Software

The software for the consumer sector

To process information on a computer in a particular way requires a set of instructions to be run known as a software package or program. To a computer, a software package is just a series of 0's and 1's organised in such a way as to help the computer function in a particular way.

For example, the following binary code could be part of a software program for performing a certain task:

....10010110010101110110....

Do software programmers write programs in 0's and 1's?

Fortunately, software programmers are no longer required to write software programs using binary code. That would simply be too masochistic.

There is a language above binary code which makes it a whole lot easier to write programs called machine code. But for really large and sophisticated software programs that must be created quickly, software programmers use the latest software tools designed to create programs in another, more advanced computer language such as Pascal, Java, C++, and BASIC.

Later, when the software program is finished and ready for distribution, the program is translated into machine language so that the microprocessor can rapidly process this language into a series of 0's and 1's.

What kind of software can I buy today and how much?

Today, software packages can be purchased for practically nothing (i.e. freeware and many open source software) to more than $A25,000 (such as the awesome commercial 3D package called Maya 2.5 Unlimited as of 2001).

Fortunately most software packages are well under the A$1000 mark for you to choose from. Some of the software available may be designed to do nothing more than read and repair the data on your computer's hard disk (costing around A$150 such as Alsoft DiskWarrior 2.1.1), while others are much more sophisticated and highly complex such as the ability to design and quickly render intricate and realistic 3D graphics (A$300 to A$2000) or converting your spoken words into word processing text (A$200 to $A2000).

The most useful software to purchase for your computer

Perhaps the most useful software to acquire for any computer include the following:

  1. A word processor (e.g. the now classic Microsoft Word 97/98 or higher - if you have Word 2001, don't upgrade to Word X for Macintosh unless you already have MacOSX and don't mind spending a fair bit of money. Word X will not provide any extra new features for the high price of the upgrade - or consider AppleWorks 5.0 or higher, formerly owned by Claris Corporation and now held by Apple Computer, Inc.), a free spreadsheet/word/graphics/database package when you purchase a post-2001 Macintosh computer.

    Or better still, you can now download a glorious 49MB of the free "open source" implementation of StarOffice 1.1. As Eric Raymond, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), said:

    "OpenOffice.org 1.0 may be the single best hope for consumers fed up with Microsoft's desktop monopoly. With Sun moving to a full service and support business model for StarOffice software, users around the globe will continue to have a free office productivity software tool through the OpenOffice.org open source community." (1)

    With over 4.5 million downloads of its pre-1.0 versions and with the ability to read and write Microsoft Word/Excel files, users certainly can't be complaining with what's on offer at the moment.

    UPDATE
    September 2003

    Microsoft Corporation are now selling Microsoft Office X for Macintosh at A$200 less than the standard prices. And for the professional edition, you now get an OSX compatible Virtual PC 6.1 software for running Windows software. This helps Windows users to run their favourite PC software on a MacOSX computer. So if Apple Computer, Inc. are not allowed by Microsoft to make their OS run on PC computers, well at least Microsoft can make a bigger profit in selling Windows XP on Virtual PC for Macintosh computers in return for supplying a copy of a Macintosh version of Microsoft Office. Otherwise, without Microsoft Office, there would be no future for MacOSX in the consumer market.

    UPDATE
    17 January 2004

    It is generally true that most government departments are the least likely to move over from Microsoft Office products to something different. This is because the Microsoft package has been sufficiently entrenched in many departments for a long time and also moving over to another similar package could cause problems in compatibility and in standardising documents for use across the entire departments. Even when Microsoft Word is the preferred tool, consistency of Word document templates is still the name of the game and it is not unusual for IT experts to spend hours laboriously updating macros for building the templates just to make them compatible with the latest Microsoft Word version. Now a software developer named DPM Consulting has created an "Add-on" for Microsoft Word called Fahrenheit-451 (or F451), a name chosen because paper burns at this temperature. Now, for the first time, F451 has done away with updating macros and can now separate the style and content of a Word document and make a copy of the style (or "the look and feel") and insert this information into any Word document you like without requiring hours or days to be spent updating and later running the macros for building the Word document templates. This means updating say 700 document templates can be done in less than 2 minutes with F451. And all documents will be consistent with the one before, exactly what government departments want. This simple idea is so good Microsoft Corporation is planning to add F451 to its next Word version sometime in 2004.

    NOTE: A good Microsoft software reseller: PowerSoft.

  2. Graphic designing tools consisting of a drawing package (e.g. Adobe Illustrator 7.0 or higher, or Macromedia Freehand 9.0 or higher) and a painting package (the industry-standard and somewhat complicated Adobe Photoshop 4.0 or higher, or PaintShop Pro 6.0 or higher), or one tool that does both (e.g. Deneba Canvas 6 or higher). For a free open source image manipulation program, try The Gimp for Linux, OSX and Windows. It will do most of the things Adobe Photoshop can do.

    NOTE: For a free PC photo organiser and album, try downloading the following the software while it is available (as of 23 April 2004): Picasa Photo Organiser (3.9MB).

  3. You may have noticed when using a basic desktop publishing tool like Microsoft Word how difficult it is to properly combine, manipulate and position correctly the graphics and text on a page. For truly professional desktop publishing with full typographic controls and accurate printing outputs, you have a choice of the behemoths ofQuarkXPress 5.0, Adobe PageMaker 6.5 or 7.0 and Adobe InDesign 2.0, or a range of low-cost and highly flexible desktop publishing alternatives. Adobe PageMaker is in the slightly more expensive end of the desktop publishing field. But if you have real money to spend, try Adobe InDesign 2.0 for about A$2000. This package has so many nice touches including true transparency page layouts that it would be hard to look at any other package. However, if you are a retro-publisher from the late 1980s, you will probably feel more right at home with Quark Xpress 5.0 for A$3584 (upgrades are cheaper thank god!). This package has been around for a long time and is a tried-and-tested package with solid and dependable features. And now that version 5.0 boasts a PDF creation tool, direct table editing and XML, experienced QuarkXPress users would be wise to stick to this latest version. But anyone else who wants to learn for the first time what desktop publishing is all about and have everything that you will ever need, Adobe InDesign 2.0 should be your first and only software. Otherwise, go for a cheaper version like Adobe PageMaker 6.5 or higher. Or check the second-hand software shops for a copy of Aldus PageMaker 5.0 - it should sell for less than A$100.

