by Ian Chadwick
Ian Chadwick is a technical writer and editor living with his wife in an igloo in Toronto, Canada. He is currently writing a murder mystery set in Mexico so he can claim travel expenses and designing a game on the campaigns of Napoleon so he can write off his book purchases.
I was sorting out my hard disk the other day. It's a job I do irregularly, out of necessity when it becomes close to full. I back up everything, then remove a passel of programs I don't use. While I was doing this, I realized that most of the programs on the disk are public domain—PD. That gave me pause to consider the whole business of freeware and shareware.
Ever wonder about PD software? A whole lot of people out there work hours and hours and hours at writing the stuff to give it away. Sounds like poor business to me, but bless'em all! Some of the most useful programs I own are PD.
Who are the authors who spend their time slaving over a hot computer to give us these gems? Charles Johnson, David Betz, James Luczak, David Small, Frank Cohen, David Addison, Tim Purves, Jerry Cole, George Woodside and many, many more. Forgive me if your name isn't on the list. Many are hackers, but a lot of these people are professionals. It takes a lot of commitment to work that hard for no measurable reward. I think it's high time we said thanks!
I guess we all take these programs for granted. After all, good or bad, we don't pay for them. Sure, some are shareware—that means the authors ask you to voluntarily send them a donation. Sometimes this gets you an upgrade or enhanced version. Other times it just makes you feel good. I've never seen any figures on shareware; so I haven't the foggiest idea if anyone makes any money at it. Some how, it looks more like a labor of love to me.
But where would we be without PD programs! Online services like Delphi and CompuServe would be nothing more than message systems. Ho hum. Some PD offerings are, truthfully, pretty much an amateur's effort; sort of a proclamation to the rest of us, "Hey! Look what I did!" But a lot are very well crafted, programmed and designed. And when source code is included, the user-support idea really makes the concept fly.
Look at ST Writer, one of the best free programs I've ever seen and maybe the best word processor for the ST at present. It came out as a port from the 8-bit Atari Writer. Version 2.52 is the latest (as of this writing), and it's terrific The printer drivers have been improved, it has mouse control and other new features; all thanks to the efforts of a dedicated bunch who get nothing beyond personal satisfaction for their services (and, of course, a good word processor).
George Woodside's Turtle is another delight. I use it whenever I backup the hard disk. And where would we be without the PD archive/de-arc programs that condense files for transfer and storage?
What about games? There are a fair number of good PD games out there. David Addison gave us Monopoly—as professional a game as I've ever encountered—among others. And he provides the source code in GFA BASIC, so I can tinker to my heart's delight. PD games often include clones of popular commercial games which sell for inflated prices: Centipede, PacMan, that sort of thing. And in a lot of cases, the PD versions are even better than the originals.
PD is also the showcase for a lot of new ideas. Many "hidden" features of GEM and TOS have been revealed and exploited first in PD programs. Some of these efforts show the most creative ideas I've encountered in the ST environment.
There are many nifty utilities out there, at only the cost of the download time, that improve the computing environment considerably. There are programs to select which desk accessories to load, GEM item selector replacements, print spoolers, RAMdisks, replacements for desktop background and icons, printer drivers, graphics translators and more. There are paint and CAD programs, slide-show utilities, educational programs, spreadsheets, word processors, debuggers, disk copiers and sector editors, text editors, databases, languages—so much material that you can get just about any type of program, application or utility you'll ever need in the PD world.
This, of course, means that there is no excuse for piracy of commercial software, with so much good material available for free or very close to it. Then again, there never was any excuse for piracy. But that's another column. I was surprised to see how much material I had accumulated on my hard disk and how much of it was PD. I was hard pressed to remove a lot of it, since I use many of these programs, They don't merely consume space on my disk.
Here's a parochial problem: Canada. The question of software and magazine distribution up here has arisen so often that I thought I'd address it here.
Where do Canadian stores get ST-Log or ANALOG? Up here, the magazine doesn't (yet) enjoy as wide a distribution as, sad to say, the competition. I've been asked many times by retailers where they can get the magazine locally. The answer is—I don't really know. But I've found one supplier who deals nationally: Micro D Distributors (not associated with the American company of that name). They also handle major software publishers. They can be reached in the Toronto region at 741—9825 or outside at 1-(800) 387-5855.
If you're in your local store (book, computer, software or magazine outlet), and they don't have ANALOG or ST-Log, ask them to start bringing it in. They can either call ST-Log/ANALOG in California for the name and phone number of a local distributor or call Micro D.
I also wanted to mention Micro D because they have been instrumental in providing me with review copies of software—something most distributors seem loathe to do. One of the problems of writing current reviews in the Great White North is that products, when they reach here, often arrive months behind the U.S. release, if they reach here at all. Many publishers don't have Canadian distributors and a lot of their products simply never get onto the shelves up here. And what does is pretty expensive.
The problem has a lot to do with minimum order quantities (here comes the lesson, so take out your pens, there's a test afterwards). A publisher may demand a minimum order of, say five or ten copies to merit a dealer discount. Sometimes they only have one product (or one suitable for the dealer), and the dealer may not want that many copies of an untried product on his or her shelves. Or the item may be just a customer's special order and no one else wants it. So they order from a distributor who can mix titles for the minimum order and get the one copy, along with other items from other publishers. See?
Without the dealer discount, the markup on a product is hideous. Figure that, with our devalued Canadian peso, software is already 30% more expensive in Canada. Add tax, freight charges, distributor's markup and what have you, and the end result runs anywhere between 50% and 100% markup. Here's a single, randomly chosen example: Michtron's great new product, GFA Artist, is $79.95, SLP in the USA. In Canada, it's $129.95. ST dealers up here aren't so numerous that they are highly price-competitive, so the pressure to discount is weak. Most stores don't discount these prices. That makes it very hard on the consumer. It discourages casual buying (who casually drops $60 or $75 for a game?) and encourages piracy.
What's the solution? I'm not offering any. I don't know if there is one. I just thought I'd tell you this, to air the problem. If you come up with something—let me know!