved on to national and international magazines such as PC Week, PC World, Mac World, A+, Microsoft Systems Journal, and others for which he wrote features and reviews. He has appeared on the PBS TV series Computer Chronicles, CNN TV, ZD-TV, ABC World News Tonight, and National Public Radio. He has taught and lectured about dBASE programming at the University of California extension in San Francisco. As a consultant he has specialized in custom database programming, networking, and systems installation for small companies. He has authored over 30 books which you'll find listed here. His books have been translated into many languages including Chinese, Korean, Greek, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portugese, and have sold many hundreds of thousands of copies around the world. His specialty is in the area of PC operating systems, particularly Windows and Windows NT, and in PC applications.
The long version
It all started in 1953. OK, let's skip to 1971. That's when I graduated from high school in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania (this is, like, suburban Philadelphia). I was hacking pretty heavily with sound equipment, playing in a bunch on rock bands (bass guitar. We did stuff like Chicago Transit uthority, Santana, Beatles, James Brown). I was also taking classical piano lessons, and had a light-show company (Audio-Sonic Light and Sound) with a couple of friends. Lots of psychedelic effects (all external). So of course, then I attended Temple University with a concentration in psychology. Must have been trying to figure out what I got out of those strobe lights.
TM and stuff... During that time, I checked out various forms of meditation and self development, such as Silva Mind Control, hypnosis, and TM. I developed an interest in the physiological effects of relaxation and meditation techniques, and how these effects might be used to improve physical health and psychological wellbeing. Upon graduating, instead of getting an advanced degree in psych, I headed to France to be trained as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation, since I found that way more useful than what Western psycholigical disciplines Nine months of training later, I was teaching TM in New York City. A few months later, I decided the weather in NY was the pits, and I so moved on to Chicago (where the weather was also the pits), then finally landed up in the San Francisco Bay Area (Berkeley to be precise). Besides being co-chair of the TM Center in Berkeley, in 1978 I taught TM to high-security inmates in San Quentin prison, a program funded by the California State Department of Corrections. This was a very interesting experience. Also frightening. I do not recommend doing anything that will wind you up in jail.
During my first couple of years in Berkeley I held quite a few jobs, from running the subscriptions department for a law journal published by the Berkeley Law School (Boalt Hall) to repairing pianos. Even did home construction for a bit, and owned a car repair business. But getting the grease out from under my nails was a bummer. Along the way I worked for the UC Berkeley Ombudsman's office, who was beginning to work with micorcomputers. This was my first taste of computers, and helped lead the way back to school, in electronics. With additional prompting from my girlfriend who encouraged me to make a decent living for a change (it took a bachelor's degree in pych to realize she was right), I took the plunge.
Back to school... I signed up for the digital electronics program at Merritt College in Oakland, California in 1981. This was a total deal, and galvanized my belief that California is truly the land of opportunity. I mean this was a full-time, 16-unit program that cost me $2 a semester. I even got a grant from the State of California to pay for tools and books. While in school, I built, pretty much from the chip level, a functioning S-100-based CP/M microcomputer. Lots of late nights with the soldering iron (I have the scars to prove it), logic probe, and oscilloscope. So, two years and $8 later, and with a little help from my incredibly dedicated teacher, Gary Svihula, I landed my first job in the computer industry. It was at NorthStar computers as a "technical support specialist." NorthStar was a great company, and built a terrific microcomputer computer. (This was before the IBM PC and DOS, which appeared in 1984). At Northstar I worked with a team of seven technicians who solved problems for dealers of their Z-80 CP/M systems. In those days, only the dealers provided end-user support. So we trained the dealers, and they handled the needs of the customer. Those were the days. A hard disk was 5 megabytes. Well, our biggest one was 18M, and weighed in at about 100 pounds. Tech support included lots of serial-port and parallel-port cable wiring, board-level troubleshooting, and patching of the BIOS to support different brands of printers and terminals. It also required supporting the software packages we provided under the Northstar brand (mostly accounting and business graphics packages).
I also had a part time job selling hi-fi gear at shop in the San Francisco Bay Area, music and sound being one of my favorite areas of interest. Upon seeing how redundant the filing, transaction, and inventory systems were there, I suggested they computerize their systems. The boss told me to "make it so" and I was stuck -- I had to figure out what to purchase (hardware and software), and how to make it work. That was no easy task, considering the dearth of programs around for microcomputers at the time. I decided they should use dBASE II (newly released at the time). Little did I know I'd have to write programs if the computer were going to do anything useful. Well, nothing like pressure to speed up the learning process... After a few months of hard work I was getting pretty conversant with dBASE (a database management programming language). One thing I learned was that there was an gargantuan chasm between the technical manual for dBASE and the English language. It was the first time it occurred to me that maybe engineers couldn't write their way out of a paper bag.
