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Software for a song;Computers

Chris Drage examines the perils and benefits of using free programs

A little gem that came to me as a software "freebie" via the Internet is called Moontool. It displays a digital image of the phase of the moon for that day and all the moon data you could want. It beats looking it up in diaries and exemplifies the role of public domain, or PD, software.

The questions schools frequently ask after spending a considerable sum on computer systems are "What software should we buy?" and "Can we afford it?" The good news is that there is a huge amount of worthwhile software available at less than pound;15 a disk if you know where to look. But is it any good?

Much material is in the public domain (which means free). You can find quite a bit on the Internet, and in the small ads of computer magazines.

PD software is an extremely useful source of school programs. You will find bespoke programs with an educational content, desk-top publishing resources, utility software and logicstrategy games.

One warning about PD software - none of it is guaranteed to work as you expect, if at all. In addition, if there is any documentation with the programs it will be (at best) in the form of "Read-Me" files, which you have to print out if you get stuck.

PD software comes in several guises:

* It may come with the author's copyright attached. It can be freely copied, although it cannot be changed in any way.

* Other programs are available as "shareware" (distributed via magazine advertisements or the Internet), which can be copied, but you have to make a small payment to the program author in return for its use and for free updates.

* There is also "careware" (distributed via public-spirited individuals), where a voluntary payment is given to charity.

Many PD programs are available; often there are several versions on the same theme.

Some of the multiplicity of "demos" can be useful to show the possibilities of programs. The public domain is also an excellent source of clip-art, sound bytes, fonts and animated graphics. Be aware, however, that some of the 30 or so fonts in the public domain you might like to download for your printer are renamed copies of existing outline fonts which are under copyright.

Among the utility software you will find many useful little "workhorse" programs, but it does take time to search and evaluate them. PD libraries are huge, and the amount of material available makes choosing anything of value a difficult task. CD-ROM compilations of PD software may prove a more efficient route.

Be aware, too, of the risk of obtaining "free" software - you could receive more than you bargained for in the form of viruses. This is especially true of Internet downloads and software passed from "friends". You can also find a range of cheap and affordable software online and via catalogues.

Many software publishers for the primary market offer excellent value for money if you read their licensing policies carefully. Sherston Software (for example, Oxford Reading Tree clip art for age five up and Science Fair for age five to seven) and SEMERC are examples.

One name you are likely to run across is David Pilling Software, a reliable source of low-cost Acorn software, with the bonus that with every four disks you buy you get one free. Any school running a chess club has to get Pilling's CHESS program.

At the technology college where I work, we bought My World for Windows from Scion for a Year 7 history topic. Cost? pound;70 for a site licence for the whole college, including the My World Design-a-Castle file, which is very good value.

You can always try negotiating with a supplier when making a big purchase to reduce costs.

One final point - in the IT world you don't get "ow't for now't". If it's free, there may be another price to pay.

For further information contact: Moontool

moontoolwSherston 01666 843200

www.sherston.comSEMERC 0161 627 4469

www.granadalearning.comDavid Pilling Software 01623 479381


* Never spend any of your budget outside the agreed ICT development plan. Budget for software needs as well as hardware in your plan.

* It is up to the ICT co-ordinator to seek out reliable sources of low-cost software. Look for PD compilation CD-ROMs as these help narrow down the search.

* Subscribe to some of the computer magazines, as free program disks often come with them.

* Use your education authority ICT inspectors, advisers or group to exchange information and useful PD programs.

* Make sure you have virus protection software installed on your computers and that you use it when downloading new software.

* Look for good deals in the licensing agreements from popular software publishers.

* Before you introduce a new piece of PD software to the school, check that it is free and not simply a demo version.

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