EIGHT BIT SOFTWARE
THREE YEARS AGO ... (probably four by the time I get this finished)
A 5 line entry in the letters column of a computer journal caught my
attention. A popular board game called RISK (I think) had been
computerised by an enthusiast and free copies were on offer ...
THE BEGINNING OF 8-bit Software
Communications were growing in popularity as the prices of modems
began to fall below #100, with basic secondhand units costing as
little as #10 ...
Public Domain Software, even for 8-bit BBC machines, was not new. The
concept of public domain had been around since the advent of the
bulletin board system. Bulletin boards in those days consisted of a
Computer, Disc Drive, Modem and Communications Software usually housed
in some sad persons bedroom. Other sad people with a similar setup
would log onto the bulletin board using a "ring back" system (dial,
let ring twice, hangup, dial again - the computer then answers the
phone). The more wealthy usually had a dedicated phone line and/or a
hard disc drive in addition to the equipment above - these were the
kind of people who could be sad for their country.
From these bulletin boards, you could meet sad friends, swap sad
ideas, tell sad jokes, and download sad software submitted by other
sad users. Again, professors of sadness would join national
organisations such as Micronet & Prestel which offered a similar
service to the private bulletin boards - at a price.
Joking (and sadness) apart - it is my opinion that this was the
birthplace of BBC public domain software - there was megabytes of the
stuff and it wasn't just all one-liners. The main problem was the
"them and us" situation that appeared to exist between modem and
non-modem owners in the world of the BBC - neither seemed to be aware
of the other's presence.
"Postal" public domain for the BBC however WAS a fairly new idea, even
though the same had been available on other 8-bit machines such as the
Atari XL, XE etc. for years ...
The year was 1990 and the time was late summer. Several pieces of
software were under development for a small bulletin board by the name
of Resolve Communications (I would like to point out that this
bulletin board was NOT run by a sad person). The idea was to
complete and test the software and make it available for downloading
on the bulletin board system (BBS). "Systems Comms" and "Systems
Phone" as they became branded were duly put up for download & comments
were encouraged. Other software at the time included AMPLE code for
users of the Hybrid Technologies Music 500/0 systems.
Encouraged by the response, non-modem owners were given the
opportunity to write and obtain software currently available from the
Resolve BBS. Enquiries received were answered by issuing a disk
containing the 3rd Systems issue which had grown with the addition of
"Systems Bank". Within a week the volume of enquiries had grown
considerably. Most of the enquiries were referring to "PD library
lists" and it soon became apparant that we had been mis-quoted
somewhere as "starting a public domain library" which at the time was
far from the truth.
Access to computers was currently being denied by household
refurbishment, so 50 letters were run off on an IBM at work. The
letters informed any future enquirers of our situation, and that they
should try one of the other addresses listed if they wanted Public
Domain software. The source of the enquiries had finally been
identified in one of the computer magazines which had mistakenly
advertised us as a new Public Domain library which dealt exclusively
with 8-bit BBC Micro Computers.
The BBC had been replaced by the archimedes over 2 years ago. The new
arc was faster, more colourful, better sounding, multitasking, and had
recently introduced a standard Graphical User Interface (GUI) in the
form of RISC OS ...
There was no doubt at the time that the future for Acorn and their
user base lay with the archimedes. Acorn had been quoted as saying
that they would continue producing the Master for "as long as there
was sufficient demand". This inevitably meant that the 8-bit BBC
Master would be wound down over a period of time - it made economic
sense to do so. Starting a public domain library for such machines
was out of the question.
However, a new PD software library for the archimedes seemed like a
good idea. There were four problems that had to be faced:
1. There were already well established libraries for the archimedes.
2. We had no access to any PD software for the archimedes.
3. We were not acquainted with any users of the archimedes.
4. We didn't actually own an archimedes.
My teacher and mentor always said to me that there is always a way
round any problem if you are prepared to spend a little time thinking
beforehand. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 we eventually solved using common
sense, but it was trying to solve number 4 without cash (and legally)
that probably killed it at the end of the day.
