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Proceed with caution.

Proceed With Caution

Explore the pros and cons of using shareware.

If you hang around computer types for very long, you will hear the suffix ware a lot. We call components, printers, and the computers themselves hardware. Programs don't fall into this category--they are software. You name it, we have it: groupware, firmware, vaporware, peopleware, and (the subject of this column) shareware.

Shareware is shared software. Once a programmer has written software for a computer, the software will run on all computers of the same type. It's not like a car or a television; the programmer does not have to build a new product every time he or she wants to sell another copy. So once a software prototype is written, the cost of additional production is virtually nothing. Add to this a widespread and inexpensive distribution system of electronic bulletin boards (like Compuserve or Prodigy), and you're talking about the ultimate in low overhead.

Shareware actually is a marketing tool. It allows the potential buyer to test-drive the product before purchasing it. It works like this: I write a program for my own personal use. Then I get the bright idea that other people might want a program that does the same thing. So I write documentation and instructions for its use (electronically, of course) and include help functions as well. I include in the documentation a statement that says, "If you use this program and like it, please send me $50 and I will send you a license to use it." I probably will also send you additional documentation, upgrades, or improvements to the program as I make them in the future. Then I telephone my favorite on-line bulletin board, upload the system, and sit back and wait for the money to roll in.

Now it's your turn. You dial the on-line bulletin board and browse the shareware files. You come across my program and like what you see. So you download my program onto your computer and begin to use it. If you like it, you send me $50. If you don't, you take it off your computer and don't use it.

Perhaps you can see a flaw or two in this system. For example, what if someone uses the software and does not pay? Technically, this is a copyright violation. There is some debate as to the legality of these licenses, but we'll leave that to the attorneys. (For more on software copyright issues, see "Legal," August 1991.) For the association executive, there can be other problems.

Potential Drawbacks

First, the bulk of shareware (including freeware) is technically oriented. Many shareware systems are utilities that help the user manage disk space, file directories, and so forth. Since most association executives are not computer jocks, these utilities may not serve much purpose.

Even if you find shareware that is not in the heavy-duty technical utility class, you still need computer expertise to get it onto your machine. It's not just that you have to know how to access an on-line bulletin board and download software. You also have to know how to make the software work. Worse yet, most shareware comes "zipped"--in a compressed file format--and you have to know how to "unzip" the stuff, or you have to have someone who can help you.

Support is always an issue with any software. It's one thing to buy a commercial software package and need support, but if you stake the operations of your association on shareware, you want to know that support will always be there. Certainty of support is an issue you should consider before committing your association to shareware.

Finally, one of the biggest disadvantages of shareware is its link to computer viruses. Viruses, programs that damage your system, travel in shareware. If no one dials into your system, shareware is the only place you are at risk for viruses. If you use shareware, get it from a reliable source. The American Nurses Association (ANA), Kansas City, Missouri, tests all software for viruses, and it also analyzes how it will work in conjunction with all of its other systems.

The Plus Side

An incredible array of shareware is available. Any type of commercial software is also available through shareware.

Also, even though you have to pay for most shareware, the price is reasonable. It is rare to find a shareware system priced at more than $100; most systems are less than $50.

Not all shareware is for technocrats, and shareware is more than a computer program. Shareware can come in the form of macros--recorded keystroke sequences that perform specific functions--and text, not just programs. Many association executives have mastered word processing and spreadsheet systems, which use macros. Shareware libraries are loaded with macros for word processing and spreadsheet systems like WordPerfect and Lotus.

And if you're even less technically inclined, you might be interested in some of the shareware text files. These consist of nothing but text. You could, for example, take a shareware text off of a bulletin board, eliminating the need to type it yourself.

Another big advantage of shareware obtained from bulletin boards is you can use it immediately.

One of my favorite shareware systems is Procomm, a communication package we use at ANA. Communication packages allow you to use a modem on your computer to dial another computer or an on-line service, such as Compuserve or Prodigy. Procomm is available from Datastorm Technologies, Columbia, Missouri; (314) 474-8461, or GO DATASTORM on Compuserve. It's a dandy little package, but don't take my word for it. Since it's shareware, you can get a copy and kick the tires before you invest $75 for its registration fee.

Steven L. Harrison is director of information management systems at the American Nurses Association, Kansas City, Missouri.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article; use of computer software; Technology at Work
Author:Harrison, Steven L.
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:In-house silent auction.
Next Article:Environment: conflict, change, and the balance of interests.

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