In 1984, I, Stephen Lee(1), who was almost bankrupt trying to run a tiny trucking operation into Europe became interested in the small Sinclair computers of the period. These were the ZX81 (2k memory) and the more advanced colour Sinclair (or Timex) Spectrum.
The computers in those days had decent manuals to help you understand their use as well as in order to learn the Basic programming language. I started to learn Sinclair Basic (now evolved into the formidable Psion language used by their handheld computers like the Series 3) and wrote a basic accounting program to run using the revolutionary microdrives(2)
Eventually I managed to get out of the trucking business and ran a small rural petrol station for a year during which time I was able to learn much more about computers. After a while I wanted to upgrade to the very flexible and competent BBC Micro produced by Acorn as the result of a licensing and educational project with the BBC. This computer had a very open design such that it could accept multiple co-processors as well as plug in devices. You could literally freeze a process and continue with another. This mean it could run it’s native processes as well as those for CP/M, UNIX and DOS. At one stage I was running a DOS co-processor emulating CP/M running a BBC emulator (very slow)!
In order to upgrade I tried answering advertisements where these computers were for sale at perhaps a 40% discount from new in the local paper but was always too late. I decided to run my own "computer wanted" advertisement. I got several offers from sellers but also several enquiries from people who wanted to buy and asked that I forward their names to any sellers if I should have managed to buy a computer. I decided instead to buy in all computers offered and resell them. This was successful so I placed small ads in a new national small ad magazine called Micro Computer Mart. I then had a part time profitable business.
The petrol station contract expired so I had to find something else to do. For a while I did truck driving for local companies but could not run my fledgling business while onthe road. I had been a customer of a flashy computer store and got a job there as a shop assistant but got the sack when they discovered I was "competing" with them. That was the best thing to happen to me (the store, Modata in Tunbridge Wells, expired a couple of years later). I had to bite the bullet and go full time!
I had been meeting up occasionally with the owners of a small games production company called Bubble Bus Software in Tonbridge, Kent. They rented me a tiny annex to a room (more of a large cupboard) and I started buying and selling BBC computers and peripherals nationally. Used Computer Sales was born!
People liked dealing with me because I would buy everything, the computer, disk drives, printers, ribbons, software, monitors, the lot so they did not have to worry about disposing piecemeal. I also sold other brands like Sinclair and Commodore. I was always amazed that people would be prepared to post the stuff to me (the Post Office were always less damaging to goods than the overnight guys) on trust. I never abused that trust except where the stuff had been obviously stolen from schools etc. – it is still amazing how naive people were to try selling on stuff without even checking for internal stickers or external marks that would appear under "black light".
One day I noticed the new Amstrad PCW 256 all-in-one wordprocessors that looked like a "real" computer in all sorts of unlikely places like newsagents and supermarkets. I started to buy in both new and used ones for reslae and earned most of my money doing training sessions on the wordprocessor and CP/M software. It was at this point that I came across the concept of public domain software. I used to buy disks originally form the CP/M user group then eventually from the Public Domain and Shareware Library (PDSL – now called the Public Domain and Software Library) in Crowborough, Sussex.(3) This was at the time a Software Interest Group (SIG) and one could send in one’s formatted floppies and they would copy the files you requested onto the disks for a copying fee. Their catalogue would consist of an amateurishly fascinating listing with loads of different versions of the same program – the logic being they were a software repository that you could obtain any piece of software you needed to do a given job so older versions were somehow just as valid as newer ones.
Eventually Amstrad really placed the cat among the pigeons and revolutionised desktop computing with the 1512 IBM compatible PC. When one thinks back to all the comments of the time knocking the Amstrad from the established industry it is all so laughable. Criticisms included the fact that it had a plastic casing instead of the usual cumbersome metal one. (Were they going to do a drop test?) Also that as the monitor was powered from the computer that the whole lot could catch fire. Or that it could not run "real" IBM PC software. It went on and on but the guys complaining either changed their spots or went under in the new wave of low cost personal computing that followed. Unfortunately Amstrad became so arrogant that they also blew it when they refused to accept genuine criticism regarding it’s products and the disastrous episode where they were supplied with dodgy hard drives by Seagate and Western Digital (on purpose?) which has only recently been resolved in the US courts to the benefit of Amstrad and at great cost to the drive manufacturers. The problem was not caused by Amstrad but as none of their dealers loved them any more because of their attitude they had no loyalty left so no-one cared if they collapsed as a result.