Someone (who had obviously studied deduction to degree standard)
suggested that we think about opening a public domain library for the
8-bit BBC machines, afterall we already had software, free advertising
and over 40 interested users ...
So the decision was made to operate a small public domain library for
the 8-bit BBC ... but we wanted it to be different. We had to have
something that none of the other three BBC PD libraries were offering,
otherwise the exercise would simply be a lot of hard work for little
reward. So what exactly constituted a PD library? Using my mentor's
advice, we sat down and thought (... and thought ... and thought).
It was eventually decided that a public domain library consisted of
the following components:
1. Access to a large pool of non-copyrighted software.
2. The means to advertise the PD's existence & address.
3. The availability of necessary hardware.
4. Suitable organisational / programming / documentation skills.
5. Customers purchasing software from library.
6. Programmers contributing towards library.
There was a problem with number 1; we had no software apart from
"Systems" and AMPLE, although with the addition of "Systems Server"
(recently completed and tested) they would form a starting point.
Theoretically, once we were known, more software would flow in from
eager users. We had already been advertised so number 2 was no
problem. Future advertising was not considered at this time. The
general opinion was that if we lasted three months we would start
worrying about future advertising. All hardware was available - 4
disc drives, 2 model Bs, 2 printers, 6502 Tube, ATS Adapter, Modem &
Line - that was number 3 sorted. Number 4 could only be gained
through experience. Only fate would determine numbers 5 and 6.
So we had the structure of what we beleived constituted a typical
public domain library. What had to be done now was to add the extra
"magic" ingredient that would make & keep people interested? What
kind of people use public domain libraries and what do they want out
of them? ...
After 2 and a half weeks difference of opinions (arguments, mud
slinging & slanging matches) we had what we thought the user wanted
from a public domain library - the most popular towards the top.
1. Users are looking for inexpensive, interesting, quality software ?
2. Programmers are looking for fame and glory - to be recognised ?
3. All parties want a fast service.
4. Any PD system must be easy to use and understand.
5. Users / Programmers may wish to make contact with each other ?
It was not perfect, but it was a start. All that remained was to
change the first 6 points about what constituted a public domain
library, whilst bearing in mind the second 5 points about what the
user wanted from a public domain library. The end result should be
the formula for the "unique" public domain library that would get us
Six days later, we had the solution:
1. Software should be issued on a monthly or bi-monthly basis
depending on demand & software availability (rather like magazine
discs). This should keep users in close contact with the library.
2. Each issue would go out with a questionnaire which MUST be
completed in order to obtain further software from the library.
These comments would be published for the programmers and should
keep their interest and talent with our library.
3. A newsletter would be included with as many issues as possible.
This would provide the programmers with their feedback together
with any other essential information for the issue.
4. Any correspondence received would be answered the same day. This
should build ourselves a reputation for speed of service.
5. Provided users returned the correct media, the service would be
free of any handling charges.
Point five to me personally was the most important point - the service
had to be free. It was common knowledge to us that the vast majority
of computing talent lay in the computer clubs of the nation's schools.
It was no use relying on adults to supply the software for the library
as many lacked the necesary commitment and enthusiasm. In our
opinion, school children had more commitment & enthusiasm than the EC
had butter mountains, with programatical talent on a similar scale.
From the young programmers we knew, 95% of them were on "pocket-money"
budgets and I felt that it would have been unforgiveable at the time
to have charged them away from the library.
We wanted users to talk to each other. We wanted users to WANT to
talk to each other. We needed to provide the means for users to talk
to each other. We needed a system to manage it all ...
Fortunately, the 50 letters produced on the IBM had not been posted.
These letters (informing the enquirer that no PD library existed) were
of no use now and were discarded. Household refurbishment was
continuing to cause problems so the IBM was warmed up again and a new
standard letter drafted. The stem of enquiries was continuing to
grow, and it soon became apparant that a system had to be devised to
allocate "customer numbers" to the enquiries - after all if things
worked out, our users who would be continually writing back to us.