    NOTE: Adobe and Quark are now going head-for-head in the battle to win the hearts and minds of (but not the budget-conscious) professional desktop publishers. You will find in the coming years many similar features between the two software packages as both companies compete for your dollar.

  4. A tool to store, quickly organise, and find bits and pieces of information known as a database (e.g. Microsoft Access 95 or higher, or for something a little easier try the powerful Claris FileMaker Pro 3.0 or higher. FileMaker Pro 3.0 is now considered an absolute classic unless you want the ability to make your database and its data available on the Internet and have the ability to run custom plug-ins, in which case you should go for software version 4.1v3 or higher. FileMaker Pro 5.0 is not much different from version 4.0 except that its menu commands have been rearranged for greater work efficiency and it has more direct links to Microsoft Office using ODBC for seamless integration of FileMaker Pro databases (although this feature is available in version 4.1).

    FileMaker Pro 6.0v2 has just been released as of 8 July 2002. This version focusses mainly on multimedia and internet aspects like capturing digital video and photographs directly from digital cameras and inserting then straight into your FileMaker databases, and you have the ability to create XML imports and exports. There are other improvements like custom dialogs (given how popular Troi's Dialog Plug-in has been for FileMaker Pro developers), batch file import capabilities and a few other things. As Dominique Goupil, president of FileMaker Inc. said:

    "In the last two years we've shipped about a million units of the product each year. The key to our success is ease of use in a software category not known for ease of use. Version 6 continues that tradition and takes us in three directions: digital image capture and import; XML import/export; and timesaving features with batch file import, a Format Painter, custom dialogs, and more....There are no file format changes so various versions of FileMaker are totally compatible." (2)

    Good! The last thing people want to see is a new software that makes older file versions totally incompatible. However, the only slight problem with this latest version is that Mac users will now be forced to buy the MacOSX version only. For some reason, the company no longer sees much future in providing FileMaker Pro to MacOS9 users (oh well, time to get a PC version of FileMaker Pro and start running it on RealPC 1.0.9 or some other Windows emulator package).

    UPDATE
    February 2004

    FileMaker, Inc. (formerly known as Claris Corporation) has released FileMaker Pro 7.0. This latest version is starting to suggest the company is getting too large for its own good and is costly to run while struggling to find significant improvements to get people to buy it (just like versions 5.0 and 6.0). The improvements in version 7, however, are sufficiently useful to see some FileMaker Pro users upgrade to the latest version (mainly professional developers and most businesses who think having the latest software will make an enormous difference to their bottom-line). The improvements (the company claims there are over 100 new features) are primarily to do with the ability to hold any kind of file or document (e.g. PDFs, Word documents etc) inside more flexible container fields, more flexibility in presenting data from related databases through better relationships and portals, displaying multiple tables in one database file, and the chance for users to create up to 8 terabyte database file sizes for serious business use. A good addition to the product is an improved security feature which should help to minimise hackers working out the developer's password (now only FileMaker, Inc. can see what you are doing). Now that FileMaker Inc. has reached what is believed to be a critical business size where making huge profits are necessary to pay for the salaries of many employees, shareholders and other operating costs, the company has decided to find creative ways to entice enough users to buy the latest version. The solution? FileMaker, Inc. has (i) made sure the application can only run on OSX version 10.2 for Macintosh and Windows XP for PC (NOTE: The company was considerate enough to let business Windows 2000 users run the application); and (ii) changed the plug-in calling architecture in the scripting environment. In other words, instead of the External("Plug-inName", "Parameter") script users have come to love in previous versions, users will now be required to use the Plug-inName(Parameter1, Parameter2) script. It is not a significant change and certainly the previous calling structure would have been sufficient (or kept inconjunction with the latest command). But the change was probably done to ensure enough professional FileMaker Pro developers wanting to sell the latest FileMaker solutions to clients and most businesses are forced to upgrade unless some clever person out there can build a plug-in or utility to insert the new calling script into the older databases of previous FileMaker applications and somehow bypass FileMaker Pro's own testing environment.

    Fortunately the company was smart enough not to radically change the application to the point where all previous database files created on older FileMaker Pro applications would have to be built from scratch. Otherwise the company would have lost a huge percentage of its customer base and that would have spelt disaster. The company at least understands something of the importance of being able to convert older FileMaker Pro solutions to the latest and still be able to work (well, almost perfectly if you were using the old external plug-in solutions in earlier FileMaker Pro versions). This is a far cry from Microsoft Access databases where a new application version will attempt to update your Access databases, but it will never be perfect and you could be forced to do a lot of work to fix it up.

    With this in mind, many people will probably stick with their older FileMaker Pro versions for a little while longer, make their databases better designed to do the work more efficiently and effectively, and maybe upgrade when they are ready and not when FileMaker, Inc. says you should. Those professional developers who do make a living selling FileMaker Pro databases will either have to decide whether to upgrade all their databases to FileMaker Pro 7 version or provide a mid-way solution to ensure backward compatibility and at the same time give an extra set of databases to replace others so that customers can gain the extra features of the latest version 7 application (and messy and tedious job).

    Or maybe the real question we should be asking is, "Why can't FileMaker, Inc. make a utility or plug-in for older FIleMaker Pro users to permit copying and pasting any script and/or to put in a Continue button in the dialog box to help bypass the script testing environment of FileMaker Pro (since Autoscript Pro 2.1 and ProMaker Utility 1.1 cannot deal with this problem)?"

    UPDATE
    January 2005

    FileMaker, Inc. is going through a major marketing program to sell its latest flagship FileMaker Pro 7.x to consumers. Either the company is not selling enough of the product, or is trying hard to sell during the after-Christmas period (even though it has been advertising in December 2004). Some of the gimmicks employed by the company include giving away USB drives. Perhaps the company would be better off giving away FileMaker Pro 7.x so enough people will use it unless it learns to keep the old external function calling architecture.

