Lovable Software

ONE REASON THERE is so much software piracy is that so many software companies seem like pirates. In their reasonable moments most people can see that even a list price of $695 isn’t always fair cause for complaint. A highgrade program often represents a conceptual breakthrough and always has involved many thousands of hours of programming effort. Once you have bought it, it will never wear out. You can use it every day and watch it pay for itself in convenience. Unless someone had taken the risk and gone to the trouble of writing programs, you would have no practical uses for your computer at all. Moreover, without the hope of big profits, venture-capital funds might desert the computer business, and then how would we hold off the Japanese:

Still, we are not always slaves to rationality, and anyone who has paid his own (not his company’s) money tor programs has felt at least a flicker of outrage when asked to put up so much for items whose marginal cost of production is so low. Even the drastic discounts offered by mail-order firms arouse paranoia. When the same word-processing program that you saw in the local computer store for $495 is offered for $199 through the mail—or for free, when “bundled” with a new computer—you are more likely to buy it, but also more likely to conclude that any price above the roughly $15 that the disks and reference manual cost represents an arbitrary marketing decision. The final touch is the licensing agreements that go with most high-cost programs. They thunder against the evils of unauthorized program-copying and then issue a “don’t blame us” disclaimer of any guarantee, including that the program will perform as advertised or run at all. (A typically gracious disclaimer, on a program I recently bought from Microsoft, was printed in capital letters and said, “THE PROGRAM IS PROVIDED ‘AS IS’ WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND. THE ENTIRE RISK AS TO THE RESULTS AND PERFORMANCE OF THE PROGRAM IS ASSUMED BY YOU.”)

Serious computer users eventually conclude that dealing with pirated software, usually copied from a friend’s, is more bother, moral and otherwise, than staying on the straight and narrow. With a legitimate copy, you have the full manual, you can call the company for help (and sometimes get it), and you are eligible for upgrades and new releases of the program, which you will certainly want if you use the program frequently. But few who pay their money do so with happy hearts.

In our rambunctious society someone was bound to try to occupy the market niche available to a lovable software company, or at least one willing to compete on price. The first dramatic “lovable” success was Borland International, a California company run by a chubby young Frenchman named Philippe Kahn. Borland offered several excellent programs for $49.95 apiece, and it reinforced its software-for-the-people image by running garish advertisements that might well have appeared as murals on the sides of RVs. An ad for its indispensable Sidekick program, which lets you stop in the middle of whatever you’re doing and look up addresses or make calculations, depicted a computer dressed up like a cowpoke, with a ten-gallon hat on top of the monitor and an arm reaching out from the machine as if to give the user a big “Howdy!” Its ads for a programming language called Turbo Pascal looked like posters for a low-budget scifi film. Borland recently bought the rights to a fancy data-base program called Reflex, which had been selling for $495, and dropped its list price to $99.95.

Other companies, including MicroRim and XyQuest (which produce, respectively, the R:Base data-base programs and the word-processor called XyWrite), have done the consumer a favor by offering low-cost demonstration disks. For $10 or less, you can get a “crippled" version of the program, which does not allow you to develop a very large data base or print what you wrote but does let you see how the program works before you invest hundreds of dollars.

A more radical blow for cheap software was struck last summer by Ann Arbor Software, which suddenly dropped the list price of its Textra 3.1 word-processing program to $9.95. I’ve never used Textra, but according to its devotees it can do 90 percent of what WordStar and other stalwarts can, for roughly two percent of the price. Textra’s main limitations are that it cannot work with very long files, is clumsy at deleting text, and has no “mail-merge” system tor producing form letters. (Might this be the ideal system for congressional offices?)

Some useful software can be had even more cheaply than Textra. Most people who get computer fever soon realize that they could never afford to buy all the programs that sound interesting, even when these are discounted to $199. The solution is to tap the vast array of publicdomain (that is, free) software that is available through the electronic bulletin-board systems that have cropped up all over the country.

I entice my sons to cooperate with, rather than torment, each other by letting them team up against a public-domain chess program; I send messages over my modem with a public-domain communications program. The only cost of entering the public domain (once you have acquired a modem) is submitted to yet another form of computer addiction, since most of the bulletin boards are nests of discussion, invective, and intrigue.

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO I mentioned in these pages the public-spirited attitude of another company, Satellite Software International, of Orem, Utah, which has ceaselessly made repairs and added features to its word-processing program, WordPerfect. I hesitate to speak of WordPerfect again, since other worthy programs, especially a new descendant of XyWrite called Nota Bene, may deserve equal time. But SSI’s amendments to WordPerfect are as heartening and important an illustration of the high road to software marketing as was Borland’s revolutionary pricing policy.

Late last year SSI released version 4.1 of WordPerfect, replacing version 4.0. According to the nomenclature conventions of the business, this would usually signify a minor tidying-up, designed to remove bugs or perhaps to permit the use of different printers. This “revised” WordPerfect, though, is essentially a new program, which sacrifices none of the merits of the previous version while greatly improving on its flexibility.

