Why buy when you can borrow?

Dorothy Walker spurns the computer megastores and heads off to a Bromley library to try out some shareware
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"I'm here to get computer games for my granny," says Geoffrey Stacey, deftly navigating the menus on the PC screen in front of him. "She got hooked on computers while she was babysitting and persuaded my mum to buy one."

The setting for his unlikely mission is not a computer megastore, but Geoffrey's library at Bromley in Kent. It is one of the libraries that has recently adopted the Ramesis Data Bank, designed to make borrowing software as easy as signing out a book.

Using Ramesis couldn't be simpler. You browse through 3,000 software titles on a PC. You then pay pounds 2 for a floppy disk, copy your chosen program and take it home to play with.

The software is "shareware", meaning you have 30 days to decide whether you like it. If you want to keep it, you pay a small fee to the authors (the program tells you how). If you don't like it, you just throw the software away and put your Ramesis disk to some other use.

To give me a taste of shareware, Geoffrey guides me through the collection, which covers business, education, games and hobbies. All software life is here, from Bert's Dinosaurs to a database called Norman, from CyberTarot to the Mega Sermon Collection. Geoffrey explains: "These might be the first programs someone has written, but they are usually good - better than the ones we get from the cash-and-carry store."

Does he pay the shareware fees? "It's a lot of trouble - most of the companies are American, and you have to change your money into dollars. But I agree with paying, because it helps them design better programs."

A man who has obviously escaped from a shopping expedition spots the PC. "Is that linked to the Internet?" he asks. "No," I tell him, explaining that it's like downloading software from the Net, but without the hassle and telephone bill. "Does it have anything that would do my mailing lists?" he asks. "I have to print all the addresses every time I want to change anything." We find six contenders, and he opts for one called Mail List Manager: "It's worth pounds 2 just to try it - a blank disk costs half that," he concludes.

Next arrival is a pensioner in search of card games. "I buy one every week, usually some kind of patience. If there's nothing on television, I play with the computer." What kind of machine is it? "I got my first one, an old Amstrad, last September. I liked it so much that I've just bought a new Pentium multimedia machine." When I inquire about shareware fees, he says: "It's so difficult to register. Besides, I wouldn't be able to afford it."

I help a schoolboy to navigate the Ramesis screens. The system is self- explanatory, but the youngster is a slow reader. However, he does recognise "arcade games", and his mission is to persuade his mother to buy one. "Look at this," he shouts across to her. "No," she replies, not even turning round to look. "Time to go."

A mum-and-two-daughters party arrives. "My husband has sent me to get these educational programs," mother says. "Sophie really likes doing spelling and maths on the computer - she's six now, and has been using it for two years." As she checks details, mum finds that one of today's choices, Maths Rescue, was voted Educational Program of the Year in 1993. "These are really good," she says. "Most software is on CD-rom, but our computer can't play them. Anyway, they're too expensive."

I eavesdrop as two teenage whiz-kids cruise the system. One is into computerised animation, and appears to have most of the world's silicon chip output stashed at home. His friend recognises the name of a program: "You have Morph - did you steal it from here?" "You can't steal things - the system only accepts the disks you buy in the library."

I broach the subject of shareware fees. "I do agree with the concept of paying, but it's so much hassle," says the animator. "However, with Paint Shop Pro (a brilliant, professional package for desktop publishing), I did ring up to register. They just gave me a code to type in, and didn't ask for money. Maybe they made a mistake.

"With some shareware, you don't get a complete version of the software. I got a program to make icons, but you couldn't save what you had created until you registered. That's not fair. Sometimes the software is time- bombed so that it won't work after the evaluation period, but that's very easy to get round. It usually works from the clock on your PC. If you set back the date on the clock, you can trick the software into letting you use it."

His friend zeroes in on the Lottery and Gambling section. "Don't waste your money - have an arcade game instead," says the animator. The eventual choice is a flow-chart tool to help with maths homework. I look suitably impressed as they leave.

The final visitor of the day looks serious: a thirtysomething armed with two giant computer books and a stack of Ramesis disks. His holy grail is utilities - handy programs that make using a computer easier.

"Some of these cost pounds 100 in shops," he says. "Here, you get the same kind of thing for pounds 10. At this price, if you don't like it, you just throw it away, but it's usually good. A few things are a bit cruder than the expensive versions, but I can live with that.

"If shareware is good, then I usually send off some money. People have spent time on it, and they deserve something back. Many American companies use British agents you can send the fees to."

"So it's no trouble to register?" I ask.

"No trouble at all."

For details of participating libraries and a shareware mail order service, contact Ramesis, West End House, Thornton Road, Bradford BD1 2DX, 01274 737376.

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