  5. For businesses and those "budget-minded" people at home wanting to analyse their finances in these tough times, you will need a tool to manipulate and display numbers in both a table and graphical format (e.g. Microsoft Excel 5.0 or higher).
  6. If you want to access information on the Internet, you will need an antivirus tool to protect your computer from data loss and file corruption (e.g. Symantec Norton Antivirus 5.0 or higher is good software if you don't mind losing a bit of performance on your computer when the software is turned on and starts scanning extensions and applications being launched on your computer, although version 7.0.2 is much better; or try the fast, stable and relatively unobtrusive Virex 6.1 or higher), a compression/decompression tool when downloading/uploading files on the Internet (e.g. Aladdin StuffIt Deluxe 4.0 or higher; or for PC users try the freeware package called ZipStar 4.0 from Germany with the ability to compress, archive, make executable and even tag your compressed zip files with a password) and an Internet browser (e.g. Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.1.4 or higher, or Netscape Communicator 4.7 or higher).

    NOTE: Aladdin StuffIt Deluxe 7.01 has a new compression format known as StuffIt X (.sitx). The enhanced compression algorithm now handles multi-terabyte-size archives for multimedia and video producers and will make smaller compressed files if they are graphic files (actual tests suggest it is about 2 to 8 percent smaller than files compressed in the.sit format). However, any other file type or application and it could actually increase the compressed file size slightly compared to the older StuffIt compression format (.sit).

    StuffIt encryption has also been improved from the original 40-bit encryption level to 512-bit RC4 encryption, making it more secure than what most banks require for online transactions.

    Unless you are in the professional business of creating super secure files or you happen to have very large files to compress for your work, you are better off sticking with the older StuffIt application versions. NOTE: It would appear some companies are struggling to find new technologies to help significantly improve their products for the consumer market. Therefore it is likely we will see many of the companies in the future concentrating on the business and government markets for their bread and butter.

    NOTE: Aladdin (now Allume) StuffIt Deluxe application (not the Expander, DropStuff etc) version 9.0 - 9.0.1 is riddled with bugs. Perhaps because of a new file format under version 9, the application cannot open older StuffIt files (you'll will need to use the StuffIt Expander tool for older files). And now the latest news is that unzipping StuffIt zip files of any version using the Expander version 9.x will unexpectedly create thousands of "[filename].1" zerobyte files for OSX 'Panther' users. This latter problem doesn't exist for users of StuffIt version 8 or older. As an Allume Systems technical support representative alleged said to one customer:

    "...We're investigating the issue now. It appears to be related to the method Panther uses to create Zip archives when it encounters a file with a resource fork. Apple's BOMArchiveHelper application (Panther's built-in Zip utility) is actually putting in an extra file for every file that contains a resource fork. If you expand these same archives with other unZip utilities, you get the same results...either the extra file, or a folder containing the extra file. Only the BOMArchiveHelper application seems to be ignoring the extra files.

    For all intents and purposes, we are doing "the right thing" by expanding all of the files that are actually in the Zip archive." (http://www.macfixit.com/article.php?story=20041208085541555)

    Maybe so, but somehow the older versions of StuffIt Deluxe ignore the extra files.

    Only one problem with this explanation from the representative: why is the problem unique to StuffIt Deluxe version 9 and not older versions of the software? Even if Apple Computer, Inc. is putting in the extra file (possibly to see who exactly is using OSX and its tools by placing additional files into the things people compress through BOMArchiveHelper), the fact that StuffIt 8 and older versions do not show these extra files when a StuffIt file is unzipped suggests Allume Systems is relying more on Apple to do the right thing under OSX instead of independently doing the right thing on its own of doing the quality control checks and immediately providing the update to help remove the extra files.

    Or could Allume be working with Apple (just as Adobe and Microsoft does) to see whether customers have legitimate copies of software?

    This might explain why some people are checking commercial company websites for older StuffIt files and finding out why they have not upgraded to StuffIt Deluxe 9. For example, an email message may arrive saying the person has a problem expanding the older StuffIt files on the company website and requests advice on what to do. It this way, any company that suddenly updates the StuffIt archives without an indication from the company as to how it has registered the software is more likely to be investigated by Allume than those companies that explain to the person there is a bug in StuffIt Deluxe 9.

  7. To keep your files and hard disk running efficiently and effectively, you will need a tool to defragment files and check for hard disk errors (e.g. the world-class Alsoft Disk Warrior 2.1.1 software, or the fancy but effective and basic Symantec Norton Utilities 4.0 or higher, or the highly comprehensive MicroMat Techtool Pro 2.5.5 or higher).
  8. If you have set your eyes on a 3D modelling software package, you will be glad to know there is an overwhelming number of them to choose from on the market. While there are some very expensive 3D packages such as the stunningly powerful Maya 4.0 Unlimited for A$25,000 (go for Maya 4.5 Complete for MacOSX with a significant price drop to under $5,000 and with many bugs removed), and NewTek LightWave 3D version 7.1 for around A$3500 with its significant new and interesting features like creating 3D hair growth on your 3D character figures and a sky-and-cloud creation tool to match the likes of Bryce 3D, in the mid-range of around A$1000 you should consider the standard Cinema 4D Art or with 3D animation try Cinema 4D XL 7.0. Or for a more sensibly priced 3D package for under the $800 mark, there is the simple and effective Eovia/TGS Amapi 3D 5.15, Eovia/TGS Carrara 1.1, or even Amorphium 3.0 with its ability to model objects on the screen as if they were a piece of clay.