The most dramatic single improvement is a built-in thesaurus that begins to rival the complexity, and therefore the value, of Roger’s. Searching through the overlapping cross-references of a first-class thesaurus, so tedious when done by hand and therefore so unlikely to be bothered with by harassed wretches sitting at the typewriter, is the sort of task that computers were born to perform. Some sentiment, probably snobbery or nostalgia, makes me feel that the listings in Roger’s are more precise than those in any electronic thesaurus vet produced. But this new thesaurus is roughly a thousand times easier to use than Roget’s and is more complete and helpful than any other on the software market, for example, a competitor called Word Finder ($79.95 from Writing Consultants, of East Rochester, New York) also produces a quick list of synonyms on the screen. But the WordPerfect thesaurus lets you check synonyms for their synonyms, leading Roget-like down a trail that may eventually take you to your goal. Word Finder, unfortunately, restricts you to the original list. In nuance and precision the WordPerfect thesaurus is a big step up.

The new WordPerfect also has split screens, so that you can look at one document while working on another; a sophisticated way to break copy into columns, so that you can lay out newsletter pages (or, using a different column format, screenplays or scripts) on the screen; a “memory caching" protocol that makes the best use of the varying amounts of memory that different computers have and speeds up the program’s operation; a way to search quickly through files other than the one you are working on to find a certain word or phrase; a routine for sorting lists of names or addresses; and several dozen additional features. It also removes the major limitations of the previous release.

That is, it permits you to escape to the operating system and run other programs, and then return; it offers a fast way to count the words in any document; and it remedies an annoying bug that sometimes kept line breaks from occurring at the right place. It even compensates for an error IBM made when designing its keyboard, which other manufacturers, in their quest for IBM compatibility, have witlessly imitated. The standard IBM keyboard gives you no indication of whether its CAPS LOCK and NUM LOCK keys are on. (Depending on whether NUM LOCK is on or off, keys on a special key pad will either produce numbers or send the cursor to different corners of the screen.) WordPerfect now provides an inconspicuous onscreen reminder of the status of the LOCK keys.

SSI has not followed Borland’s lowball pricing strategy: the list price for WordPerfect is $495. The company has, however, offered substantial trade-in allowances to owners of other programs. I got mine for $163 on a WordStar tradein. And in releasing version 4.1 of WordPerfect it announced that the “upgrade fee,”for owners of previous versions, would be only $45—or, by any standards except Textra’s, practically nothing. Most competing thesauruses alone cost more than the upgrade fee, and just one of the new features included—the sorting routine—was previously sold separately for $95. SSI also has bucked a noxious trend by refusing to burden its disks with “copy-protection" devices, which dishonest users can eventually thwart and which are a tremendous headache for honest users of hard-disk computers. Copy protection is especially maddening when you have a hard-disk computer, since the whole point of the investment is to copy your program onto the hard disk and take advantage of its much greater speed. “If people are going to be copying someone’s program, I’d rather it be ours,”Alan Ashton, a reserved father of eleven and a professor at Brigham Young University who designed the original program, said when unveiling the new version. “Eventually they’ll want a legitimate copy of a new release.”

As successive versions of WordPerfect have been unveiled, they have made the program more flexible, enlarging the user’s choices rather than steering him in the direction the programmer prefers. Such an approach, I think, is the trait that distinguishes successful programs (VisiCale, dBase, Lotus 1-2-3, and so forth) from those that get left behind. It also typifies the efforts of another admirable software company, the Portable Computer Support Group, of Dallas.

PCSG’s specialty has been programs for “lap-top" computers, the notebooksized machines from Radio Shack and NEC that can often be heard clacking away on airplanes. The emergence of lap-tops has provided one form of flexibility—you can take them anywhere— at the cost of another. Their built-in word-processing software is effective but crude, and when you connect a laptop to a printer, the result is an unformatted mess.

PCSG has offered a series of reasonably priced programs, embedded in read-only memory (ROM) chips, which snap into the back of the little computers and overcome many of their limitations. A program called Lucid, which lists for $99.95, gives the Radio Shack Model 100 a very fast spreadsheet program, like Lotus 1-2-3. Another, called Write-Rom, also $99.95, makes a portable computer into a plausible word-processor, by giving it many of the printing controls and other features of a regular machine. Only one of the chips fits in at a time, but they may be snapped in and out, and they use up none of the computer’s working memory space. PCSG has just introduced “Super ROM,”which contains both programs and others besides, for $199.95. In its one venture into priciness, PCSG also offers randomaccess memory chips that can quadruple the Model 100’s memory—to 128k from its original 32k —for $425.

The popular mythology of the computer business focuses on the titans who created companies like Apple and Lotus, building personal fortunes by creating products no one had imagined before. I hope we can make room for the guiding lights of Borland. SSI, PCSG, and, yes, Ann Arbor Software. Though their companies are less euphoniously named than the pioneers’, and their products less celebrated, the services thev are providing are as great.