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Lost in Cyberspace

Software for the asking

This article was originally published on May 26, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Back in the good old days when computer bulletin boards ruled cyberspace, it was relatively easy to find all the latest software online. The better BBSs would have a large files area that was updated regularly, and you'd simply check in and see what was new. (Now, "good old days" is a relative term. Here, we're talking about five years ago – and, yes, that DOES mean there are 17-year-olds who are now grizzled veterans. It's the Computer Age. Deal with it.)

But most BBSs were run on single computers in somebody's garage or basement; those 200 meg hard drives tended to fill up pretty quick, so BBSs were good for finding recent releases of software but not so good for finding an older file.

When the Internet became public in the late '80s, one of the first uses put to it was archiving software into large repositories. Unfortunately, in order to use these you had to know how to use not only Unix, but the Unix versions of various search programs like Archie or Gopher to find what you were looking for. And you had to have an Internet account, which were far harder to come by back then.

So unless you were on one of the commercial services like CompuServe, Delphi or GEnie, you didn't really have access to a complete and up-to-date collection of shareware.

With the continuing development of the Web, though, that's changing. As the number of people on the Internet, and specifically the World Wide Web, has exploded, businesses have found it profitable to offer free software archives – they can then sell space on their site to advertisers who want to reach the folks who visit.

There are basically five kinds of software available for downloading at no charge:

  • Updates and patches. When you purchase a program, you're often guaranteed six months' or a year's worth of support, including the next upgrade. Also, once a program is released, inevitably bugs show up. Software publishers find it less expensive to distribute these upgrades, updates and patches via the Internet than mailing a disk to you.
  • Trial versions. Companies will let you have a crippled version of their commercial program. Generally, it either has a built-in clock that will permanently turn the program off after a defined period of time, or it lacks a critical function, such as the ability to save a file or print. In any case, the purpose is to hook you on the program so you'll pay to buy it – but not give it to you on trust.
  • Shareware programs generally DO give you the complete program on trust. It's a try before you buy concept, where you're on your honor to send a check or money order to the author. Much shareware is still of the garage programmer variety, where the program's author wrote this in her/his spare time, and is distributing it via the Internet and bulletin boards. Some shareware also uses some of the tactics of the above trial versions, only offering full functionality or perhaps disabling a nag message once you pay.
  • Freeware. Just what it says – free to use, no need to register, no need to pay. However, unlike public domain software (below), the author maintains the copyright – you can't alter the program and redistribute it under your own name.
  • Public domain software. This is software where the author has released it to public ownership. No copyright, no registration, no purchase price. Many times, the source code will also be available so if you're a programmer yourself you can try to improve on the original.

A fair question would be what is the quality of shareware, freeware and public domain software? It varies all over the map, from really horrible to as good as the commercial stuff that will cost you $49 for a new game. And one of shareware's selling points is that it's usually (though not always) cheaper than commercial. But there are some very good entertainment and educational programs being distributed as shareware.

(BIG WARNING: Before you download any software from the Internet or a BBS, make sure you have an up to date virus protection program installed and active on your computer.)

The best place to start your online search for software is CNET's two sites, and

For most folks – anyone using a Mac or Windows – is the quicker route to finding what you're looking for. The site server will automatically determine if you're on a PC or a Mac and give you a menu based on your platform. (At the bottom of the lefthand navigation menu, you'll see an option to go to the other platform – thus, if you're on a PC but looking for Mac software, you can still do so.)

On either platform, you get a main menu with nine categories (business, games, utilities, etc.), as well as links to a list of the most popular downloads, newest programs and the staff's top picks. There is also a search engine on the main menu, so if you know what you're looking for you can see if they have it quickly.

Whether browsing through their lists or using the search function, once you find a program or file (like a screen saver or clip art collection, for instance) that interests you, you can click on the file name to get more info on it. The file page will tell give you a short description of the software, what the price is (including free on some), when it was first posted and how many times it has been downloaded.

CNET's other software site,, has most of the same features as but for more platforms. Here you'll find programs for Amigas, Ataris (including the old 8-bit Atari 800 from the late 1970s!), OS/2, Unix and DOS. Windows users may also find preferable to because you can break your search down by which version of Windows you have: 3.x, 95 or NT.

In a big step forward in terms of accessing older programs, has also added a search engine of the best software archives – have an old '286 in the garage and need a printer driver? You just might be in luck.

Many of the archives are now switching over to a Web-based interface. As mentioned, it used to be you needed to know Unix and various Unix-based Internet search tools to access these archives, but that's changing. One of the largest shareware archives for PC and Mac software is Walnut Creek ( Here you'll find everything from the Linux operating system (7 million users and growing) to Quake II support to edutainment programs for the Mac.

Another massive archive is the Wuarchive run by Washington University in St. Louis. The main page gives you links to Windows, Linux, Mac, Amiga and midi archives. there is much more available, too.

And finally, depending on how far back you want to go, the OAK Software Repository has links to archives for CP/M, the old Zenith/Heath line from the late '70s, and the original IBM PC.