    UPDATE
    July 2002

    A free edition of Alias/Wavefront Maya is now available for personal use called Maya Personal Learning Edition (PLE). You will have unlimited access to the full toolset of Maya Complete including Maya's advanced rendering capabilities. However, there is a catch. Firstly, Macintosh users will have to upgrade to MacOSX to benefit from this software. Secondly, the images produced with Maya PLE are heavily watermarked to restrict users to non-commercial use. And thirdly, to ensure that is the case, you can only save in a non-commercial file format presumably so that you cannot open and Save As using a different 3D software package. The reason for the release is twofold. Firstly, the company has realised there are a large number of competing 3D packages and hence the need for more customers to support the Maya software. And secondly, it wants to dedicate its product to education where students can train to become experts in the design of 3D images using Maya. As Olly Murray, 3D artist at Impossible TV, said:

    "It will make it easier to gain experience of the software and increase the user base. This would make the software more attractive to companies as it's easier to hire the talent to use it." (3)

    There could also be another reason. Software piracy is considered widespread and one of the reasons why people do it is because they need to learn how to use the software packages for future paid employment. So by supplying a free software version for personal use, it is hoped software manufacturers like Alias/Wavefront will not have to work so hard at attracting more customers and in policing the software piracy problem. But will it make a difference? Olly doesn't think so, saying:

    "Before, people wanting to learn an expensive package would often use pirate copies before getting jobs. Pirate copies have become easy to get hold of through sharing programs, so I don't think it will make much difference to the industry in terms of user base." (4)

    Well, only time will tell if this is true. But already educators and trainers of 3D software packages are heralding this as an important and positive move in the industry to help students practice and master the techniques of 3D design. As George Cairns, Maya demonstrator at Luton School of Media Arts, said:

    "For us, it's about training ability, which is more important than the finished product. Once they've honed their skills on the free version they can create and output their projects on the University's licensed copies. I expect to see a rise in the quality of work." (5)

    UPDATE
    September 2002

    Adobe Systems, Inc. have tried to make its own 3D modelling program with mixed results. The program was okay. It would certainly not make Adobe as much money as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator. The main reason why Adobe is not making a seriously good 3D modelling package is because the company knows the competition is too great in this field.

  9. For digital video/movie editing, try the world's best Adobe Premiere 6.0 or higher, or for something cheap and cheerful, try Strata Videoshop 3.0.4 or higher. If you have still digital images, and want to make it move and do certain things to give it the effect like you are watching a movie, try Adobe After Effects. It takes the work out of making movies from your photographs. If you want more special effect filters to add to Adobe After Effects, try downloading for free the plug-in called NeoSapient Flame. This plug-in is a flame-like fractal for creating the impression that your images are breaking up into a flame. Although it does not do a huge amount, what it does do is very interesting and it does it well.
  10. For a low-cost sound-editing tool with excellent features to help you get through your next multimedia project, try SoundProbe 2 from HiSoft Systems. While there are lots of free audio programs to convert between different audio file formats, having a sound editing program to polish even the roughest recording is actually quite expensive. You will be glad to hear that SoundProbe is one of those rare programs on the market which is not designed to seriously empty your pocket of your hard-earned cash. For roughly A$200, SoundProbe delivers the kind of features only found on high-end audio editors including an excellent range of special sound effects, noise reduction, hiss, pop and click removal capabilities and a quality sound mixer. For an alternative professional sound editing software package, try Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro 2. This software will effectively turn your computer into a recording studio.
  11. Want something to create MP3 files for your music CDs? Don't go paying for MP3 encoders when there are a plethora of free superior software to do the job. For PC users, download CDex. It is one of the most popular and easiest to use, and supports the entire gamut of music file formats, including MP3. The only thing you'll need to check is whether your CD drive shows up in the list of drives it can use. If it doesn't, download the ASPI driver at the CDex download site when you get the main CDex installer.

    For Macintosh users, the freeware MPEG Audio Creator 2.0 from Oliver Dreer should be more than adequate for creating quality MP3 files. Or try Petteri Kamppuri's BladeEnc 1.4 for an alternative freeware MP3 encoder (originally downloadable from http://bladeenc.mp3.no/).

  12. For serious DJs looking for a music playing and basic sound editing software tool to automate practically everything you could ever want to start pumping music at a party (such as matching beats per minute in different music tracks and then deciding when to cross-fade from one music track to the next), try Baytex Party 3.0 for US$99.00. This software has an attractive interface and is very easy to use. For a range of other shareware products in this field, check out Shareware Music Machine.
  13. For serious web page designing professionals, consider any or all of the following software: Macromedia Dreamweaver 4.0 (for web page designing), Adobe ImageReady 1.0.1 or Macromedia FireWorks 1.0.1 or higher (web graphics optimisation tool for fast downloading of your images), and Macromedia Flash MX 5.0 (a now easy-to-use, quality vector-graphics and animation tool for the web to help create fast-downloading "moving" and "interactive" graphics);

    NOTE: Macromedia Flash MX 5.0 (selling for about A$1100 as of July 2002) is considered the best vector animation tool on the planet. It caters for both beginners and experts alike. For beginners, the interface has had a major overhaul with reduced clutter to the palettes for greater ease-of-use. It also contains a new Property Inspector palette that changes to reflect editable paramaters for a selected object. This means even less clutter on the screen (an idea borrowed from Macromedia Dreamweaver). For experts, you now have the ability to import video directly into your vector animations and have them compressed using Sorenson Spark compression technology.

    And now that Macromedia has got the idea of how to design quality software with the help of Flash MX, expect the company to release MX versions of Dreamweaver, FireWorks and so on later in 2002.

    NOTE: As of July 2002, Macromedia has released updated versions of Dreamweaver, FireWorks and other flagship software. And all sporting the new look of Flash MX. A good effort all round from the company.

    UPDATE
    June 2005

    Adobe plans to acquire Macromedia for an estimated US$3.4 billion, making it the most serious and biggest competitive force against the world's biggest software manufacturer Microsoft.