Anyway, Amstrad PC1512s were sold with single floppy, dual floppy or 10 or massive 20 meg hard drive configurations. The premium for a hard drive was several hundreds of pounds so as long as one could get hold of the rare single floppy models and added a Tandon hardcard for only £150 one could sell these computers all day – this I did.
Meanwhile I had been trying the MSDOS public domain software from PDSL but also there were a few programs called "Shareware". These came from small companies and single authors like Andrew Fluegelman’s PC Talk, a communications program from which Procomm and Odyssey are derived as well as the Buttonware range of software called PC File, PC Type and PC Calc. In fact in the same way as nowadays anything called WinXxxxx is "good" so was "PC Xxxx" in those days including PC Write from one of the original Microsoft Baker’s Dozen called Bob Wallace. Most happened to be marketed under the Shareware banner.
It was Bob Wallace(4) who coined the phrase "shareware". Originally Andrew Fluegelman had called it Freeware but that started to cause problems. In the early days the attitude was "if you like this program how about sending me a small donation" until eventually it had to become "If you continue to use this software beyond the evaluation period, you must pay the defined license fee" once people became companies and had staff to pay. Freeware still smacked of public domain and in a way shareware also suffered from that association which bugged it far longer in the USA than it do in Britain – but more of that later.
The new shareware software was a revelation. It was of a quality just unimaginable from the CP/M PD days (with the odd exception like New Sweep – NSWEEP, most software was abolute rubbish). This stuff was in colour, high quality, fast and did a useful job. It was commercial quality software and was sold the way it was either for historical reasons – Jim Button was attempting to create a church database when he wrote PC File – or simply because the author could not afford or did not know how to sell the more commercial way.
I decided to purchase for myself a copy of PC File for internal use and wrote to Buttonware asking if I could resell it. They wrote back very positively suggesting I also sell on PC Calc and PC Type. This I did and made some really decent money for them. We took £36,000 in year one (I say "we" because I now had an employee) and £112,000 in year two. All sorts of things happened around this time but I am not sure of the chronological order. I determined that the shareware authors were giving me a nice living so I had to do something in return and decided to try to arrange reselling rights for the licensed versions of the best products. During this time we got involved with Expressware (File Express), Trius (As-Easy-As), Magee (AutoMenu) and Brown Bag whose assets we now own (PC Outline, PowerMenu), and FormGen (FormGen). At the same time Future Publishing were cocking a snook at VNU who Chris Anderson, the owner had left in disgust, and had decided to run free disks of software attached to the front cover of their PC Plus magazine. All of a sudden our company was in great demand to supply interesting programs. It was so easy – we would get a personalised copy of, say, AutoMenu from Magee and run it on the cover disk for a month. 120,000 copies would be distributed and the orders would roll in.
I renamed to Shareware Marketing with the motto/slogan of "One Day All Software Will Be Sold This Way" – creepy, eh?
Around this time a group of authors had got together to form the Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP). One day I got a phone call from Marshall Magee, the owner of Magee Enterprises, to discuss the ASP. They wanted to get disk vendors involved but didn’t know how so were going to open up their Compuserve forum to four vendors. These were PCSIG (PC Software Interest Group), Bob Ostrander’s Public Brand Software(5), Nelson Ford’s still very much in business Public Software Library (PSL) and myself.
