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18 Years of ZIP format: Happy Birthday

Posted by Sachin Garg on 19th July 2006 | Permanent Link

The ZIP format celebrated its 18th birthday recently. Considering the fact that it was designed in times when disk capacities were measured in 10s of megabytes and network bandwidth was 300-1200 bauds, it sure has come a long way.

ZIP format’s single major strength was open specifications which resulted in remarkable stability and compatibility over all these years. Large file support was the only change needed (made to have ZIP files larger than 2 GB in size).

The ZIP file format was originally created in 1989 by Phil Katz, founder of PKWARE, after a prolonged legal dispute between PKWare and System Enhancement Associates (SEA) over the trademark name “ARC” (short for “Archive”), the file name extension .arc and copyright issues over SEA’s published code. (The name zip (meaning speed) implied that their product would be faster than ARC and other compression formats of the time).

Soon open source implementation of Phil Katz’s “deflate” and “inflate” routines was released by the Info-ZIP project under a BSD license. This resulted in a horde of PKZIP imitators, establishing the ZIP file format as a defacto industry standard.

In the mid 1990s, as GUIs became more popular, WinZip became popular by pitching a graphical user interface. And in the late 1990s, various file manager software products started integrating support for the ZIP format into the file manager user interface (Windows Explorer, the Mac OS Finder, GNOME, KDE, and others).

Mr. Katz died of complications from chronic alcoholism in 2000. A sad end to a true pioneer in the field of data compression.

Thinking about all the advancements made in data compression algorithms research, it doesn’t feels good to know that the solution used by most people is so way behind the current state-of-the-art.

But then many more recent formats/algorithms are trying to hit it big, but haven’t been very successful, primarily due to lack of open specifications. The next best open-source option, bzip2, has gained popularity but couldn’t displace ZIP as it is considerably slower than ZIP’s Deflate algorithm.

However the ZIP format has also been splintering recently. In 2003, both PKWare and WinZip introduced their own ‘incompatible’ encryption extensions to format. More recently, WinZip and PKWare added new algorithms to ZIP format. PKWare introduced Deflate64, and WinZip incorporated bzip2 and ppmd as algorithm options in ZIP archives. This splintering of format, with more than one incompatible variations going around, might prove to be fatal.

These sugar coated ‘advancements’, which result in incompatible archives, were probably just an attempt to use the ZIP format’s brand value. Anyway, most users continue to use the plain old ZIP for reasons of compatibility.

These attempts to hack newer technology in the aging ZIP format clearly show that the format is, well, showing age. But there is still no doubt to believe that it will still go on strongly for many more years to come, for same reasons which have maintained it as an obvious choice till now.

71 Responses to “18 Years of ZIP format: Happy Birthday”

  1. Krisjohn Says:

    Note that the ARC issue was not a trademark dispute. SEA claimed that Katz ripped off their source code with no attribution. Katz subsequently framed the battle as a “David and Goliath” fight which resulted in a somewhat upsetting (and ill-informed) boycott. The BBS Documentary ( ) covers this in the last episode as best as it can given that Phil Katz is no longer with us.

  2. Sachin Garg Says:

    Yes, I have read about that “big faceless corporation crushing a small guy” image which Katz gave to SEA vs PKWare case, when actually both were same sized companies. An interesting move.

    Another interesting bit is that the same reasons why ZIP became the defacto standard (open-specifications and open-source Info-ZIP implementation) resulted in PKWare’s inability to make much profit from it.

  3. Sandman Says:

    Is it really a surprise that money can’t be made by creating something open and free?

    and which also doesn’t needs support ;-)

  4. An old guy Says:

    It wasn’t just an ill-informed boycott. Not many people care about ethical issues behind technology. Think Linux and Microsoft, its just a small loud minority which says it cares.

    ZIP was technically superior to ARC.

  5. Informed Says:

    Actually Phill died in 2000 and his company PKWARE is going strong, its now doing data encryption using zip files and is growing fast. PKWARE still controls the App note for zip so any changes that are made come from them. But i agree phill won the PR battle.

    Interesting note, the computer that Phil used to write the ZIP standard on (deflate and inflate routines) still exsists and I have seen it, still looks good. Its referred to as the “Mexican” because Phil bought the thing from a BBS out of Mexico and had it shipped to Milwaukee.

  6. Mike Says:

    Instead of what happened 18 years ago, shouldn’t we be more worried about what PKWare and WinZip are doing to the format now?

  7. Mike Says:

    But when most users are using WinZip, does controlling the appnote makes any difference?

  8. Sachin Garg Says:

    You may find this page by ARC author interesting

    ps. I have fixed the date in article above.

  9. Informed Says:


    You have to remember that winzip operates on a windows platform as well as PKZIP, there are numerous other platforms that the world runs on, UNIX, Linux, I5OS mainframes, and Z series IBM Mainframes and all of them use the .zip standard..winzip has no product for them while PKWARE does…In the case of Mainframes its absolutly essiential when you talk about the size of files they use there, i.e. hundres of Gigabytes and Terabytes. Also many applications use the deflate routine inside hidden from you and I.

    So calling the appnote in the correct way is essitential to making sure if I zip a file somewhere on some platform and you unzip it on your desktop with winzip, it will work. Also think about how many .zip archives are out there right now. How big of a job would it be to go back and change them to some new compression format?

  10. Krisjohn Says:

    While I huge proportion of Windows users use WinZip, not nearly enough of them use the latest version with the PPMd format.

  11. freeko Says:

    actually the deflate/inflate routine in many formats compression/image/doc.. (like in 7-zip,tif,png,svgz,all open-office formats,wmz,..)

  12. A. Hacker Says:

    While zip is a great format, this splintering will hopefully cause a newer and still free format to be created for the future. The 4GB limitation is becoming more troublesome.

    I’d also like to see LZMA and some of the other higher performance algorithms incorporated. unit or solid compression would be kind of nice as an option in certain cases

  13. Evangelist Says:

    ZIP is faster than most modern algorithms. This is why nothing ‘modern’ could replace ZIP.

    It’s old but still has its advantages.

  14. Sachin Garg Says:

    Another Story discussing PKWare’s focus on “securing” the ZIP format.

  15. Sum Yung Gai Says:

    I started with PKXARC back in 1985, and I remember this history well. There’s another reason why PKXARC was so much faster than SEA ARC, and that’s because SEA ARC did *everything* on disk, but PKXARC did a lot of it in DRAM. *That* was the major optimization trick. Remember, back then in 1985, most people couldn’t afford hard disks; everyone had floppies, and floppies are about as fast as glacial ice in the North Pole.

    Anyway, later, I went to Info-ZIP on OS/2 v2.1 back in 1993, when I wanted to use native OS/2 tools. I used Info-ZIP OS/2 on Windows NT (3.5, 3.51, and 4.0) for years, since it worked so well on that platform, too.

    Now, I use zip/unzip on GNU/Linux, and it’s still working just great. The ZIP format may be old, but it still works, is still relevant, and is used on just about any platform that you can think of. With ZIP, I don’t have to worry about whether or not Platform X has support. I can distribute anything that I want in a .ZIP archive, and anybody can use it.

    If ever there were an example of why truly open file formats are necessary, ZIP is its poster child. You hear that, Microsoft?

  16. antonio Says:

    hi my zipfile option on my desktop doesnt work at all anymore, like ill go to my desktop and right click. ill go to new and new zip file wont be there. where did it go?? i really need it

    if you are going to answer my question please email me at

    thank you

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