Charles Arthur on technology

'Shareware has a real person at the other end of an e-mail address who has put heart and soul into it'
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The Independent Online

Some of the very best software isn't produced by corporations. If you go into a computer store and browse the boxes of programs you won't find some of the most-used software among them. No KaZaA; no ICQ Lite; no Ad-aware. Nor WinRAR, Cloak, or SpyHunter.

Some of the very best software isn't produced by corporations. If you go into a computer store and browse the boxes of programs you won't find some of the most-used software among them. No KaZaA; no ICQ Lite; no Ad-aware. Nor WinRAR, Cloak, or SpyHunter.

But thousands of those programs have been downloaded from shareware sites around the world. The first three are "freeware", costing you nothing to use; they're given away (in the case of KaZaA, so that you'll view ads sold by the company that wrote it). The last three, though, are typical "shareware": cheap programs ($10-$30) that you can try out for a period of time; if you find it useful, you should pay for the licence.

Typically, corporate software-in- a-box doesn't offer much chance to interact with the people who create the software. I have countless e-mails from companies I've contacted about problems with programs that say things such as: "Thank you for your concern. We are considering your request." Nothing ever comes of them.

That's not my experience, though, with shareware. It's software that has a real person on the other end of an e-mail address who has put heart and soul into this, and is delighted with any response.

More to the point, shareware writers can be much more fleet of foot (or keyboard) than a big corporation. They can take an idea, see an opportunity to create something useful, and package it up in a fraction of the time.

Take the example of Jonathan Deutsch, 21, who is studying computer science at Purdue University in Indiana. Last year, he was at the Worldwide Developer Conference run by Apple, at which it shows off the innards, and new tweaks, of its software, so that other software writers can update their software. One of these was a function called "Webkit" that would generate a web page on the fly, but without needing a browser. Apple developed it for its iTunes Music Store (a browser-style interface embedded in the iTunes music-player). Here was something that let you embed a web page into anything, such as a document.

Now, if you've ever tried to look after a website, you'll know how frustrating it is to write the page, upload it to the server, look at it, revise it on your machine, upload, look, repeat until perfect. Seeing Webkit, a light went on in Jonathan's head: "I thought a killer application would be to connect a text field to the web browser to create a live HTML editor." It would "break the cycle of writing HTML, saving the file, then reloading and viewing the page in the browser by combining the writing phase with the viewing phase". An hour later, with the help of a friend and his laptop, HyperEdit was born. "Even this basic version worked great. We showed it to friends, and they were impressed, especially when their test of playing an embedded movie worked."

After a couple of weeks' work refining it, he had a working piece of software that he was able to release (through the web's many shareware sites) as "donationware" - you're encouraged to give $10 if you use it more than 10 times, but it will keep working even if you don't. It came to my notice because it will even preview pages that include a web language called PHP, used for generating dynamic pages whose content depends on the interplay of databases and user actions. And it so happened that previewing PHP was just what I needed to do.

Without HyperEdit, writing the pages would have been a miserable task; instead, it became interactive, fun, and much quicker. Obviously, I paid for it; and, of course, I got in touch to praise the idea, suggest improvements, and point out what might be bugs, all in the belief that those he thought useful would be acted upon quickly.

HyperEdit probably won't make Jonathan rich (even though people at Tucows.com have ranked it their second favourite HTML editor, ahead of Macromedia's Dreamweaver, which costs $399). He hopes the donations will fund the purchase of a "cheap laptop", so that he can work on his next, bigger shareware idea. I look forward to it.

If you have a problem to solve, there's probably a shareware fix for it out there. All you need to do is look. Just not in a store.

HyperEdit for Mac OSX: http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~deutschj/HyperEdit/

Shareware sites: www.tucows.com; www.versiontracker.com; www.download.com; www.shareware.com

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