I had to get myself a Compuserve account but somewhere along the line things have become a bit hazy as I do not remember ever having paid for one. The present situation is that we have our own Compuserve forum (The UK Shareware Forum – GO UKSHARE) so have thre "sponsored " = free accounts. We were the first European forum after Microsoft’s apparently. Maybe we had the forum before the ASP invitation. I regularly contributed to the ASP discussions and attended the annual meeting sponsored by Magee each year in Las Vegas. An Associate Membership for ASP Vendor members was hammered out but eventually I got disillusioned by the ASP constantly bickering over rules and procedures by people like Chip Rabinowitz, Barry Simon, and Rob Rosenberger instead of what it should have been doing which was PR and Lobbying.
During the meetings I got to know Bob Ostrander well. We had been doing work for Eric Isaacson(6), the author of the A86 Macro Assembler and a close personal friend of Bob. I was impressed by the catalogues coming out of Public Brand at the rate of one a month. They were not mere listings of program names and a few words of description as I had been used to with the PDSL but were properly categorised with reviews and a star rating. The review also listed any hardware requirements at a time when there were all sorts of new and weird technologies appearing – some of which went their own way.
One day I plucked up courage and asked Bob how much he would charge me to license his catalogue for the UK market. I was amazed at the instant reply – $500 a catalogue and you buy all the new and updated disks for a discount. Wow!
After a rapid initiation into the eccentricities of Ventura Publisher I was on my way reproducing the PBS catalogue for the UK market as "The Shareware Book". Eventually Bob’s original layout gave way to my own "improvements" and became "The Software Source, The Software Reference Guide" which eventually had an annual distribution within computer magazines which peaked at 1.4 million. We were not the first shareware disk vendor in Britain but we were the first to do the following:
a) Produce a professionally formatted review based catalogue on a regular basis
b) Do marketing and PR work to improve the concept of "shareware" and get good write-ups such that it often became a specialised area of the magazines.
c) Put something back into the business by assisting authors receiving registrations by reselling or even publishing their works.
d) Being at the vanguard of user awareness that shareware is not public domain and had to be paid for. This was done by always writing to journalists who blurred the distinction. We also joined FAST (Federation Against Software Theft) (7) early on and were active and noisy members mixing it with the likes of Novell and Microsoft and were active at the time that FAST were able to get the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act sponsored and approved by parliament. That gave teeth to shareware limited licenses in the UK.
e) Providing good quality material to the magazines for their cover disks backed up by local registration source (us).
f) Because we represented the best authors of shareware software, we were given a franchise to act in their best interests (literally on paper). This meant we had control over who could and who could not distribute a given program as a disk vendor. You may remember that many programs had words such as "please give copies of this program to friends to evaluate but if you wish to charge to make copies you must first get permission from.." That meant we were able to control the quality of the disk vendor who supplied "our" programs to the public for a fee. I insisted they had a decent formatted printed catalogue. This not only showed a commitment to actually market the programs which assists the author of the software but protected competing firms like ours from cheapskates who would get our expensive catalogue for free then go and buy the disks from someone who just listed program titles and would be able to undercut us on price as they had not committed any costs to making the sale. Shareware disk vending was often seen as a dead easy way to make money but if done properly was actually not so profitable – in fact we were happy to make a loss from the sale of disks as it was the bedrock from which we made our real money – registrations. Since the release of CDROMs on magazines (some magazines have 3 or even 4 CDs banded) along with the Internet, disk vendors are no longer required to make sales so catalogues are less of an issue.
I had also always wanted people to purchase the catalogue but never managed to do it until one of our competitors, Paul Smithson of Folio Shareware, over-reached himself bringing out a monthly magazine called PC Shareware Magazine. We bought it from him in a moment of self-aggrandisement after he went bust and found out that monthly magazines are a black hole for marketing and other funds. Not only that but two of the big publishers also bought out their own shareware magazines a month later. Despite discussions with the big publishers to merge the magazines, nothing happened and all three died leaving massive dents in all our bank accounts. If you want to see a few of the wonderful spoof cartoons of the ASP we had done for the magazine please go to the jokes section of this website (see button on the left frame) AFTER YOU HAVE READ THIS ARTICLE!