  14. For a multimedia construction package with timers for animation and some form of interactivity consider Magenta 2.0 or higher for PC users (6). It is free for non-commercial use and only A$99 for a licensed copy. And what you get is pro-standard tools considered pretty good compared with the likes of Macromedia Director. The only drawback in Magenta 2.0 is that not everyone will find it user-friendly. Or for a truly powerful CD-ROM and presentation maker with interactive events capabilities, consider Xenturi Studio One for PC users for roughly A$1000.
  15. To create stunningly realistic 3D landscapes with ease and speed, Corel Bryce 5.0 is a reasonable software package to consider. However, the best package has to be HiSoft Vue d'Esprit 4.0. This latter software has excellent terrain editing features, a decent interface, fast in rendering on very dense and complex scenes, and a quality rendering with volumetric atmosphere capabilities that makes for a more accurate and realistic landscape.
  16. For ISPs and network administrators who need a quality and stable Server software to deliver files and applications on a network (e.g. the Internet or Intranet), MacOS X Server is proving itself to be a worthwhile investment. Apart from its stability and general good looks, it is priced very reasonably compared with other commercial-quality Server software such as Windows NT. And the biggest selling point for Mac OS X Server is that it comes with an unlimited license. For companies, that's a massive cost saving when compared with the licensing fees of Windows NT which is now becoming prohibitively expensive to purchase. Could this licensing structure of Mac OS X Server turn out to be a real gem for IT professionals?
  17. For serious small business accounting work without the hassles of having to be an accountant, try out Intuit QuickBooks Pro 8.0. This latest version was recently designed from the ground up, and now contains an impressive array of time-saving features and helpful advice packed into a neat and attractive interface. There is also the QuickBooks 2001 Pro. But unless you need the extra features, we recommend sticking with QuickBooks Pro 8.0. And anyway, it would be a whole lot cheaper to buy version 8.0 compared to the hefty AUD$500 price tag for the latest QuickBook software.

    UPDATE
    October 2002

    Reckon NZ (formerly Quicken) has launched a new data-encrypted backup service facility to all 350,000 QuickBooks customers in Australia. The service is designed to help people protect their data from the threat of computer system corruption, software failure, viruses, hackers, theft, fraud and natural disaster. For just A$10 per month, you will have access to your QuickBook files 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week with full data retrieval possible within a matter of seconds (probably for business users or anyone using broadband connection). (7)

    UPDATE
    July 2014

    For $629 you can purchase Reckon Accounts Plus 2014 (the replacement for QuickBooks). Alternatively, you can use the online version, known as Reckon Accounts Hosted, for $315 per user per year on a Windows PC, or $435 on a Mac and portable devices (i.e., iPads and Androids).

  18. For people who need voice-recognition software, there are freeware versions given away by IBM and Philips (see below). But if you want something far more superior, try ScanSoft Naturally Speaking Preferred 8. On the downside, you will have to spend a few hours training your software to recognise your voice. But once done, it will be a vast improvement on almost anything. Price is A$399 as of March 2005.

Where can I buy software from?

You can obtain any or all of the above software from your local software shops or, with the advent of the Internet, direct from the software manufacturers.

Or, given the incredibly large number of software tools now available in the world due to the intense competition between software manufacturers, you should also check out the second-hand software shops, the classifieds of your local newspaper, your local trash n' treasure markets, local software vendors selling locally produced and often cheaper software compared to international versions, computer magazines or software sites on the Internet or elsewhere, for low-cost or free software.

For a recommended list of some of the better software vendors, try the following:

  1. Boomerang Software Exchange
  2. Corporate Software Australia Pty Ltd
  3. Computer Warehouse Sydney Pty Ltd
  4. Harris Technology Centre
  5. International Software Warehouse
  6. Singapore Software Exchange
  7. The Software Shop

Does second-hand or cheaper software mean inferior quality?

In recent times, say in the last five years, software manufacturers have gone to extraordinary lengths (e.g. advertising on television and magazines) to convince us of the importance in buying their latest software (often at an inflated price). They will often say that their products are faster, easier to use and has more features than any of the older or lesser known products.

Should you buy the latest and most powerful software products?

If you've ever purchased a software product over 20 years ago, you would have noticed a significant difference in the quality of the results you could produce compared to other similar products at the time running on more expensive machines (usually available only to university researchers and big advertising companies). Indeed for the average consumer to get quality results from the old software products all those many years ago would have been almost prohibitively expensive to purchase.

Furthermore, by waiting a year or so later, the results you could have achieved with the old software would have improved dramatically.

Things have changed a lot since those days. Today, the power of computers has reached an unprecedented level and there is very little effort required to make simple and effective software to do the job you want in a high quality way. Because of the speed and the ease of building quality hardware and software products, there is a quiet revolution going on in the software industry as we speak. The revolution has been driven initially by home-based freeware/shareware software programmers working from home and now by commercial software manufacturers giving away older commercial software programs online and on magazines in order to compete for your dollar.

Another way to survive in the cut-throat software industry is for some software manufacturers to give away a basic version of their flagship software and then allow their customers to pay for extras as they need them. For an example of this, see Strata DVbaseª 5.0, a revamped version of the original video-editing package Avid/Strata Videoshop 3.0.2/3.0.4a which came bundled free with early Apple Macintosh computer desktops and also given away free on several computer magazines such as the US-based MacAddict.

Now the kind of quality you can produce using many of the slightly older second-hand software (about three or four years old) or even the cheaper variety of new software being sold or literally given away as we speak are practically no different in what they can achieve compared to the latest, high-priced products. Actually, you would be hard pressed to find any differences at all!

The only reason why you would consider buying the very latest (and often more expensive and feature-rich) software is probably because your employment or business demands it and you want to get something done fast and easy. But if speed and ease of use are not the most important issues for you, then why spend lots of money on the latest software products?

You would be better off waiting and keeping your eyes open and you will find some extraordinary bargains for second-hand or older software (or check out the alternative new products from smaller commercial competitors) that does the job just as well as the new and often more expensive products from many of the leading software manufacturers.

For example, don't be too surprised if you should find a software vendor at the local trash n' treasure market trying to sell you a complete Insignia Softwindows 95 v4 CD-ROM for $15 (in the box with original installation disks and an instruction manual), simply because it runs too slowly on his pre-G3 Macintosh computer and/or he is more interested in selling PC software anyway.

Or, if you purchase a second-hand computer, you may be surprised at the sorts of software already bundled with the machine. For example, Apple Computer, Inc. has gracefully given away a free copy of Insignia RealPC 1.0 with the Apple PowerBook G3 Series "Wall Street" computer. And with all the free updates available online to bring this software up to version 1.0.9, you will find this software a welcome addition to your software collection.

And if you do look around for some more great software bargains, you will have the added benefit of making others think that you are rich and can afford the very latest software technology when they see what you have got and/or what you can achieve with the older or lesser known software technology! Now that's a nice touch!

