RAM Doubler remembered

RAM Doubler was a fairly popular product for Macintosh computers in the 1990s. But you can’t buy it today, and if it seems like it’s been a while since you’ve seen or heard of it, there’s a reason for it. Ironically, it was a competing product that didn’t work that brought it down. Here’s what happened to RAM Doubler.

RAM Doubling products worked by setting aside an area of memory and compressing it, then decompressing it when you needed it. It was a form of virtual memory, theoretically faster than traditional virtual memory that used disk space, but less stable.

How RAM Doubler worked

RAM Doubler
RAM Doubler was a popular 1990s utility taken down by a combination of falling RAM prices and a competing product that didn’t work.

RAM Doubler was a product from Connectix, a maker of computer utilities, initially released for the Mac in early 1994. Despite its name, RAM Doubler couldn’t actually double your available RAM. It could increase your available RAM, but how much it could increase actually varied. Some data compresses better than others.

RAM Doubler worked by setting aside some of your memory and using it as a buffer, paging pieces of memory in and out of this buffer to keep the operating system from paging that memory out to disk instead. It was faster than paging memory out to the hard drive, especially in the 90s when hard drives were much slower than they are today.

Since you can’t always count on data compressing 2:1 and you can’t actually set aside all your RAM as the buffer, RAM Doubler worked best when you only needed it to increase your memory by 25 or 33 percent.

When RAM Doubler worked and when it didn’t

I had a classmate in college who used RAM Doubler and loved it. It worked well enough in his use case. He didn’t do a lot with his computer other than running Word and Excel and playing Prince of Persia. And he had enough memory that he could run those programs without it. RAM Doubler worked because he only needed it occasionally, and when he did need it, it really did make his system run a bit faster.

In the 1998-2000 timeframe, I had the misfortune of having to support RAM Doubler in a business environment. My then-employer had a department that bought a bunch of Macintoshes, and to save money, bought systems with the slowest processors and minimum amount of memory Apple would sell, plus copies of RAM Doubler. Then they tried to run Adobe desktop publishing products on them.

Their systems crashed a lot and there was no amount of tinkering that would make them more reliable. The systems worked often enough to give them false hope that it was fixable. But even by late-90s Mac standards, their systems were terribly unreliable. Sadly, they spent more on support costs and lost productivity than the RAM would have cost.

But when used properly like the guy I knew in college, RAM Doubler could work. And people like him fit right into Simon Sinek’s theory of the Golden Circle. That was what made it popular.

The downfall of RAM Doubler

RAM Doubler’s success led to Connectix developing a similar product for Windows. The Windows market was much larger than the Mac market, and Windows was every bit as RAM-hungry as Mac OS was.

The problem was another company, Syncronys, was thinking the same thing. Syncronys marketed a program called SoftRAM for Windows that claimed to double RAM, but the Syncronys product, it turned out, didn’t actually do anything but increase the size of your swap file and show a pretty dashboard. The placebo effect was strong enough to convince people it was working, and it sold 700,000 copies. But it really did no more than the infamous do-nothing DownloadmoreRAM web site.

When word got out that SoftRAM didn’t do anything, it even led to a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission. Syncronys got a sweetheart deal in its settlement, which only required it to hand out $10 credits to consumers who had paid up to $79 for the product. Even though Syncronys had other products that really did work, including a nifty fast loader called Windrenalin, the weight of the $10 credits put it out of business.

When word got out about the Syncronys fraud, it pretty much destroyed the product category. Memory got cheaper in the late 90s as consumer demand increased and memory manufacturers increased capacity to meet it. And even when these products worked, they didn’t work as well as just buying more memory.

What happened to Connectix

Connectix went on to develop a number of very successful emulation and virtualization products. One of these products, a Playstation emulator called Virtual Game Station, led to a lawsuit from Sony. But its VirtualPC product, a Windows emulator for the Mac, proved widely successful. Eventually Connectix ported VirtualPC to Windows as well, where it became a viable competitor to VMware. Connectix sold itself off in pieces, selling VirtualPC to Microsoft, where it became the basis for Microsoft’s virtualization and emulation products. The company folded in 2003.

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