Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 156 / SEPTEMBER 1993 / PAGE 58

Great shareware: whatever you need to do, you can do it with shareware. (software applications; includes directory and list of most popular titles)
by Philip Chien

What would you expect to pay for a good wordprocessing program: $200 or $400 - or even more? How about $5 - or even less? That's what some ads for shareware products imply. Shareware is an inexpensive method of distributing software that relies on an author's efforts - and the integrity of the program's users. Shareware authors give away copies of their programs tor tree or for low disk duplication charges.

The programs typically contain messages asking you to send money if you like and use them. It enough users like a particular program enough to send in the recommended payment, the author will recoup his or her investment of time and effort.

Contrary to what some ads imply. the actual value of a shareware product can range from nothing to several thousand dollars. While the price you pay for a disk may be just a couple of dollars, the actual program can be worth much more.


Shareware offers an author an excellent opportunity to be in complete control of the product. The alternative is to sell or license it to a publisher, who may change it or decide it isn't worth the effort to promote it. A shareware author gets all of the profits from his or her program - not a small royalty fee for each copy sold.

Shareware offers the user one of the best ways to determine whether the software has the needed features and power.


There are many variations on the shareware contract. Some programmers encourage you to try the program for a period of time, after which you're expected to send in a specified amount of money. As with commercial products, there are both reasonably priced and overpriced shareware products. Other programmers ask you to send in whatever amount you feel is reasonable. Still others offer a demonstration version of a program and encourage you to register by sending a more fully featured program when the registration fee is received.

Most shareware is copyrighted, and using the shareware without registering it according to the terms in the contract is technically a violation of copyright laws, although neither the Association of Shareware Professionals nor the Software Publishers Association has prosecuted such a copyright violation, according to Jan Abbott, executive director of the Association of Shareware Professionals, and Ken Wasch, executive director of the Software Publishers Association.

Many users choose to send in shareware payments for programs that they actually use. It's an excellent way to tell the author that you care about the effort that went into writing the program and to encourage future versions. In addition, most authors will give technical support (it any is available) only to registered users and will notity them about new versions and upgrades when they become available.

A variation on shareware is blackmailware. These programs look like shareware products, but they won't give you full access until you send in the required payment. Obviously, a program that doesn't permit complete access forces you to buy the unlocked copy if you wish to use it. While there are several blackmailware programs, they aren't widely distributed simply because they are so annoying to users. It's almost always easier just to search for another shareware product that doesn't restrict you.

Some restrictive shareware programs purposely destroy themselves after a given period of time unless they've been registered. After you pay the registration fee, you're given either a new version or a password that disables the erase function in your copy.

A variation on the password theme is a program that constantly prompts you to send in your registration payment. When your payment is received,. you're given a password that disables the prompt.

Even major software companies get into the shareware act. Many distribute commercial demo programs. A demo program is generally a limited version of the real program - enough for you to see how the program works but not enough for you to use it for any practical application. For example, the program may lock out the capability to save files or print them. Rather than prompting you to send in a registration fee. these programs are intended to whet your appetite for the features and power you glimpse so that you will buy the fully operational commercial version. Technically, these programs are just fancy advertisements, but shareware collections often include them.

Most shareware products are fully operational programs or utilities, and for the most part, they have reasonable registration fees. Some of the best shareware programs have innovative payment methods. For example, some authors ask you to donate money to their favorite charities as a registration fee. Beerware authors request that you make a toast in honor of the programmer if you like the product.

Many shareware contracts include limitations on how the shareware can be used. A program may be limited to noncommercial uses, or there may be limitations on how its data can be distributed. Typically, there is a pricing tier where noncommercial users are asked to send in smaller payments than commercial users. Site licenses are often available as options.

Many businesses require some kind of invoice before they can pay for anything, and most shareware programs include invoice-printing functions for businesses' convenience.

Avoiding the Plague

One of the biggest concerns with shareware is how it enters the distribution channel. With a commercial program, you know that all of the disks were written by the manufacturer, probably with the same disk duplication equipment and hopefully with strict quality control. It's unlikely, although not impossible, for a virus to be accidentally distributed with a commercial product.

On the other hand, shareware products often go through many intermediate duplications before they reach the consumer, with no guarantee of antivirus precautions. In addition, most shareware products are distributed as plain, unsealed disks. How can you protect yourself from viruses when you're using software that's passed through so many hands?

Many shareware distributors advertise their products as virus-free, accepting responsibility for the integrity of the media they distribute. Some shareware designed for the retail market comes in fancy packaging (fancy for shareware) with a seal labeled virusproof. Whether or not that seal can prevent a virus from getting into the duplication process is debatable. In any case, you should treat any floppy disk you receive, whether it's shareware, commercial software, or a data disk, as potentially infected. Make it a practice to scan disks with a virus checker.

Swimming the Channel

Some companies will charge as much as $5 or $10 per shareware disk; others will charge as little as $1 for the same product. What's the difference? Shareware sold from a retail store oriented toward fancy packaging (for example, most shopping mall software stores) will probably come in a fancy package with a display card. That packaging translates into increased costs passed on to the user. On the opposite end of the price spectrum, the least expensive shareware often comes without guarantees or exchange privileges - even for damaged disks. In any case, there's no credible reason for paying more than $2-$5 per disk for shareware products.