EXAMPLE OF FREE COMMERCIAL SOFTWARE RELEASED BETWEEN DECEMBER 1998 AND SEPTEMBER 2000

Name Company Platform
FLASH 3.0 Macromedia PC and Mac
FIREWORKS 1.0 Macromedia PC
DREAMWEAVER 1.2 Macromedia PC and Mac
FREEHAND 5.0 Macromedia PC
3D EXTREME 1.0 Macromedia Mac
SITEMILL 2.0 Adobe PC and Mac
ACROBAT 3.01 Adobe PC and Mac
TABLE 3.0.4 Adobe PC and Mac
PHOTO DELUXE 2.0 Adobe PC and Mac
VIDEOSHOP 3.0.4 Strata Mac
VISION 3D 4.0 Strata Mac
POSER 1.0 Fractal Design Mac
PAINTER 3.1 Fractal Design Mac
WEBPAINTER 1.0.1 Totally Hip Software Mac
VISTAPRO 1.0.8 Virtual Reality Laboratories, Inc. Mac
FUN MUSIC 4.0.4 MicroLogic Mac
COREL DRAW 8 LE Corel Mac
LOTUS 1-2-3 97 version Lotus PC
LOTUS SmartSuite 97 Lotus PC
VIAVOICE HOME 98 IBM PC
FREESPEECH 98 Philips PC
AMAPI 3D 4.1 TGS PC and Mac
BRYCE 3D 3.0 MetaCreations PC and Mac
QUICKBOOKS 6.0 Quicken (now known as Reckon) PC
STAROFFICE 5.1 Sun Microsystems PC and Linux
WEBEDITOR 2 Namo PC
3D CAD TOOL Minos PC
MEDIATOR 4.0 Lakovision PC
HIJAAK 4.0 IMSI PC
PIXELS 3D STUDIO
Pixels
Mac
BORLAND C++ BUILDER 3 STANDARD Borland PC
BORLAND JBUILDER 3.5 FOUNDATION Borland PC
BORLAND DELPHI 4 STANDARD Borland PC

What's available in the alternative free "non-commercial" software department for the average consumer?

Of course, you don't need to concentrate on just the free or very low cost second-hand "commercial" variety of software from medium to big software manufacturers like Macromedia or Adobe. You also have a much bigger world of free new software to choose from.

The only hard part is finding the right free software to do exactly what you want. Here is our recommendation for some of the better free (available right now) software from the Internet:

VirtualDub 1.4.7 (700kB) - This software is licensed under the GNU General Public License system, which means it's free. Use this software on your PC whenever you need to remove and replace audio tracks on a digital video file, as well as applying certain visual filters to the video track such as blur, sharpen, emboss and resize. In essence, you have a basic free video-editing software.

AbiWord (3.4MB) - This is another free software program you can use on your PC without restriction. Use it to import Word documents, HTML and Palm (.pdb) files and edit them in AbiWord. Although the graphics capabilities in AbiWord are a bit light, the text-editing functions are strong and effective. What you have here is a free word-processing software and adequate for the needs of most computer users.

If you are looking for more powerful software, check out the range of shareware and open source programs now available on the Internet, or visit your local software shops for alternative "commercial" software.

But there are risks in buying second-hand commercial software, especially if it might be pirated software

Yes, there is a risk. But as with most things, there is usually a way you can tell whether the software you purchase from second-hand dealers is legitimate.

To know whether your software is legitimate:

  1. Any installed software on the new computer you purchase from a dealer should have the original CD installation disk(s) supplied;
  2. Any software you purchase from a dealer should come with its own original box or packaging, including an instruction manual (unless it is explicitly mentioned on the installation disk as being supplied electronically on the disk only, such as Microsoft Office 2001); and
  3. For software given away on CDs in magazines sold at your local newsagent, make sure you have the original disk as proof that the software company has genuinely released the software for gratis.

It also helps if you have a valid receipt for any purchases you make from software dealers. But this is not absolutely mandatory. In fact, it is still possible for a non-reputable dealer to supply a receipt after selling you pirated software. So you are better off making sure that your software does come with its original packaging, including manuals (if any), as proof of a genuine purchase.

There is a common view that if there were fewer pirated software and less people able to crack the software, the software manufacturer could sell the product for less. This is not necessarily true.

Let us use an analogy. In India, there is no copyright for books (or people seem to ignore it). The reason is because Indians believe books should be available to all. Yet the authors still exist and are able to make a respectable living. How? The population who can afford to buy the genuine books will do so, while those who can't are not denied the opportunity to access the books.

It is true that software manufacturers, just like the authors of books, are entitled to make a fair return for their investment so they can be rewarded for their efforts and possibly sponsor further research work. However, the damage done by software crackers is much less than manufacturers would have us believe.

As a case in support of this argument, the most pirated software in the world are those produced by Microsoft. Yet it is clear the world's biggest and most successful company is not strapped for cash. Even in the early days when Microsoft was selling Windows 3.1 and Word 2 at a much lower price, Microsoft somehow managed to sell enough of the software to establish a significant market share without any advertising and despite the piracy issue prevalent at the time.

The only way to explain this successful "profit" made by the manufacturers is because the people who can afford the software will buy it. But for those who can't afford it will eventually find a dubious copy from somewhere.

But the whole purpose of getting this dubious copy is to help the disadvantaged group get into a much more favourable position where they can afford to buy a new version of the software in the future.

UPDATE
February 2003

PACE Anti-Piracy, Inc. is a company based in San Jose, California, USA, designed to sell a new security hardware USB device for authorising commercial software to run on Windows or Macintosh. The USB device looks very much like a key and can fit on your key-ring. When you are ready to launch a USB-enabled commercial software application, you plug in the key into your computer's USB port and hopefully the information contained in the USB device plus the company's "InterLok" software extension installed on the hard disk of your computer will allow the software to run.

The advantage of this system is that you can update, add and/or remove authorisation license numbers or keys inside the USB device through a piece of software supplied by the company. It can take care of multiple license copies and it doesn't matter which computer platform you use.

For the technology to work seemlessly in the background, you will need to download a free software extension for Macintosh or Windows to help you automatically pick up information in the USB device and link it to the appropriate USB-enabled software applications.

