Ever stand in line to buy a movie ticket and wonder if you're really going to enjoy the film? It would be nice if you could pay on the way out, after you've determined whether it was worth the price.
That's the way it works with shareware--software that is distributed on the honor system. You can get a copy of a shareware program for little or no money, but you're expected to pay for it if you find it useful.
There are a number of ways to get your hands on shareware. If you have a modem, you can download shareware from an on-line service such as Compuserve, GEnie or America Online. With on-line services, you pay for the time you're connected, but not for the software.
You can also access one of the hundreds of free dial-up computer bulletin board systems scattered across the country. Many shareware authors maintain their own bulletin boards. Some will mail you a disk for a nominal fee.
Many local computer groups distribute shareware, as do some computer dealers.
There are several mail order shareware distributors, including Public Software Library at (800) 242-4775 and Public Brand Software at (800) 426-3475. Each will send you a free catalogue. Companies and groups that distribute shareware charge a nominal fee, typically about $5 per disk.
Regardless of where you get shareware, the fee you pay goes for the cost of distribution. It does not compensate the author for the work it took to write the software or the support you might need to use it productively.
There are shareware programs in just about every category of software and, in some cases, they are as good or better than commercial programs.
The catalogues have special interest sections with hard-to-find titles in such areas as religion, sports, music and genealogy. Public Brands, for example, lists "Seedmaster," a complete King James Bible (it comes on nine floppies and takes up 4.5 megabytes of hard disk space).
Public Software Library offers "Mt. St. Helens," a multimedia presentation program that reportedly shows pictures before, during and after the eruption. It also has a survival guide, just in case you find yourself caught in a volcanic eruption. The four-disk set costs only $6.99 and there is no registration fee.
There is no guarantee that the program you get will be suitable for your needs but, then, you don't actually pay for the software until you determine that. Many of the reputable shareware authors and distributors belong to the Assn. of Shareware Professionals, which sets ethical guidelines for the industry.
There are a number of very impressive shareware programs. The leading DOS anti-virus program, VirusScan from McAfee Associates, is available as shareware. Macintosh users can download Disinfectant, an excellent anti-virus program.
I recently downloaded Almanac, a great Windows calendar program from Impact Software of Chino. You can order a copy by phone at (714) 590-8522, download it from Compuserve or have your modem dial Impact's computer bulletin board at (714) 590-0500. Almanac makes it very easy for you to keep track of your own appointments. It has a "to-do" list and lets you preset alarms. Windows 3.1 users will appreciate its ability to use sound files that substitute music or voices for the program's regular alarms. It comes with both a regular (Gregorian) and Jewish calendar and lists American, Canadian, Christian and Jewish holidays. It's my favorite Windows calendar program, well worth the $49.95 registration fee.
A growing number of computer books come with shareware disks. Alfred Glossbrenner's well-written book, "DOS 5: An Advanced Guide to Putting Microsoft's Breakthrough Software to Work for You" (Random House, $50), comes with a handful of carefully selected utility programs. Paul Somerson's DOS PowerTools (Bantam Computer Books, $49.95) comes with more than 100 programs, including one that lets you move files and another that helps you manage your memory-resident programs.
Most shareware programs are fully functional. You don't get printed documentation and, in some cases, the programs start out with a message asking you to register. When you register, you either get new disks or are given a code to turn off the registration request. Some shareware authors send paying customers a printed manual, and most let you know if the program has been upgraded.