With the proliferation of CD-ROM drives and reduced prices for both drives and media, shareware CD-ROM collections have become popular. A huge collection of shareware programs can be put onto a single CD-ROM and distributed much less expensively than the equivalent stack of floppy diskss. It's a good bet that files.on a CD-ROM do not have any viruses, but this is not an absolute guarantee. Conceivably, the files on a CD-ROM could have embedded viruses, if the person who assembled the programs wasn't careful. It's also possible that the utilities you use to transfer files from the CD-ROM to your computer - or even your computer's operating system - could have a virus that could affect the programs as you use them.

It's important to note that while you pay for a shareware CD-ROM, you pay for the physical medium, not the programs on it. You are still expected to send in your shareware registration fees. The primary disadvantage of shareware CD-ROMs is that the discs may have dated shareware. Publishers pay a high one-time cost each time a new CD-ROM is mastered, and many companies are reluctant to remaster their collections until they start to lose sales.

Being a read-only medium, CD-ROMS are limited in their usefulness for many applications. Data files (graphic libraries are a good example) can remain on the CD-ROM for loading into memory as required. But many programs must first be transferred from the CD-ROM to your hard drive before they can be used. Despite the huge capacity of a CD-ROM, many publishers also compress the files on the disc, which means that a decompression utility transfers the files to your hard drive.

Happy Hunting

So what is available in shareware? Everything from truly free programs without any financial obligations up through multithousand-dollar vertical-market products. You can obtain clip art, databases of information, or useful productivity programs.

The primary advantage of shareware is the concept of checking something out before you make your full payment. For the most part, commercial software is sold on the you-break-it-you-bought-it principle - it in this case referring to the product's shrink-wrap. As a rule, the only guarantee you have of the product's performance is its advertisements, the company's reputation, and the opinions of friends and reviewers. With shareware you're actually encouraged to test before you invest.

There are many good shareware productivity products. Which product is better is often a matter of personal preference, but there are many programs that are generally considered excellent. Here are some of my favorites. It would be possible to run a business office using only programs from this short list.

Word processing. So far, a shareware product on the level of Microsoft Word or WordPerfect has not appeared, but if you need a functional, friendly DOS word processor for writing letters, short documents, and notes, PC-Write is an excellent, inexpensive shareware choice.

Spreadsheet. The capabilities of shareware spreadsheet programs like PC-Calc, Express-Calc, and Free Calc compare favorably with those of professional programs like VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. The documentation for these shareware products is not on a par with the documentation shipped with the professional products, but if you already know how to use a spreadsheet program, you'll probably be satisfied with their performance.

Database. As a file-card-style database program, PC-File or File-Express performs adequately. If you need a more relational database utility, try 1 on 1 = 3, a workalike clone of dBASE 111. Also, keep an eye out for WAMPUM.

Communications. Telecommunications programs are one area where shareware really excels. Procomm is one of the most popular communications programs, even when considering professional products. It's gone professional (Procomm Plus for Windows was a COMPUTE Choice award winner), but version 2.43 is still available in shareware collections.

Other categories where there are excellent shareware productivity programs include graphics, desktop publishing, and utilities.

Until recently, there wasn't much Windows shareware available. Several shareware programming utilities for Windows programmers have made it easier to develop Windows-based applications, and there are now collections of shareware Windows programs.

Sharing is Caring

The biggest shareware question is, If shareware is better than commercialware, why would anybody buy commercial software?

The primary disadvantage of shareware is explained by Sturgeon's Law. Science-fiction author Ted Sturgeon once shocked his colleagues by stating, "Ninety percent of science fiction is crap." He continued, "But so is 90 percent of everything else." Well, shareware probably approaches the 99th percentile. With commercial programs, especially those from a reputable company, you can be fairly sure that the product is useful. On the other hand, many shareware collections proudly claim to include every shareware program the distributors could find, actually taking pride in being indiscriminate about what they include.

Generally, you get better support for commercial programs, including better help screens, better manuals, and better telephone support. As a rule, a programmer who can write an excellent program probably can't write a good instruction manual. With a commercial program, the manual, packaging, and other components were probably created by different specialists. The program itself was probably written by a team - each programmer specializing in a particular module. Most shareware programs are individual efforts; the programmer is the manual writer, the tutorial writer, and the technical support department.

Another disadvantage of a single author effort is bad programming habits. All programmers have them, and they range from simple typos and crude menus to calculation mistakes. With multiple programmers it's less likely that mistakes will get by.

The best shareware eventually becomes commercialware. The author may suddenly realize that a product is popular enough to start a one-product business. A program may be purposely first introduced as shareware to evaluate users' responses: what features they want, which features are confusing, which features cause the program to freeze solid. Or a software publisher may offer to purchase a product. When this happens, the last shareware version often remains on bulletin boards as an advertisement for the commercial product.