This closes the most exciting chapter of the company and leaves us with no money in the bank after the magazine venture (we still made a profit of £70,000 that year despite losing around £400,000 on the magazine venture). It had been great fun up to now but I personally had got big headed and needed the magazine disaster to bring me to my senses. Also the portfolio of software we had was dying because none of the authors were able to bring out Windows versions in good time (if at all). See footnote (8) for programs we have been and are deeply involved with.
Part 2 – The Change of Life
Having got through the magazine debacle I started to look round for more work that we could do. We had moved to a large wholly owned compound with warehouse, offices and workshops but having decided to drop the huge shareware catalogue run we needed work to do so I thought doing small value work for other companies would use up our spare capacity. The following is a list of such work for the record:
A) – US Software Resource. Before we bought their assets Brown Bag Software had sold a lot of software through US Software Resource, based in San Francisco area. US Software Resource had a short, profitable and interesting life. After the Arab-Israeli war, veteran Isaac Ash arrived in America from Israel without speaking a word of English to seek his fortune. He met up with an other Israeli whose name evades me but who I shall call Jacob. The story goes that Jacob had the gift of the gab and boasted to Isaac that he could sell anything. Somehow or other they landed up in a phone box and
Jacob called up someone at some firm or other and managed to buy some copies of WordStar (very expensive at the time). The long and the short of it is that the call Jacob made was a hoax and he hadn’t sold anything but meanwhile Isaac had persuaded WordStar to sell him some copies to resell and now had to get rid of them. He rented an office with a phone and set Jacob to doing the job properly, Jacob sold them plus a lot more and that was the start of the fastest growing software wholesaler of the period.
I got introduced by Sandy Schupper of Brown Bag to Isaac at Comdex one year just as they were looking to visit the UK to set up shop here. When they came to the UK Isaac was impressed by a disk duplication business called Total Control I had a half share of with a maniac called Dominic King and was also impressed at the very low cost operation I had with Shareware Marketing (subsequently called Shareware Ltd. then converted to a Public company as Shareware plc until finally we have stuck with Atlantic Coast plc to "reflect our vision of looking across to the USA and so as not to be totally reliant on shareware marketed software as our primary business".)
We ran their UK operation for about a year, being our own largest dealer selling heavily from the last two catalogues we produced until they were bought out for big bucks by Tech Data – a firm who neither we, nor the Software Resource agent in Germany, found we could do business with.In fact I still cannot see why Tech Data bought out US Software Resource as they dropped nearly every title in the rather massive Software Resource portfolio shortly after.
They also wouldn’t take back our redundant stock as per our contract so we kept back their last payment in lieu……!
When Quarterdeck set up shop in the UK they somehow enlisted the services of Bill Poel who had a business called Newstar Software that we had purchased from and supplied from time to time. Bill eventually sold off Newstar and ran Quarterdeck full time for a while. Somehow I got to know the people at Quarterdeck and we were effectively appointed as their agent for handlingmailshots. This became formalised for a short time when they invented the Quarterdeck Authorised Service Centre but due to an awful lot of staff changes they dropped this concept and decided first of all to sell inhouse, then even dropped that. I don’t know how they handle upgrades now.
We never burnt any bridges and have a nice comfortable arrangement with Quarterdeck maintaining their customer registered user database which I believe we do efficiently and discreetly. One day perhaps we will get the fulfilment work back! What I do know is I have had various joint activities with various senior ex-Quarterdeck personnel since.
C) One Stop Software
The ex-Managing Director of Commodore UK (Steve Franklin) and one of the ex-directors of Chelsea Football Club (John Shaw) decided to set up an agency on behalf of SoftKey in the UK. They did by all accounts exceptionally well so when SoftKey decided to open a UK office they paid of Steve and John properly. With this experience and some money in the bank they decided to formally set up a software agency for US companies trying to sell into UK retail stores and created One Stop Software. We were involved early on providing the reception, storage and despatch of Goods to the major retailers. Eventually, as we expected, they grew big enough to want direct control and took the business back inhouse. They are now one of the premier suppliers of imported Lifestyle type software to the top UK retailers.
