MicroISV: Pre-internet

February 23, 2007 at 10:06 pm | Posted in MicroISV | 1 Comment

Amiga 1000It seems hard to imagine a time when there was no Internet or world wide web. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, the internet as we know it today didn’t exist. However this was the glorious age of the micro computer. It was the first time that the general public could afford to buy a computer. In the beginning there was the BBC Micro, the Sinclair ZX81 & Spectrum, the Commodore Vic-20 and 64, and the Apple II series of computers to name but a few. Later in that period, the Apple Mac , IBM-PC and Commodore Amiga computers appeared.

In the early days computer magazines would distribute software as source code listings within their magazines, either in BASIC or in machine code (e.g. 05 34 56 8F 9a C0 87 9A 3e). If you were lucky the machine code listing would include a checksum at the end of each line which could be used in conjunction with a machine code editor to verify that you’d entered each line correctly.

Eventually the magazines moved to cover disks, a floppy disk stuck to the magazine cover which contained public domain software and trial/demo versions of commercial software. Over time the number of cover disks increased, from 1 to 2 to 3 before CDs took over.

Acoustic Coupler Instead of the Internet, people could buy a modem or an acoustic coupler and dial up a BBS or Bulletin Board System. These devices were incredibly expensive (e.g. $500) and very, very slow (e.g. 1024 bits per second). The BBS’s were all character-based but allowed you to chat with other computer users via forums, exchange public domain software and play online games. These bulletin boards were not linked together in any way. In fact many BBS’s only had a single modem, which meant that only one person could be online at any one time.

During this period a number of microISV’s began to appear. However the term microISV hadn’t been coined back then and instead independent software developers generally adopted a shareware model and referred to themselves as shareware authors. The basic concept of shareware software is that the software is free to distribute but if you find it useful and use it on a regular basis then you need to pay a small fee to the author. Often the freely distributable software has limited functionality (crippleware), or can only be used for a limited period of time (trialware/demoware). This is to encourage you to pay the fee to the author, at which point they will send you a fully functional application.

I wrote my first product back in 1989 while I was studying computer science at university. I owned an Amiga 1000 which I upgraded to an Amiga 3000 a few years later. At the time I was a member of the New Zealand Amiga Users Group which was based in Auckland. They had a monthly magazine called AMSMAG which was published monthly and distributed on a floppy disk to club members. I wrote an program called Magnetic Pages, which allowed you to create a disk based magazine that had a similar look and feel to a regular magazine. Each page was displayed on a single screen. An article could be made up of many pages, with Next/Prev/First/Last/Goto Page navigation functions. When you turned a page, the top page actually peeled back to reveal the page underneath, giving the impression of turning a physical page. Text could be flowed across multiple columns and around graphics. Hyperlinks were supported so that you could click on a block of text or a graphic to navigate to a new page. It supported playing sound effects and background music. You could have the text read to you using the Amiga’s build in speech synthesis libraries.

The page definitions were all simple text files that contained the text and ANSI formatting codes to specify text colours, styles, etc. I then added proprietary codes to specify things such as links to graphics, hyperlinks, etc, etc. It was similar in concept to HTML today, although not nearly as well designed.

I took over the editorship of AMSMAG and published the magazine for a number of years using Magnetic Pages. By eating my own dogfood each month so to speak, I was able to improve the usability of Magnetic Pages.

You may be wondering how you would distribute and market software without the Internet. In the case of the Amiga there was a large number of Public Domain libraries that would accept software, graphics, music, etc from authors, catalogue it and distribute it to other users. The end user would pay the library a small fee to cover the cost of the floppy disk, postage and handling charges. The PD libraries didn’t actually charge for the software, only the distribution of the software. Often the software you wanted shared a disk with a large number of other software, so the end user would actually receive a number of often unrelated software programs. The most famous of all the PD libraries was the Fred Fish collection. This library was of an excellent standard (not all submissions were published), well-catalogued with detailed descriptions of each item, frequently updated and rapidly distributed to a large number of Amiga user groups around the world.

This was one of my major sources of marketing. I submitted Magnetic Pages to the Fred Fish library and it quickly appeared a few weeks later on disk 372. I also submitted it to a number of UK based PD libraries, many of which would publish their listings in the Amiga computer magazines of the time.

The other marketing approach that I employed was to submit Magnetic Pages for review to some of the Amiga computer magazines. These magazines had a regular PD column in which they would review some of the newly released PD and shareware software. Magnetic Pages was reviewed by Amiga Format and Amiga Shopper magazines.

That was about it. I couldn’t afford to pay for any advertising. There was probably some indirect market that occurred due to the fact that AMSMAG was also distributed to a number of other user groups.

Magnetic Pages was a shareware product that cost US$25 to register. The software consisted of three separate programs, a Viewer that was used by readers of the magazine, an Editor that was used to create and layout articles and an Organizer that was used to organize the articles into a magazine. The Viewer and Editor programs were freely distributable. However the Organizer had the save function disabled. When you registered Magnetic Pages, I would send out a fully functional Organiser. The Organizer also had the name of the owner or user group hard coded into the application. This name would then be displayed in any magazine that was published using the Organizer, which was to discourage the illegal distribution of a fully functional Organizer. To my knowledge, no one ever illegally distributed the Organizer.

The registration process was incredibly slow and tedious by today’s standards. A prospective customer would have to print out a registration form (if they had a printer – some customers didn’t so they just wrote a letter containing the relevant information) and send off the equivalent of US$25 to myself in New Zealand. Most forms of international money transfer were incredibly expensive, so most people ended up sending cash in the mail. When I received an order, I would create a customized version of the Organizer for them and send them this, along with some sample magazines, tutorials and the latest versions of the Viewer and Editor on a set of 3 floppy disks. It would usually take 3-6 weeks from the time the customer sent their order to the time they received their disks in the mail.

 Despite all this, over a period of about 4 years, I received over 100 orders for Magnetic Pages. It was never enough to make me rich or even gave me an income I could live off but it certainly made checking the mail box a lot more exciting. It was quite a thrill to receive a letter from someone on the other side of the world (yes I know if you live in NZ, just about everwhere is the other side of the world, except of course Australia which is a home away from home for a large percentage of Kiwis).

Note that this is the story of Magnetic Pages 1.3. There is also a Magnetic Pages 2.0 but that’s a tragic tale that deserves a post of its own.

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1 Comment

  1. Hello:

    We are a group of Majorca (Balearic islands Spain) who we artisan made hardware for the users of Commodore Amiga, C64/128, which they need new and exclusive hardware.

    You can visit to us in our Web: http://www.retro-data.com

    Greetings,

    Juan J. Costa


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