Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 74 / JULY 1986 / PAGE 34

The Top Five Free Programs For Your Computer

Arlan R. Levitan

Good software doesn't have to be expensive. You can accumulate a respectable software library merely by taking advantage of the thousands of programs in the public domain--that is, programs which are given away free by their authors. Another alternative, the "shareware" concept, lets you test-drive a program for free and make a voluntary contribution if you like. Here's a guide to public domain software and shareware, plus the results of a survey in which users all over the country voted for their top five favorites.

Does the thought of paying more for a program than you laid out for your computer make you grumpy and irascible? Cheer up. There's a wealth of programs available for your computer that cost little or nothing at all. Public domain and shareware programs can provide you with a never-ending supply of grist for your computer's mill.

The idea of public domain software has been around since the early computer hobbyists first started sharing their programs with each other. People would try running each other's programs, suggest improvements, or make the improvements themselves. Few people copyrighted their programs because they were hobbyists rather than software authors trying to make a living. Legally, all it takes to place a program in the public domain is for the author to declare it so. (Of course, this excludes most programs published in magazines and books, which are nearly always copyrighted to protect the authors.)

Public domain programs can be freely exchanged between individuals or distributed by user groups and computer bulletin board systems (BBSs). They come with no warranties, packaging, or customer support. They are gifts to the public and vary in quality from marginal to very good.

To determine which public domain programs are the most popular among users, in April we conducted a survey over three commercial information services: CompuServe, The Source, and Delphi. Below are the results of this informal survey. For each personal computer, we've listed the top five programs. The type of program is identified within parentheses.

We have excluded from consideration programs that are not truly in the public domain, including programs which elicit a fee for documentation, and programs which have been published, are in widespread use, but are definitely not in the public domain--such as COMPUTE!'s own SpeedScript, for example.

You'll notice that many of the popular programs on the list are terminal programs. This is probably due to the fact that the survey was conducted online among telecomputing enthusiasts.

To obtain copies of any of these programs, try contacting your local user group or logging onto a BBS or commercial information service. Friends and coworkers are also valuable sources for public domain programs.

Another type of freely distributed software that is sometimes confused with public domain software is shareware (also called user-supported software). The concept of shareware came about as a response to the negative aspects of marketing software commercially.

It seems that almost everybody likes to complain that software is too expensive. Critics of the software industry claim that prices are inflated by a charge-what-the-market-will-bear attitude as the product filters through distribution channels. The manufacturer typically sells to a distributor, who in turn sells to a retailer. Each middleman adds a markup. The author of the software receives only a small percentage of the selling price.

Critics argue that this practice causes a serious problem: The perception of high prices encourages unauthorized duplication of software. This leads to a classic conflict between the manufacturers and the software pirates. Manufacturers may be tempted to boost their prices to make up for expected losses to piracy, and pirates may justify copying because they say prices are unreasonably high.

For these and other reasons, some software authors decide to market their programs themselves. There have been few success stories among those who've tried this approach. The authors attempt to work within the established marketplace, but usually fail because they lack the resources necessary to promote, advertise, and distribute their product.

About four years ago, a programmer named Andrew Fluegelman wrote a terminal program for IBM computers called PC-Talk III To distribute his program, Fluegelman combined aspects of both public domain and commercial software to come up with a new category he called Freeware. Freeware is based on three concepts:

  • Before buying a program, computer users should have the opportunity to fully assess its value by using it extensively to determine whether it serves their needs.
  • Original software of high quality written by independent authors will be supported by the personal computing community.
  • Copying of these programs should be encouraged, rather than discouraged. The ease of disseminating programs outside traditional commercial channels should be exploited by software authors to maximize distribution.

Fluegelman actually trademarked the term Freeware, so as these ideas spread and other authors began following suit, the term shareware was coined for general use. Here's how shareware typically works:

Anyone can get a copy of a shareware program. Usually, you obtain it from a local user group or BBS. Since there is no packaging or manual, any documentation is generally in the form of a text file on the disk or BBS. You must print out a hardcopy if you want a manual for reference purposes.

Shareware programs contain a notice suggesting that you send a certain contribution to the author if you find the program useful. The contribution is voluntary, and even if none is made, you're encouraged to share the program with others.

Although no shareware authors are reported to be making a killing, many are said to be realizing a steady stream of supplemental income.

How good is shareware? The best of it is quite good indeed, and often better suited to the needs and abilities of casual users than more expensive commercial programs. If you're willing to do without fancy manuals and can rely on fellow users for technical support, shareware may be right for you.

Here are the top five freely distributed programs for each popular personal computer. Shareware programs are denoted with an asterisk (*). You'll notice that only four programs are listed for the Commodore 64/128. That's because the other programs which received votes are not truly in the public domain--including two which are copyrighted by COMPUTE!.

Commodore 64/128

Comm Term (Terminal program)
Haunted Hill (Game)*
Disk Doctor 128 (Utility)
Blue Thunder (Game)

Atari 400/800/XL/XE

AMIS (Bulletin board system)
AMODEM (Terminal program)
POKEY Player (Music)
AMENU (Program autoloader)

Atari ST Series

STerminal (Terminal program)
STCalc (Calculator desk accessory)*
Megaroids (Game)
RMDISK (RAM disk utility)
COPY (File utility for single-drive systems)

Apple II Series

EAMON (Adventure game)
FreeWriter (Word processor)*
EVE (Terminal program)*
RAMDISK128 (RAM disk utility)
ABBS (Bulletin board system)

Commodore Amiga

Aterm (Terminal program)
StarTerm (Terminal program)
Mandelbrot (Graphics demo)
Hack (Adventure game)
EMACS (Text editor)


MEMBRAIN (RAM disk utility)
PROCOMM (Terminal program)*
PC-File (Database manager)*
RBBS (Bulletin board system)
PC-Write (Word processor)*

Apple Macintosh

Red Ryder (Terminal program)*
BINHEX (File conversion utility)*
MazeWars (Game)
VMCO (Vocal/visual terminal program)
ResEdit (Resource editor)

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A

Fast-Term (Terminal program)
Disk Manager 1000 (Disk cataloger)
FUNE Writer (Word processor)
NeatList (Utility)
MassCopy (Utility)