Even in a small way we can assist huge companies. EDS have the franchise to supply anti-virus software to the Inland Revenue (tax authority). It is our job to receive the software on CD, copy the correct files to disk, and make sure the right locations get the right platform(s) of software with correct level of program licensed for. We can do this on a low cost base that would cost a firm like EDS a fortune to implement.
I believe that what we do best is administration rather than selling. We own our own large-ish property with room to build and plenty of unskilled labour on tap. I obviously wish us to remain the top European vendor of data compression software but wonder how long that market can continue (it is growing at present for us). This is the type of insecurity that drives me on.
Until we find our next killer application I am happy to pursue arrangements with larger companies doing their small, repetitive administrative jobs like registered user database maintenance, order taking and product fulfilment, and software packaging manufacture. So if your company has that sort of requirement please do email me or call me on +44 (0) 1297 55222
OK – the SWREG business is doing really well at http://swreg.org – we ar eselling over $12m a year of software at the moment (March 2001 and increasing about 10% a month. – we are still in Shareware and still making a profit!
We own two of the unique Neoplan Jumbocruisers (see http://jumbocruiser.com) which will be added to our Rock ‘n’ Roll bus fleet – see http://jumbocruiser.com
1. Stephen Lee, Baron Lee of Coolock b.1951; Educated various incl William Palmers Endowed School, Grays Essex and subsequently Maldon Grammar School. Kicked out age 15!
2. These were miniature read and write serial tape devices similar to conventional tape streamer technology of the time and a definite improvement over a tape recorder except they could be corrupted by carpet fabrics.
3. Formed by certain members of the CP/M user group of Dartford, Kent including Rod Smith who is still very much in business.
4. Bob wrote Microsoft’s Pascal Compiler. His coding was so good with PC Write that we only ever recorded one bug for the program. His company, Quicksoft, suffered due to Bob’s inability to produce a Windows version of PC Write. It was bought out by Leo Nikora who was the marketing guy at Microsoft charged originally with bringing Windows to market. Unfortunately they had left it too late and PC Write was licensed to Gordon Wanner of Galaxy WP fame who really has not managed to do anything with it.
5. This was a play on words. In the USA, PBS refers to Public Broadcasting Service which is a sort of shareware concept – you use the service and if you like it you pay a contribution annually.
6. Eric wrote the first ever assembler for Intel. The A86 derived from that assembler. I once asked Eric how did he write the Intel Assembler and the answer was, from it’s predecessor. And what about the one before that? The game went on for a while until the answer became "we set switches". Eric and his family have holidayed with my family for the last few years even though we have opposite personalities.
7. Run at the time by Bob Hay who was an ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Bob was in charge of operations at the time of the Iranian Embassy siege in London where the SAS arrived form ropes dangling from helicopters, shot most of the captors and freed all the captives. I always had visions of Bob doing one of his raids on a software pirate in the early hours of the morning with a black balaclava on absailing in through the bedroom windows. He was a gentleman.
8. Programs re-published to date are:
As Easy As, Draft Choice, Galaxy, PKZIP, PKLite, Page Financial Controller, PAGEultra, PowerMenu, PC Outline, RamTest, GoalSeeker, PC-Hookup, 4DOS, Take Command, Alite, File Express, PC Write, Zipfolders. MindReader.
Programs we have or had executive control over (really principal distributor):
Winzip, ZipMagic, PowerDesk, FreeSpace, PC Calc, PC File, PC Calc, AutoMenu, Procomm.
Programs we own the rights to:
Compact Writer (based on PC-Type code), PC Outline, PowerMenu
Programs under development:
Page accounts under Java, The Brown Bag (now released as Brownbag Memorymate, PC Outline for Windows).
POSTSCRIPTS: 1st January 1999 we bought the Compuserve SWREG online software registration service from Compuserve – probably the oldest online store in the world!
I was awarded induction into the Shareware Industry Awards Foundation Hall of Fame in July 2002