Donna Freiermuth, a lecturer at California State University, Long Beach, and an author of two books, was frustrated because she could not find the right word-processing program for her new personal computer.
"I knew exactly what I wanted, but I didn't want to go through any more (expensive) experimentation to find it," Freiermuth said.
Then, a friend offered her a program called "PC Write."
"Try it, and if you like it, send the author some money," the friend explained. "If you don't like it, don't send money."
The program hadn't been pirated. Rather, it was one of several thousand programs that are known in the computer world as "shareware."
Test It Forever
Shareware publishers believe in the philosophy of "try now, pay later." People can test shareware software for as long as they choose. Customers who keep a program are directed to subsequently pay the author an agreed-upon fee, according to Arnold Pollock, chairman of International Software Library, one of the nation's top shareware distributors.
International Software Library is a division of U.S. Computer Supply in Encinitas, which is undergoing a reorganization under federal bankruptcy law.
Payment is based on the honor system, and customers who do pay are notified when programs are modified. But those who don't pay still have a fully functional program. Additionally, some programmers offer free software, which is described as public-domain software.
Several San Diego computer retailers now stock shareware programs--The Clone Maker in Escondido sells more than 1,000 disks each week--but shareware generally is distributed through an informal system.
Software authors typically post their new programs on electronic bulletin boards. Authors also send programs to computer clubs like the San Diego Computer Club. They also send their products to distributors such as International Software Library and Educomp of Solana Beach, which is the leading distributor of shareware for the Macintosh computer.
"We are basically a copying and distribution service," Pollack said. Distributors offer shareware catalogues featuring programs that sell for between $2 and $8.50 per disk; some discs have multiple programs.
Encouraged to Copy
Authors encourage people to copy their programs so copyright protection is not a problem. However, authors complain that some distributors fail to explain that the initial fee covers only handling charges and that customers who keep programs are obliged to pay the author.
Only about 7% of people using Columbia, Mo.-based Datastorm Technologies' telecommunications programs have made payments, according to Steve Monaco, vice president, marketing.
About 20% of customers who use PC File, one of the earliest sharewares, have paid, according to PC File author Jim Button. "But for shareware games, maybe one in 100 will pay," according to Button. "For most shareware, it seems the only people to make any money . . . (are) the distributors."
No one really knows how pervasive shareware is, according to Anne Wujcik, director of research for the Washington-based Software Publishers Assn., an industry trade group. "Most real buffs and avid users probably have at least a couple of pieces but I don't know if the average user even knows about it."
That lack of widespread understanding hasn't slowed production of shareware programs. Shareware runs the software gamut from common games and business applications to programs that offer X-rated graphics packages.
International Software Library offers 3,500 disks that contain as many as 50,000 different programs which operate on IBM, Apple, Macintosh and Commodore computers.
Sunnyvale-based PC SIG, generally acknowledged as the nation's largest shareware distributor for IBM computers, offers about 1,000 disks representing 25,000 programs. Educomp, in comparison, has about 500 disks representing 5,000 programs.
"About 95% of all the software that has ever been written is shareware or public domain," said Dan Gookin, editor of ComputorEdge, a San Diego-based computer magazine.
Though both International Software Library and Educomp declined to reveal monthly sales figures, PC SIG ships about 75,000 disks a month, according to spokesman Mark Barnes.
Nationally, distributors could be shipping as many as 500,000 disks a month, according to John Hatch, president of Shareware Express, a shareware distributor in San Juan Capistrano.
Customers include teen-age "computer nerds" and the largest companies in the world. Educomp, for example, has sold programs to General Dynamics, MA/Com Linkabit, PacBell, UCSD, San Diego State University and the San Diego Zoo.
"We sell to all the major universities and a lot of the Fortune 1000 companies," according to Educomp founder Vahe Guzel.
Started in Early 1980s
Shareware first appeared in the early 1980s, when companies such as Lotus Development Co. and Ashton Tate began offering computer software programs that cost several hundred dollars.