NOTE: This extension may be installed automatically by some of the latest software you download online or through magazine CDs. You should remember, the software which installed this security software will usually not need it to run properly. Do a file name search for "InterLok" to remove the extension until you are ready to employ this basic security technology on your computer system.

Can I buy second-hand software from Internet auction sites?

Yes, but be careful. Some software companies claim that more than 60 per cent of software sold through Internet auction sites is counterfeit (for all products including the tangible stuff, this goes down to around 1 per cent). Assuming this statistic is correct, then why such a high figure? It is purely because you cannot see the original software packaging online. All you have got is a graphic image of what looks like the software you want to purchase already contained in a box. But as soon as you make the financial transaction electronically, you may receive nothing more than a disk, or you might be lucky to also get an instruction manual but it may look like it has been photocopied from an original publication.

If you intend to purchase software over the Internet, make sure the Internet site you are with can act on your behalf with the software dealer. In other words, there should be people at the Internet site who can check the genuine nature of the product. If the product is genuine, the people running the Internet site will give final approval for your money to be sent to the software dealer once the product has been received and verified.

Otherwise, we recommend that you personally visit second-hand software shops, your local newsagents, or visit the people who sell software in newspapers so you can see exactly what you are getting.

But some software companies argue that buying any kind of second-hand software will have to always be counterfeit

Nonsense! Where did you hear that porker of a rumour?

Perhaps you've got one of those notices in the post at the end-of-the-financial-year from a software company like Adobe Systems, Inc. trying to frighten people into buying their latest software using any elaborate statistical finding they can find suggesting that buying software from someone not part of the company's database of approved resellers will result in getting illegal or pirated software. This is simply not true.

Software companies will do this because they want to maximise the profit they are making when selling their software at certain times of the year. It is all standard practice. But you don't have to buy direct from the software company and/or their resellers if you so choose. So long as you know what to look for when purchasing legitimate second-hand software and ensure you always keep the original packaging as proof, your purchase of any second-hand commercial or non-commercial software you need will be deemed acceptable under the Copyright Act. Otherwise the law would have by now put a stop to every second-hand software shop under the sun from trading in this area. But clearly, this is not the case as we speak!

If you are not convinced by this argument, then look for something that says in the company's advertisement of the form, "...keep the installation disks and their packaging in a secure place..."

This should be adequate information you'll need to help you go out and buy the exact software (old or new) required, and know that it will be legitimate based on the information above. Otherwise, it would be impossible for anyone to know whether second-hand software is truly legitimate.

I've bought some software and want to use an earlier version. Do I need to pay for the earlier version?

No. If you have purchased a full version of a given software package and want to use an earlier version of the software (either because you don't have a Mac or PC version of what you've already got for the type of computer you are using, or perhaps the earlier version has other features not available on the latest version such as Microsoft PowerPoint 4.0 for PC which can read Aldus Persuasion files but later versions do not have this basic feature), you are legally entitled to do so.

Just ask your friends for a copy of the installation files after showing them your own legitimate copy, and they will be more than happy to supply you with the relevant files from the installation disk(s) for either the exact same copy or earlier version of the same package.

Still not convinced? Well, let's listen to the words of a software expert by the name of Santo Giuliano of The Software Shop in Canberra, Australia in his email to a customer dated 21 November 2001:

"If you purchase the current edition [of a software title], the license is...backwardly compatible."

In the case where, for example, you have a full licensed copy of Microsoft Office 97 and the only equivalent version for a Mac is Microsoft Office 98, theoretically you should be able to install this Mac version on your computer instead of the 97 version. But you should always check with the software manufacturer.

Certainly by the time the software you are looking for is no longer being sold by the software manufacturer, there would be no legal problems in installing a software like Microsoft Office 98 on your computer if you have a full licensed version of Microsoft Office 97.

What if I can't find an earlier version of a software package from a friend?

You have three choices:

  1. Ask the original software manufacturers for an earlier software version copy and pay the "hopefully" cheaper price for older software.
  2. Purchase a really cheap earlier version of the software on CD from one of the more dubious sources such as those found in the Russian Federation or China.
  3. Start making a few more computer friends so you can access a wider variety of older software.

We recommend you contact the software manufacturer first before resorting to other avenues. If the software manufacturer is genuine and are not profit-motivated to the point of forcing you to purchase the latest software or to pay the full latest price just to get an older software version, you should be able to get what you want at a good price.

However, as with the case of Adobe Systems Inc. these days and how they prefer customers to purchase the very latest software or to force customers to buy at today's full price for the software you want, you are better off considering having that chat with your friends or take a risk with more dubious software sources online from Russia and China.

There are only three main problems with purchasing software from Russia or China. Firstly, there is the possibility that the original software manufacturers will not be making a profit from the sale of software from Russia or China (i.e. the Russian software companies are probably making counterfeit copies of the software and selling them to people like yourself). Secondly, you don't know whether you will get a CD copy of that old software version you've been looking for (i.e. it could be a scam designed to steal your money). And thirdly, the risk you could be found out through customs (if the software is distributed as a large box instead of an ordinary CD parcel) by your local authorities is very high in which case you may be put under surveillance or get audited by the software manufacturers via a warrant if they can prove you have purchased a counterfeit copy of the software. This is likely to occur if you have purchased the very latest software from Russia or China.

However, it is also possible that purchases of older software may never raise an eyebrow among the authorities.

Whatever the truth, you will have to decide whether to take that risk or not. But with prices potentially below A$30 for a top-quality software package only one version down from the latest is certainly a tempting proposition. But make sure you know the original software manufacturers are not prepared to sell older versions of their flagship software or, if they do, try to sell them too high when they know very well the customers are legally permitted to obtain a free or cheaper copy of an earlier version of the software by any other means.

What about people selling Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM)?

OEM software is defined as the software preinstalled on a new computer system by the software manufacturer at time of purchasing and which normally comes with just the original CD installation from the manufacturer. It is not unusual for OEM software to come without thick manuals and no large boxes, but just the original installation disks (CD or floppy disks).

