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Master 512 Forum by Robin Burton
Beebug Vol. 8 No. 1 May 1989

How to obtain cheap Software

This month Robin Burton looks at public domain and shareware software, a subject that may well interest more than just 512 owners.

A few of you have written to me about public domain and shareware software, and while some of you may be aware of these sources of DOS software, it occurred to me that others, especially the newer converts to the 512, may not be.


Public domain software has been around for quite some time (certainly it existed for CP/M machines before DOS became the standard business micro operating system) and is now common to many micros, though not with so wide a range of software as for DOS.

The concept is quite simple. Authors of software may or may not retain their copyright on the programs they have produced, but in either case they have decided to make them available free of charge to users. Depending on where you get it from, you may pay a small fee for the disc and copying of the software, but there is no fee for the programs, and you are at liberty to pass them on to other users.

Naturally, the quality of the software varies from one offering to another, but given the fact that it's free this can hardly be a complaint, and some of it is very good. If you visit your local library or enquire at your local computer bookshop, you will find that there are catalogues of public domain software, and for DOS systems there are literally hundreds of programs. Take a look, and you may be surprised at just what is available for virtually no cost.


Shareware is a sort of halfway house between public domain software and normally marketed commercial software. Like public domain, the idea originates in the USA.

Shareware is not free software, although you don't buy it when you first acquire it, and strictly speaking you don't buy it later either. This time the idea is that you can acquire a copy of the software for a nominal initial fee. This can vary from the cost of a disc plus postage to a few pounds. You then can try the programs on your own machine, using your own data so that you can judge its suitability for your needs.

If, having tried the software you like it, it does the job and you intend to continue using it, you are expected to send a registration fee, either direct to the author or to the local distributor. The registration fee is the authors reward for his efforts, and replaces what normally would be the purchase price if you were buying from commercial sources.

It goes without saying that this means the onus is on you to be honest and pay up if you do use the software. To fail to do so is of course theft, and moreover it's a perfect case of killing the goose that lays the golden egg, so I trust I need say no more on that point.

There are often inducements to help you to play fair too. Some of the larger shareware packages are supplied in a slightly 'cut-down' form. Although fully functional and working, on payment of the registration fee you will often be supplied with additional programs to enhance or extend the package, or perhaps a later version, these not being provided in the shareware copy.

Another point is that shareware programs are supplied on disc only, and while the disc will include quite adequate instructions (in text files) for using the programs, for the more complex packages registering your use will usually produce the benefit of proper documentation and manuals. Also many shareware authors actively support their work in the form of updates, enhancements, fixes for bugs, and some even provide direct phone or bulletin board support for individual user problems. Of course all of these are available only to registered users.

Finally, if all this wasn't enough, the registration fees are usually very much less than the software would cost if it was marketed conventionally. In spite of the lower prices and the somewhat unusual method of distribution, don't think that this implies that the software is in any way sub-standard, in fact quite the converse in many cases. Some shareware packages are really excellent, and many are as good or better than the often over-priced, over-rated offerings from other suppliers. And frequently you can get commercially sold software as shareware at a fraction of the cost.

The reason for the lower prices is that the authors have no advertising or distribution costs and there's no software agency in the middle taking a cut either. In consequence part of the savings can be passed on to the user. The result is that you end up paying much less for a given package.

The case I quoted a few months ago of phoning the American distributors was a typical example. For that particular product an unusual situation exists, in that it is also commercially marketed in the U.K, but at three to four times the cost for the same software. That should give you an idea of the potential savings.

The benefit of this approach to software acquisition hardly needs pointing out, but to users of the 512 it's even more valuable. In our case the question of 'Will it run properly?' must be highest on the list. By means of the 'try before you buy' method, you don't have to part with large amounts of cash to find out if the software will run.

It's true that you can't return the disc for a refund if it doesn't work, but I've never seen a shareware disc that costs even as much as £10, less than most games for the BBC, so this is hardly a concern.

In addition, shareware has one thing in common with public domain software. You are not only at liberty, but are positively encouraged to pass on copies of the software to other users. The author will normally stipulate that you must pass on the entire contents of the disc just as you received it, with no amendments, additions or deletions, but apart from this there are no restrictions.

This means that if you are a member of a club, or have friends with 512s or PCs it is perfectly legitimate to share the initial fee and take a copy each (naturally sharing the cost does not apply to the registration fee).

I wondered about the value of including shareware as a Forum topic, but as some companies continue to exist by selling (at much higher cost) packages which are also currently available in shareware, it's obvious that a lot of people still don't know about this valuable, low cost, low risk method of acquiring software.


The range of topics covered by shareware, even only in the U.K. and Europe, is really quite impressive. Most shareware catalogues will put the range of choices available at your local PC dealer to shame. The majority of topics don't offer just one or two packages either.