Besides tech support and training at Northstar, I was responsible for increasing quality assurance of the department itself, so I used my dBASE II knowhow to develop a program to track cases from start to finish, dole them out to technicians, calculate response times, report problem areas to engineering, generate reports, and so forth. It was a hit. I also was asked to write a manual for the other technicians detailing the most common problems and solutions. They called me dBOB there.
After a year's working in the nine-to-five grind, I decided that I had enough skills to move on to work for myself, selling and installing Northstar computers along with custom-designed database systems. I also wanted to do some writing. I contacted a local startup newspaper called Computer Classifides (which later became Computer Currents), pitching a column as the answer guy for questions about hooking up hardware and various other stuff. Computers were really a black art at that time. Just getting a printer to work often took a soldering iron, some schematics, and some programming knowledge. They said "Sure, yeah!" So I got about $50 per week for that. And the fellow who was the Ombudsman back at the University of California (Alan Nelson, professor of English) asked me write something for the International Northstar Users Association, and they liked it! I was surprised. After all, I didn't have any training in writing per se, other than those ill-fated last-minute cram sessions in college, pounding out papers about Josef Stalin on my Smith-Corona while hyped up on donuts and coffee.
Anyway, can't pay the rent with $50 a week, but since I got to include my byline in the paper, advertising dBASE programming, I did get more consulting jobs. And along the networking grapevine I met this guy named Steve Rosenthal, who had written probably a billion computer magazine articles already, and really got paid for them. Very prolific. When I asked if I could make a real living being a full-time writer, he said "If one fool can do it, two can." Hmm. Since writing and maintaining custom programs is kind of like being a parent and a doctor rolled into one (you get calls any time, day or night with reports about data corruption, down hard drives, etc.), writing sounded like an big-time Excedrin. So I eased out of the progamming thing, and gathered a few contacts at the "real" computer magazines. With the aid of Steve Rosenthal, I pitched a column about dBASE to a Ziff-Davis magazine that was just starting, called A+. It was aimed at Apple users. Oddly enough, even though dBASE ran on the CP/M operating system, more people were running it on Apples than on anything else. (We're talking the Apple IIe, mind you. Mac wasn't around yet.) Folks plugged these things called SoftCards into the Apple II (1978) so they could run the CP/M operating system, and then ran dBASE. I did about 12 columns for that magazine, and it was reported to be the most popular column in the magazine, which totally blew my mind, since it's not really an "Apple" product or even running on the Apple operating system. It was sort of like hearing that this year's most popular CD was Bay Watch.
First Book -- Anyway, based on this success, Steve Rosenthal then says he thinks I should write a book about dBASE. "A book?! I can't write a book!" But I found an agent and we proposed the book to Simon and Schuster. The agent didn't even know what dBASE was, but walked into Simon and Schuster in NYC and they immediately said "YES!" Unfortunately, 9 months later, we were still dealing with contractural details, and then the book crash of 1994 hit, and the title was cut. Easy come, easy go. The interesting thing is that I proposed the title "dBASE for the Complete Bozo", and the publisher (and subsequent publishers) said "Are you kidding? Nobody will buy a book that calls them a Bozo, or even a Dummy or a Bonehead!" I have the rejected contract to prove it.
I put my book back on the shelf and continued writing for the magazines. PC World, PC Magazine, Microsoft Systems Journal, CP/M Users Guide, and others. The pay was good -- almost a dollar a word sometimes. I could write an article in two days and earn $1500. Not bad.
ZD LABS -- My boss from Northstar quit the next year, and was hired by one of the big magazine firms, Ziff Davis (now called ZD) to start up a lab for testing PCs and associated hardware. He called me in to help. A team of us set up a lab and started testing PCs and networking hardware. Our first project was testing 13 network operating systems and cards. It was a zoo back then. Ethernet, Star, Token Rings. Lots of competing technologies and topologies. So I wrote some programs that would test throughput of LANs under real-world conditions, such as opening and closing files of various sizes, running typical office apps, etc.
One result of all this work for ZD was a flight to Boston to PC WEEK to interview for a job as technical editor. The interviews went well, but I wasn't particularly keen on the idea of relocating to the Route 128 loop and spending my summers swatting mosquitoes and looking around desperately for the closest air conditioner. After all, I had moved to California in part to escape the Eastern heat and humidity. So, instead I accepted a series of feature articles for PC WEEK that kept me happy for most of the next year.
