Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 34 / JULY 1989 / PAGE 96


Show Me Your Wares

by Karl E. Wiegers

It used to be a store that sold hardware was someplace you went to buy nails or to pick up a pane of glass for the house. But times change, and now when you talk about a hardware store, you just might be referring to the nearby ComputerLand. The term hardware has grown to encompass computers, peripherals like monitors and printers, the boards you plug into slots in your computer, and even the electronic components on the boards.

Words are funny. When you have an expression that contains both an adjective and a noun, you can envision a corresponding expression containing an adjective having the opposite meaning. For example, there was no such thing as an "acoustic guitar" until someone invented the "electric guitar." In this case, I'm thinking of the word software. Software has come to refer to the stuff you run on a computer, whether it comes from a tape, a disk drive, or (if you date back to the computer Stone Age) even from switches on the computer's front panel. Now you can actually go to a "software store," which is sort of a white-collar equivalent of the old-time hardware store.

During my reading of computer literature, I've encountered all sorts of other computerware words. It seems to be mighty fashionable to append the suffix "ware" to practically any other word to create something that sounds both clever and computerish. I thought you might be interested in hearing some of these.

The words "hardware" and "software" generate very different images in our minds. Hardware is tangible, concrete and substantial. It has some heft to it. Software seems more pliable, ephemeral. Not surprising, when you figure that software consists mostly of some little magnetized specks on a piece of plastic. If you look at a floppy disk, you can't tell if there's any software on it or not.

But what comes in between? Firmware, of course. Firmware is basically software in which you have a lot of confidence. You create firmware by writing some software and then storing it for eternity in the silicon of a ROM chip. No more transient magnetic blips for this program! The downside is that you can't change the contents of the ROM, which is why you need a lot of confidence in your software before firming it up. If you have a bit less confidence, you might store it in an EPROM, an erasable, programmable, read-only, memory chip. It's more convenient than a floppy disk, but reusable if your lack of confidence proves premature.

Then there are those companies who try to get you all excited about computer products that they promise but never deliver. Such imaginary stuff is called vaporware. Atari Corporation has practically made an art form of vaporware, with substantial offerings in both the hard and soft vaporware categories. Vaporware is not limited to the computer world, but there sure seems to be more of it there (or not there, depending on how you look at it) than for other industries.

Some kind souls don't try to sell you anything at all—they give it away. The contributions of these generous folks are referred to as freeware. Public domain programs are in the freeware category. While there's an awful lot of good freeware available, remember that sometimes you get what you pay for.

The next best thing to freeware is shareware. This is the best "ware" word because both syllables rhyme. The authors of shareware have a sensible attitude. Basically, they're saying, "Here Check this out. If you like it, pay me what you feel it's worth to you." Donations in the $10 to $20 range are usually suggested. This is a registration fee, which may entitle you to future upgrades, printed manuals, etc.

Shareware authors are trying to get some financial reward for their efforts without going through the expensive and iffy route of commercial publication. You're encouraged to give copies of shareware to your friends, who can evaluate it and send in their registration fees if they use the program. Don't confuse shareware and freeware. Shareware shouldn't be considered public domain, so if you use it, send the guy a few bucks.

The sad fact is that not every program you acquire turns out to be useful. Such products become transformed into shelfware. They can be found sitting quietly on your shelves, sometimes still in the original shrink-wrap. I've heard you can determine the age of shelfware programs by counting the rings in the dust they've collected (okay, I made this part up).

Sometimes programs are made available to a select group of users before being officially released. The idea is to test them thoroughly, so that the errors show up in friendly hands. This is much less traumatic than having genuine customers who paid real money discover the bugs. Since this second-stage testing is called "beta testing," the products naturally are referred to as betaware. Product reviewers often get a hold of betaware, so they have to be careful to inform the reader that they weren't testing the official, presumably bug-free (ha!) release of the program. Programs that don't survive the betaware experience may metamorphose into vaporware.

Sometimes you'd like to try out a program before plunking down your cash, especially for products in the multihundred-dollar price range. Some vendors make this possible by selling at a low price or giving away restricted versions of the package. For example, a database program may let you set up only a tiny data base with 20 records or so: enough to see how it operates, but not enough to do useful work. You get the complete program when you've paid the full price. Shareware can work the same way, with the full features being enabled somehow after your registration fee is received. I've heard such limited versions of programs referred to as crippleware.

As computer technology advances, the nature of the supporting software evolves. Many organizations are linking their personal computers through local area networks. Of course, the specialized software that runs on networks has to be called netware. (NetWare is also a registered trademark of Novell, Inc., which sells products for local area networks.)

One benefit of networking your personal computers is enhanced communication among human beings. Software that facilitates the interactions of a number of people is called groupware. Computer conferencing might be one kind of groupware. A word processor that some-how lets people work together on the same document simultaneously would also qualify as groupware.

People are finding all sorts of ways to automate their daily activities. Unfortunately, most available software addresses just one isolated function, rather than being an integrated solution to a complex job process. If you want to automate a sequence of activities, you probably have to pass data from one program to another. Software tools to accomplish such linking are called bridgeware. Some vendors will show you horrendous diagrams depicting the clumsy use of bridgeware in a feeble attempt to automate your entire work process. Then they present their elegant integrated system that makes your tangled mess obsolete—and for the low, low price of just $200,000. (I actually saw just such a vendor presentation, with that very price.)

Another hot topic in computing these days is hypertext, and programs based on hypertext are known as hyperware. Perhaps the most popular example of hyperware is Apple's HyperCard for the Macintosh. Hypertext is an unusual kind of database, in which you store information on a sort of electronic index card. A database consisting of a bunch of cards is called a "stack," so another term for hyperware is stackware.

This about covers the different sorts of computer wares I have encountered in my readings. But the single most important thing to remember in your computer travails is that old Latin expression caveat emptor. let the buyer be-ware.

ST-LOG invites all authors to submit essays for possible use in the Footnotes department. Submissions should be between 1,000 and 1,500 words and may be on any aspect of Atari computing. Any style or type of essay is acceptable—opinion, humor, personal experience—but creativity is a plus. Send your submission to: Footnotes, c/o STLOG, P.O. Box 1413-M.Q., Manchester, CT 06040–1413.

Karl Wiegers is a software engineer in the Eastman Kodak Photography Research Laboratories. Although he is obviously well read on the subject of "wares," he overlooked the most important type: the wonderful programs that can be found on this magazine's disk version, which are referred to, of course, as "logware".