Even with the limitations, there are many good shareware products that are certainly worth searching for. But is it worth paying $1 to $5 per disk and sifting through hundreds of shareware programs until you find one you want? Again, Sturgeon's Law applies. It's best to assume that the good products you find will make up for the effort of winnowing the rest. Under the worst circumstances, you can always reformat the disk and partially recoup your loss with a blank disk.

Occasionally, you will find shareware specials. In an effort to reduce stock or use it as a loss leader to get more sales elsewhere, a distributor might charge a dollar or less for each shareware disk, or $20-$30 for a CD-ROM with 500MB of shareware. If you can find shareware at those prices, it's difficult to go wrong.

Strictly Business

In addition to programs, you can find excellent shareware data files. For example, you can get an entire library of prewritten generic business correspondence as text files that you can load into your word processor and edit to suit your needs. You'll find premade spreadsheet and desktop publishing templates, and a museum's worth of clip art.

It's not unlikely that you could start and run a business office using shareware exclusively. At some point you might want to move to commercial software, but there's no less expensive or less risky way to get started.

The high popularity of shareware has forced the software industry to become more competitive. Originally, commercial software publishers looked down on shareware products as amateurish and unsophisticated. But as shareware has proliferated, it has influenced the commercial software industry. Many commercial products have reduced their prices to become more competitive with shareware products, and new releases often include features first introduced in shareware products.

The personal computer industry has its roots in the garage operations of people like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates. What are the struggling little garage-style operations of today up to? By the hundreds, they're writing, debugging, and distributing shareware of every description.


What's hot in shareware? We called CompuServe to get the titles of the hottest shareware and freeware. Here's the list.


Here are some of the most popular Windows shareware and freeware packages on CompuServe.

1. Switcher (filename SWITCH.ZIP); 15,943 bytes. This utility lets you quickly switch video modes.

2. Monitor Saver (filename MS20B.ZIP); 16,700 bytes. This screen saver includes five blanking options.

3. Flipper (filename FLIPPE.Z[P), 6530 bytes. Flipper is a utility that flips the printer orientation from portrait to landscape when you double-click on its icon.

4. Makefont (filename MAKEFO.ZIP); 11,389 bytes. Makefont converts the fonts found in your system ROM into Windows FNT files.

5. Gtoys (filename GTOYS.ZIP); 40,128 bytes. This fractal generator draws Mandelbrot, Julia, and fractal dragon sets.

6. WinTak (filename WINTAK.ZIP); 101,376 bytes. WinTak is a Windows video benchmark that analyzes the performance of your video card. Created by Texas Instruments, it uses the TI 34010 or TI 34020 graphics accelerator as the standard against which your video card is measured. It requires Windows 3. 1.

7. POSTNET Bar Code Font (filename POSTAL.ZIP), 7347 bytes. This file is actually a font file that contains TrueType and ATM versions of the bar code used by the U.S. Postal Service. It will print the nine-digit ZIP code or the POSTNET bar code on envelopes.

8. DisplayText (filename DRVTST.ZIP); 93,249 bytes. This utility tells the user about the display technology in use by Windows. It also can list all of the modules loaded, giving expanded,file data about them.

9. DISK SPOOL (filename DS.EXE); 118,151 bytes. This is a print spooler for Windows.

10. WinZip (filename WINZIP.ZIP); 153,964 bytes. This is a shell for all of the most popular archiving products, such as Pkzip and LHARC. This does not actually include the archiving products, which must be downloaded or purchased separately.


Here are some of the most popular DOS shareware and freeware packages on Compuserve.

1. UMBDVR.EXE; 40,389 bytes. This utility uses shadow RAM to provide upper memory and XMS to provide EMS for DOS 5. It loads high.

2. LXEX91.ZIP; 43,975 bytes. It compresses EXE files (typically 30-40 percent) while leaving the files executable. Warning: Screen messages are in French.

3. TSR.COM; 75,277 bytes. This is a library of TSR management utilities including the well-known utilities Mark and Release.

4. FDATE.ZIP; 60,477 bytes. This utility allows you to use date manipulation in batch files. Use it to put the date of your choice into an environment variable.

5. JCScroll (filename JCSCRO.ZIP), 8202 bytes. This TSR screen-scrolling utility lets you scroll the screen backward to see information that has scrolled upward off the screen.

6. VIRX.ZIP; 107,708 bytes. This virus scanner has 1300 virus strings and will identify over 1400 viruses.

7. DIET (filename DIET14.ZIP); 40,925 bytes, This utility compresses executable files and data files. it decompresses and compresses on the fly as a TSR, thus saving disk space.

8. PRINDIR (filename PRINDI.ZIP); 28,328 bytes. This TSR allows redirection of printer output from one LPT or COM port to another port, to a disk file, or to the screen.

9. MEMKIT.ZIP; 140,547 bytes. This creates upper memory from shadow RAM and loads TSRs and device drivers into high memory on 8088s and 80286s.

10. LIST Plus (filename LIST77.EXE); 108,729 bytes. This file browser and viewer includes menuing, selective printing, and a telephone dialer.