Fresh from the world of communications, an idea was hit on to develop
a software utility that enabled users to write messages to each other
electronically. In a nutshell, the user would write his/her message,
the program would save it to disc and the disc would be returned to
us. Upon receipt of messages, we would forward the messages to the
correct user on the next issue disc. This facility was seen as one of
the major features that would be unique to us and would make us really
stand out from other PD libraries.
There was no time to develop the software in time for the next planned
issue, so it was decided to devise a "customer referencing system"
which could be used by the messaging software when it was developed.
In all, 4 different systems were considered in the space of a week.
The problem was getting users to remember their reference number off
by heart, as this would encourage the use of any future messaging
system we developed.
We were so concerned that our users should remember their customer
numbers that "experts" were consulted (well, pub friends actually).
It transpired that on average, humans could only remember a maximum of
three "nonsensical" characters in a row (by 11pm this had reduced to 1
- almost). So the maximum user base was 999. We never thought we
would ever have 1000+ users, but enquiries (which would also be
allocated customer numbers) could well exceed 1000.
Including letters in the three character "User ID" (as it was
eventually dubbed) would increase possible combinations to 46,656.
Omitting the O's (too like 0's), the I's (too like 1's), and the S's
(too like 5's) brought possible combinations down to 35,937.
For statistical purposes, it was also decided to "regionalise" the
users. We achieved this by catagorising the first character of the
user ID number. For example, all users living in Leicestershire would
have a ID beginning with the number 1; so all Leicestershire users
would have an ID ranging from 100 to 1ZZ. A quick & dirty program
taking 30 minutes to construct dealt with the allocation of user ID's
All items are identified by use of a name. Most human beings are
referred to by their name, or some version of it. Villages, Towns,
Cities, countrys, continents and planets are referred to by a simple
name. Governments, businesses, corner shops, clubs, societies and
public domain libraries are identified by their name. So why didn't
our public domain library have a name? ...
The most obvious, simplest task in the establishment of any
organisation - the name - had been overlooked. The computer magazine
that advertised us, having also discovered the problem, had obliged by
christening us "8-bit PD". It was not the name we would have liked
but it did have its advantages - namely the "8" which guaranteed us
the top billing in all alphabetical public domain listings. We did
actually name the library "Sevenash Systems", the first name being
derived from the base address - 7 ASHdale, and the second name adopted
from the "Systems" labels on which the first 3 issues were based on.
It was thought that the name "8-bit PD" was nice and punchy and to
attempt to change it at this late stage would only cause confusion,
not to mention the demotional effect it would have in the magazine
THE INTERMEDIATE YEARS
They say that problems always come in three's, and 8-bit Public Domain
was going to be no exception ...
The response to issue 4 was quite pleasant considering that it only
contained 4 programs with no kind of menu system. Completed
questionaires were flowing in thick and fast and programmers
newsletters were being compiled using these comments. The icing on
the cake was that software was being submitted by new members and
within a week we had enough to fill an 80 track DFS disc. We decided
not to place all the software we had received on the issue 5 disc, as
we would not have any left for issue 6 and we had no time left for
creating programs ourselves.
We had already faced a problem which delayed issue 5 by 1 week. The
user ID generation program had sprouted a bug which resulted in random
ID's being generated irrespective of where the member lived. Our
"regionalisation" of 8-bit PD members was therefore out of the window.
The process of allocation new ID's to new members was slowed as a
result as we had to check carefully for duplication.
The concept of the user number had been adopted enthusiastically by
our members. Many seemed to like the mysterious air of the user
number and frequently used their number rather than their names - so
much so that we had difficulty in identifying some people. There
seemed to be a lot of shy people out there who could contribute to an
organisation without surrendering their anonimity (?).
Our second problem was rather more serious. "We" had suddenly become
an "I". 8-bit PD would not have been possible without the help of
Bryan who had helped and supported me in setting up the public domain
library in it's first three months. Bryan was off to the United
States to seek new challenges, and 8-bit PD was going to suffer as a
result. I was going to miss him a hell of a lot over the next 18
months. No-one else seemed interested in taking Bryan's place, so I
had to go it alone or stop.