First Book, take two -- Then one day the phone rang and it was someone from a Sybex, a book publisher in Berkeley, CA. They want someone to write a short introductory book on dBASE. They heard from Miriam Liskin (another dBASE author) that I had such a book sitting around hoping for publication some day. They say "Can you do it in 8 weeks?" and I almost lost it, but that little voice in me that always likes a challenge agreed, knowing that at least half the book was already written. A week later they call me (I'm still poring over the contract and haven't signed it yet) to say there is a new version of dBASE coming out soon, called III PLUS, and I should write about that! Yikes. I had to learn a new program (a friendly interface had been added to it), and rewrite most of the material from scratch. Well, to make a long story short, two months and one major backache later, while propped up in bed with pain, I finished the book. It came out shortly thereafter, and ended up in many editions, and probably close to 10 languages. Sybex did well by me on that one, and so we continued to work together.
The one that got away... Since they liked the first book, Sybex then offered me a second book called Mastering DOS. But I was unhappy with the contract terms, so I turned it down. That book was instead written by another Berkeley author, Judd Robbins, and well, let's say he retired on the earnings from the many editions of that book. But I was not to be undone. I said to my agent, "I have only just begun to write!" The DOS books were a good lesson, however. Sure lots of folks were using databases, but if you're going to write about cars, writing about Philco radios isn't the place to start. Sure lots of people used to have Philco radios in their cars. But a car writer is going to make a bigger dent in his mortgage by writing about something everyone is using in their cars -- like gasoline, for example -- than about add on steering-wheel knobs. So, I'm thinking, Hmmm, what is everyone going to be using in their computers that they'll need help with? Obviously the operating system -- it's the lowest common denominator. But which operating system? DOS was really well entrenched, and I had sort of missed the boat on that one. Microsoft had this thing called Windows 1 (which was a joke), there were some other programs that let you run multiple programs at once (something everyone wanted to do). There was Software Carousel, for example. And Quarterdesk had DesqView, and IBM was coming up with things. HP was working on something. The jury was out. Then, while I was scratching my head, Windows 2, then Windows 286/386 came out.There were rumours of something called OS/2 from IBM. Argh!
The one that didn't get away... Well, with their history in applications and in operating systems, I decided I couldn't go wrong betting on Microsoft. I bought 20,000 dollars of MS stock, and decided to write a book on Windows 3.0. I even succeeded in talking Sybex Books into giving me the BIG title on Windows, called Mastering Windows 3.0. Actually, I believe they didn't think Windows would really take off (DOS books were still selling big time), so I suppose it wasn't much of a concession to give me the contract. However, when Editor-in-chief Rudy Langer, acquisitions editor Dianne King, and I attended the roll-out for Windows 3.0 given by Bill Gates over in San Francisco, the attitude changed. We rushed back to Sybex and had an emergency strategy meeting to figure out how to accellerate the release schedule. Unfortunately I was typesetting the book in addition to writing it, and so I worked day and night for about two months to finally get it out. I installed myself at the publishers' and closed up the building each night, many times well after midnight, as I recall. And that was the beginning of a series of books on Windows now exceeding thirteen in all, for four publishers, in over 15 languages, selling well over a million copies. It's been a long haul, but an interesting trail, chronicling the advent and evolution of Windows.
From there it's been mostly a lot of work (but some listings among the top selling computer books) as Windows has become more and more complex and inclusive. Each iteration seems to require another 100 pages of explanation, with Microsoft throwing in feature after feature, especially with the rise of the Internet. I remember when we first included networking as a small appendix in Mastering Windows 3.0. But now, coverage of networking occupies over 500 pages in my latest book. In addition, we now have to cover web-page authoring and serving (Front Page Express and Personal Web Server), video conferencing (NetMeeting), Email and browsing (IE and Outlook Express) and NT goodies such as data encryption, virtual private networking, high encryption, RAID, Web-based printer and folder sharing, Intellimirror, Active Directory........the list seems endless as Microsoft loads more and more flexibility and functionality into Windows. Sometimes it feels as though Microsoft has crammed in way too much for any user to completely understand, or for any manager to effectively administer. For high-level users, therefore, the demand for accurately-written, well-designed, and timely books has become all the more pivotal to success. From my side, authoring the books now requires multiple authors, or at least several subcontractors. Writing an accurate and helpful 1500-page technical book in a timely manner is quite a job.
The Future -- What's next? A large book on Windows 2000 Professional, followed by one on Windows 2000 Consumer Edition (code named Millennium). Then open source operating systems such as Linux. Keep your eyes peeled for new titles from Bob Cowart and the LUCID Productions team on these topics. (Click the News button at the top of the page.)