For example, in the catalogue of one distributor I've dealt with, Shareware Marketing, under each heading there are typically half a dozen or more different choices. In addition, a rating is given to each of the offerings, indicating their opinion of its quality, the range of its facilities, and whether it's recommended for first time, average or experienced users.

All the obvious applications are covered, including word-processors, spreadsheets, databases, graphics, CAD, project planning systems and so on. Language support is well catered for too, with plenty of library and utility routines for various versions of BASIC, 'C', PASCAL and even less common languages like FORTRAN.

There are also literally dozens and dozens of utilities, and as these tend to be smaller programs, a number are usually collected together to make up each disc, so one shareware utility disc might well contain a dozen or more different programs. These are usually grouped by type, so one disc will contain memory utilities, one keyboard programs, another disc utilities etc.


As with all other DOS software, 512 users have one overriding consideration which applies equally to shareware software, that is compatibility. All the usual problems can be found in shareware as frequently as elsewhere, but in some areas some fairly direct advice can be given.

In utility software, much more than in most full blown applications, execution speed and compact code is seen as a plus point. Because of this certain areas are much more likely to produce software which is incompatible with the 512 than others.

In general disc utilities will be trouble because, in order to gain speed and/or to provide clever facilities, the author will almost certainly have directly programmed the disc controller. Virtually all of these programs therefore fail in the 512. Unless 'legal' code is particularly advertised as a selling point, don't expect much success. In any case these will cater only for standard PC formats, mainly 360K and 720K and so wouldn't be of very much value in the 512. Others, written for the quad-density 1.2 and 1.44Mb would be of no use whatever to us, even if they would run.

Keyboard utilities come next in the list of likely problem programs, including keyboard dependent utilities such as memory resident pop-ups. Some rely on 'legal' keyboard interrupts, and a few therefore do work in the 512. However, most expect to be able to detect the pressing of 'hot-keys' (pre-defined special keypress combinations) at source. This they do by reading the keyboard hardware directly, so don't expect much success with them.

Memory utilities are probably next in line, mainly because many of them are also memory resident and use hot-keys. These which are run as separate transient programs on demand are mostly alright though, because they use the normal keyboard to application interface provided by DOS's CCP.

Finally, be wary of database packages or other disc dependent applications if they make a special point of stressing their high disc sorting or data handling speed. It's highly probable that these will use the same techniques as disc utilities to achieve their performance and will therefore produce the same problems in the 512.

Shareware is usually available in a variety of disc formats on both 3.5 and 5.25 inch discs, so remember to specify this if you take the plunge. Single density 360K is the safest choice. Because this is quite a small amount of data, disc space is at a premium and very little shareware is in a 'ready to run' form. Most is provided in a compressed form to reduce the physical space needed on disc, and it must be uncompressed before you can run it.

     You can read more about shareware software in
Dabs Press 512 Master User Guide.

      A catalogue of shareware products can be obtained
from any of the following distributors:
3HW Tel. (0297) 24088.
SELTEC, Northumberland House, Staines Business
Centre, Staines, Middx TW18 2AP Tel. (0784) 64257.
     PC-SERVE, 1147 Greenford Rd, Greenford, Middx
VB6 ODP. Tel. 01-864 2611.

     Or you can log-on to one of the following bulletin
     Brown Bag Board 01-404 0897
     Shareware Marketing (0297) 24090

'PKXARC' is one of the programs frequently used to compress files, but there are others. Whatever method of compression was used, the program needed to uncompress your shareware will be included on the shareware disc, along with the instructions about how to use it. The space saved will vary with the type of file, but in extreme cases a compressed 360K disc may require almost twice as much when uncompressed.

All the compress/uncompress programs that I have used have proved to be legally written and I usually uncompress to an 800K 512 disc, so far always without any trouble. If for some reason you want to uncompress onto 360K discs make sure that you have two ready formatted for every source disc, though a better idea is to uncompress to 800K and then copy files to other disc sizes as needed.


Finally onto a different note, I'm pleased to say that someone has taken advantage of the offer made in the first 512 Forum. Richard Sterry has written from Wakefield asking for a mention of his informal 512 user group.

Richard is himself a member of the Wakefield BBC micro user group, a very enthusiastic and active group that holds meetings on the first Wednesday of every month, usually with a guest speaker giving a talk. Incidentally, the group also includes quite a few 512 users amongst its members, one of whom is the club's newsletter editor, Chris Hughes, who can be contacted on ******* if you'd like more information to join.

Richard's informal 512 user group, however, holds its 'meetings' in a rather different way and covers a rather larger area, using the U.K. Amateur 'Packet Radio' BBS network. This is a form of amateur radio which enables ASCII files to be sent between members in the U.K. and beyond, and operates much like a conventional bulletin board, except that there are no phone bills.

Richard says that radio amateurs active 'on packet' can join in simply by contacting him (call sign *******) on his local BBS (*******). As the group is informal, there are no charges or fees.

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