Our third problem (or my first problem as I was on my own) was system
malfunction. Household refurbishment had drawn to a close and the
computer room was restored to its former glory, except that none of it
seemed to work any more. With Bryan gone I could no longer make use
of his BBC and thus the software submissions I was continuing to
receive could not be run. The situation was extremely frustrating and
lasted 3 days until a new CPU was found for one BBC, and a new floppy
disc controller for the other.
Issue 5 eventually hit the streets together with the customary
questionaire. This was the first issue to contain a user front end in
the form of teletext graphics and a menu bar from which the user
selected the programs to load. All teletext work was done using Acorn
User's "Eco-Ed" software which was published in the mid-eighties.
Mode 7 screens were created using this system and saved to disc. The
menu graphics were just *LOADed back onto the screen and the menu
selection bar inserted by the program. It was not a watertight
program (as 6502 TUBE & some shadow ram users discovered) but it was
quick and gave 8-bit PD some form of identity.
We live in a democratic society where citizens have the freedom of
choice. Computer users have a vast choice in the software they
acquire. The very essence of a Public Domain library is the fact that
users can choose the programs they like from a software pool. To put
only one piece of software on an entire 8-bit PD issue disc is
obviously very unwise ...
Issue 6 went out (late) with the usual newsletter (containg apologies)
and a selection of sampled sounds. I had never heard sampled sounds
on a BBC and was very pleased to be able to include them so early in
the life of 8-bit PD. Questionaires returned with issue 6 all praised
the sampled sounds - in addition to the mandatory three programs they
had to comment on at the time. 8-bit PD was being regarded as the
best 8-bit PD library in the UK - or so I was told - and I knew it was
the unique quality of software like this that was earning this
I have to confess that I was beginning to enjoy the success of 8-bit
PD which was now boasting over 100 enquiries with a 70% turnover into
new members. Some very talented individuals were joining the library
and there was plenty of software to fill each issue disc down to the
last byte. Someone had put together a "Play by Mail" game called
Urban War. This was a role-play type system on which users could take
their turn then post the disc to the next player and so on. The
problem was that the software filled a double sided 80 track DFS disc.
Blinded by the current success of 8-bit PD, I saw Urban War as an easy
issue and thus issue 7 consisted of that one program and nothing else
- not even a menu system.
Looking back some two to three years later, I wonder what members of
8-bit PD must have thought on receiving issue 7. The younger members
which made up about 60% of the library at the time all thought Urban
War was a big hit and provided plenty of comments which were duly
passed on. Other, more mature members, were not so happy and saw
nothing in Urban War - not due to the software itself but due to the
lack of variety and CHOICE that 8-bit PD members had by now become
accustomed to. Issue 7 damaged the reputation of 8-bit PD and
membership dormancy rose by about 15 compared to it's usual 3 or 4.
New members for whom issue 7 was their first issue were understandably
unimpressed by the lack of variety and began asking why 8-bit PD only
issued one program per month? All in all it was an explosive cocktail
which came within a gnat's whisker of costing 8-bit software it's
Rather than shrugg off the problem, a solution was put in place to
ensure that large items of software were given their rightful airing,
but not at the expense of filling space on a monthly disc - and the
rather unceromoniously named "TBI Pool" was born. TBI actually stood
for "Too Big for Issue disc" and contained software that fell into
that category. In the end it worked very well - having the advantage
of adding a new service to 8-bit Software and the reward of becoming
staggeringly popular. Urban War was requested time and time again by
new members to 8-bit Software starting issue 8 onwards.
It was becoming apparant that the newsletters and software reviews
which accompanied each issue disc were becoming as popular as the
actual software itself ...
If I remember correctly, I had been hinting on starting an 8-bit PD
screen magazine ever since the first newsletter (maybe issue 6?) and
never thought at the time that it would ever become a reality. For a
start, over 60% of the time spent putting together an issue disc was
spent writing and printing the newsletters and program reviews.
If an "on-screen" disc based magazine was to be a realistic option
then two problems had to be tackled. Firstly, the magazine was going
to require disc space and secondly I had to find someone willing to
write and edit it as my time-bank was already well overdrawn ...
TO BE CONTINUED (one day) ...