Again this is a good way to pick up cheap software if you can find it and the software is genuine. The best places to find a large number of genuine OEM software from old or out-dated computers is online and they can be very cheap to buy if you choose the right location. But remember one thing: there may be a limited number of OEM software on CDs (as expected or the software manufacturers wouldn't be selling software for over A$500 a pop at standard retail prices). So you will need to be quick if you see what you want. And be absolutely sure you have proof of authenticity of any OEM software together with a guarantee of legal license ownership.

When you get the software, it should come with the Certificate of Authenticity (COA) label or sticker and you should retain the end user license agreement (EULA). It is also highly recommended you keep the original invoice and receipt as proof of purchase but this is not mandatory.

Also be careful where you obtain OEM software online. The less reputable ones tend to hide this fact by using anonymous-looking web sites and use numerous spelling errors in advertisements. If the OEM software is from discarded genuine second-hand computers, the web site should have a clear business name and readily accessible by many users. Advertisement, if any, would have to be clear and concise and reveal details such as the availability of a license agreement and proof of authenticity also exists with the software.

Will my current and legitimate software serial number work on older software?

The answer is usually, "Yes!". If you can obtain cheaply or freely any older software version to what you already have, it is not unusual for your current serial number to work on the older software.

If for any reason it doesn't, check out the range of free KeyGen software on the Internet designed to generate appropriate serial numbers for many older software packages.

If I buy certain software applications to run on my computer, will they work on another computer?

Welcome to the world of competition in the IT industry. The general answer is, "No!"

Because computer and software manufacturers are competing with one another in an attempt to get you to buy their products, each manufacturer tries to out do what another has done. The result is a constantly changing and updating industry where software applications that once worked on your once expensive "You beaut!" machine you've bought two years ago can suddenly and mysteriously not work on the very latest computer, or even after the software has been updated.

Although manufacturers try so incredibly hard to provide utilities and filters to update all your files created on one software application, it is rarely ever perfectly reproduced, especially if you are using a totally different software product from the one you are used to from a different manufacturer.

Then there are life's minor irritations like whether your friends have the fonts to read your files on their computer, let alone have the same application as you do to open the files in the first place.

All this incompatibility and generally poor cooperation in the IT industry is the bane of a computer owner's life. A person can spend months designing a quality file for others to access only to fall by the way side because another person cannot read it in the exact same way on his/her computer. And when the person tries to make the file compatible, one often has to make some compromises in design, file size, types of fonts and so on.

Although some software manufacturers, notably Adobe Systems Inc., have gone some way towards bringing a sense of compatibility in the digital information you create across many different computer platforms and operating systems irrespective of the type of software application you are using (e.g. the PDF format for digital information presentation), there is still much work to be done.

For a start, perhaps Microsoft and Apple could work together to develop a common and simple operating system platform so that all Windows and Apple software can run on the one system. Secondly, other software manufacturers could work together to agree on a common standard file format to ensure all files are compatible irrespective of the software type and version being used to read and edit the files (8).

Until that day comes, there are things you can do now to maximise your chances of keeping your work compatible with other users:

  1. Choose common software applications being used by a large number of people. For example, in the business world, most people use Microsoft Office. Therefore, as a business operator, you would be extremely wise to invest in the same software as well unless you know of another software package that is extremely compatible with Microsoft Office.
  2. Keeping your software up-to-date, especially in the business world, is relatively important. However, don't try to be the first person on-the-block to have the latest Microsoft Office package or other people will not be able to read your new files;
  3. If you have a wide range of specialised software packages and you want your clients to read the files you have created without worrying about whether your clients have the same software packages, the same fonts, and use the same type of computer and operating system, we recommend you use Adobe Acrobat 4.0 (9) or try the freeware (with no advertisements) known as CutePDF Writer. Once installed, you merely print your file in the postscript format and then use Adobe Acrobat to create the PDF file, with text fully searchable if you prefer and, together with the graphics, positioned exactly as you see it in the original file. About the only thing a client needs is the freeware Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the PDF file, which is easily downloadable from Adobe's web site for their particular computer.
  4. Keep the files you create simple in case you need to Save As into a different file format. This ensures most (if not all) of the information in the original files is transferred accurately to the new file format;
  5. If you have the money, try to purchase a computer that can run software on both Macintosh and Windows operating systems. The only computer that can do that easily at the moment is the Macintosh G3 or G4 computer running at a speed of at least 233MHz and running a software package called Insignia SoftWindows 95 or 98 or Connectix Virtual PC. Then, as you acquire a variety of Macintosh and PC software over time, you can check to see the compatibility of your files before sending them to your clients; and
  6. Lobby your favourite software manufacturers to create compatible software for now and in the future.

Where can I find cheap or free software?

Your best sources of free or cheap software can be found from the following locations:


(i) http://www.downloads.com/

(ii) http://download.cnet.com/

(iv) http://creamers.goodwan.com/

(v) http://www.ebay.com/

(vi) http://www.retrosoftware.com/

(vii) Computer magazines with CDs on the covers

(viii) The classifieds in the local newspapers

(ix) Friends
 

If you ever have to pay full price for software, it is probably because your business or professional work demands it and you need the latest software features. For everyone else, try the above places!

The future of software

The release of time-restricted subscription-based software such as the statistical tool SPSS and the new online software version (as opposed to the boxed version) from Symantec and McAfee of the latest 2007 security software did become a new trend in 2005 as a means of combatting software piracy. It's called "software as a service".

However, consumers prefer to hve outright ownership of any product they purchase. Its presence in consumer products may see a backlash (big organisations with their profits won't care). Symantec and McAfee are aware of this and have provided a self-contained time-unlimited versions of their flagship security software in a box. But to attract customers to the online software version, Symantec will provide additional services for free as part of the monthly subscription such as online backup to a remote server (no indications whether the data would be encrypted). But even time-limited is frowned upon by consumers.

Should Adobe, Apple and Microsoft decide to sell only online software versions with this kind of subscription based idea, you can be sure consumers will download only open source programs and operating systems.

Should this happen, Internet cafes and libraries of the future will ask for access fees from consumers to help pay for such software subscriptions. Libraries of the future providing digital equipment to the public will be forced to become businesses.

Open source software where you can download for free, contribute ideas and programming solutions for free, and have outright ownership of software on your own computer will be the popular choice far more than any commercial software on the market.