by Joyce Kohl

Over the last three years I have been the “victim” of electronic downloads more than once. Why do I continue to download a registered commercial or shareware program? There are several reasons: Instant delivery; save a few dollars; downloading was the only choice. Why are electronic downloads unacceptable alternatives to full package shipments? Why are more and more companies using downloading as a method of distribution for their software?

Electronic Downloading
Most shareware programs must be downloaded from either the author’s Website or some other Website designated and approved by the author. Shareware is found on CompuServe, America Online, and local bulletin board systems. You can also buy shareware CDs. Many commercial packages include shareware, a try-before-you-buy product. It’s usually, but not always, crippled and/or it will nag you for registration, but allows you to see how the program operates and whether or not you’d like to have the uncrippled program.

Most Commercial Websites now offer their top-of-the-line packages in demos. These are usually “fully” functional except no saving is available or there’s a limit to the number of files you can save while trying the product. Both Commercial and Shareware programs sometimes are fully functional for a set number of days after which they no longer work.

There are upgrades which are usually downloadable only; upgrades which download and install automatically; and upgrades which can be ordered and arrive as full packages.

Registration Methods
For some programs, you pay for licenses either by filling out a “shopping cart” form online or sending a filled-out form to the company or to the shareware author. Then merely enter the information sent to you either by instant approval – you’re sent to a special online screen which you must print – or by email or snail mail to turn the program into licensed software. If the program is small enough to fit on a 3.5″ floppy diskette, it’s easy to keep a copy and a backup of the original program along with the registration information.

Saving the Programs
The fallacy of instant gratification by downloading programs becomes glaringly apparent when the need arises to reinstall programs. And the need WILL arise! You’ll either experience a crashed system or buy a new computer. Either way, you’ll be installing everything from scratch. But how do you plan to do that? Not many applications fit on 3.5″ floppy diskettes. Small media drives are also becoming a feature of the past. Not everyone has a Zip drive; very few people have a CD-ROM R/W (read/write) drive.

Larger Programs Mean Splitting Files or?
With the advent of Windows, many shareware programs quickly went beyond the standard 3.5″ floppy size; some authors broke up their programs to fit on as many diskettes as necessary. Most did not – they simply created bigger and bigger files to well over the one high-density 3.5″ diskette capability of storing only 1,457,664 bytes on a formatted diskette.

Several methods of spanning diskettes quickly became available. This was a time-consuming method to “backup” copies of costly programs, and it turned out not to be reliable. For example, if I didn’t put a written note with the diskettes I made as to how to splice them together again, then the process was useless. Okay, so I did this with each electronic package I downloaded. Can you imagine the number of floppy diskettes I had for programs which were 14-20 MB in size?

Before you think this is a fool-proof method of having dependable backups of software, let me tell you that no matter how careful you are making the backups, corrupted backups is as often as good ones. I had ordered a a dozen or more programs from a service on America OnLine, split the files over however many new diskettes as necessary, and then stored them all properly labeled in a safe place. When I changed computers, I also needed to reinstall those programs. Can you imagine my horror when one of my more expensive programs spanned over 12 diskettes gave an error message at the middle of restoring the ONE big file to my hard drive? There was no recovery possible. The few dollars I saved by buying electronic software was down the proverbial toilet. I had no proof of purchase beyond a printed email message. To top it all off – the company from which I ordered many downloadable-only programs no longer existed!

Something went dreadfully wrong; more than likely it was an error on my part. But that’s the crux of this entire article. We consumers make more errors making backups of the media than companies making it for packaging. They’re set up for test labs; we’re not. Before I stored my backups, I restored the split files to another computer BEFORE erasing the original download. I then assumed my backups were good ones. Bad assumption. Several of my backups would not install; a couple had errors on the diskettes (or so DOS reported).

ZIP or CD Writer or Both
The next step was to invest in a ZIP drive or a CD-ROM R/W drive. I did both. The expense and time involved to keep copies of my electronic downloads has become a nightmare! Nine times out of ten, I’ve neglected to copy a file into a named folder which describes the contents of the files. Then I have no idea whether the program is an application, an update, a game, shareware, commercial, drivers, or?

