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
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
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!
Postscript: The SWREG busines has been sold to Lucky Online Holdings
Ltd. of Hong Kong who renamed themselves to Atlantic Coast of America
Corporation Ltd. We still are involved in day to day operations by
providing the staff to handle the day to day business of operating
the service. This is a bit like a Hotel company contracting out the
management and day to day running of the hotel to a specialist
company like Marriott. sales in Q1 2002 projected at just under $20m
More: OK - we got the SWREG business back. Now we are doing $55m a
year (Q1 2004).
We also own two of the unique Neoplan Jumbocruisers (see
http://jumbocruiser.com) which will be added to our Rock 'n' Roll bus
fleet. Am also negotiating to buy into a Californian record label.
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
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,
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