Tape drives, of course, is another method of storage as well as for system backups. In the past I’ve had so many problems with tapes, that I no longer use them. In fact, I have no tape drive in either of my computers. I won’t go into any details, but just suffice it to say that I find an extra hard drive to be a better backup system than anything else.

I spent a bundle of bucks – around $200 – on a program in one of my weaker moments. It was a “Christmas Special” which included at least a dozen other programs. It was all totally electronic downloading ONLY. Okay, so what? Each program had HUGE registration numbers requiring a special email to be copied and pasted into each program as it was installed. Uninstalling rendered my entire collection useless. Something was written to the registry which disallowed another installation!

Trying to reinstall it on a another computer was about 85% successful. Oh, well, the program was nice, but I’d have to learn to live without it. More $$$ down the toilet.

All Those Upgrades
Not long ago I downloaded the new Netscape Communicator; yesterday, it was Internet Explorer 5. Every single time in the past year of beta testing, system crashes, and two computers biting the dust, I’ve had to reinstall programs. Each time I had to search out Websites for the upgrades, check through boxes of diskettes, the few CDs I’ve written, and the two dozen or so Zip disks I made to find the files I needed. Okay, so that taught me to create subdirectories of program names to store programs and updates for the next time I needed them.

Storing diskettes inside the original boxes of commercial programs was enormously helpful. For the programs which were electronic only – well, that wasn’t easy even with my better organization for storage.

Are There Advantages to Electronic Downloads?
Besides the obvious advantage of getting your desired software instantly after ordering it, you save the cost of shipping which can range from $6 to $15. The difference in price is usually at least $10, and many times it can climb to much more.

The manufacturer saves the cost of packaging, media, and printed documentation. They also save the cost of paying employees to take your order and to process it for shipment.

In my opinion, the disadvantages far outweigh any monetary advantage. I don’t like trying to store the ambiguously named files on other media. First of all, the cost of a ZIP drive or a CD-ROM Read/Write Drive plus the need to manually move it from my hard drive to either a CD or a ZIP diskette is time that could be spent doing something else. If you’re a novice, chances are you wouldn’t want the stress of trying to learn another program required to write your own CDs.

Even though the file dates are usually indicators of the the order of updates (sometimes I have two or three or more), it’s time-consuming to check each piece of storage media, then copy it to a temporary directory. For all the electronic downloads I have, there isn’t any other choice.

The cost of a ZIP drive or a CD R/W is something you’d have to configure into the “savings” of electronically downloaded software. Then there’s the cost of blank CDs and blank ZIP diskettes.

One of the biggest disadvantages for me is not having a printed User Guide. Printing a guide takes a lot of paper, a lot of printer toner, and helps to wear out my printer. Another thing which must be figured into the overall “savings” of electronic downloading.

Last, but certainly not least for me, is time. Time spent looking for the program I want which may be stored on CDs I’ve written or on diskettes is simply not worth the effort. I’m tired of searching through a plethora of homemade media. I’m tired of learning I was inept in creating backups. I also consider my time to be too valuable to waste.

A Thought
Why don’t manufacturer’s allow the end users to write to all the unused space on CDs? They could protect the area used for the program, then allow consumers to write to the CD. Then the program and updates would all be on the same piece of media. Couldn’t they do this?

There’s no way to get around some of the electronic downloading. But I find electronic-only downloading to be an unacceptable alternative to the shrink-wrapped product.

I’ll continue to download the latest hardware drivers and the electronic-only upgrades. But whenever I have a choice, I’ll have the upgrades and programs mailed to me. In the long run, the cost isn’t that much more. The advantages to having shrink-wrapped packages, professionally created (and guaranteed) media, and printed User’s Guides and printed tutorials with screenshots is something I don’t intend to overlook in the future.

Boxes are a thousand times better than bytes!