Dick Walter has built -- or, more precisely, programmed -- a better mousetrap. But will the world beat a path to his door?
Walter, a 41-year-old college professor, financial consultant, and computer addict with bushy gray hair and a curly white beard that makes him look like a slightly slimmer version of Santa Claus, has written a new utility program that is useful, beautifully organized, and a snap to use. If the software industry is any good at all at rewarding merit, Walter's new program should do well.
But there's the rub -- can the software industry reward merit when it comes from a tiny one-man operation like Dick Walter?
This week Walter is making the rounds of COMDEX, the huge computer industry trade show in Las Vegas, trying to get buyers -- particularly from the big chain computer stores -- to stock the new program he calls MAXAM.
At a time when the software industry is becoming the exclusive preserve of corporate behemoths, it's an open question whether anybody will still listen to a lone entrepeneur who hit on a good idea.
Walter's good idea is a new twist on the hot concept called "accessory programs" -- the ones that reside permanently in a corner of memory and are thus instantly available with a touch of a key.
The hallmark of this new breed of software is the "Sidekick" program that I wrote about recently; it provides instantaneous access to a calculator, notepad, and appointment calendar, without having to find the disk and load the program each time you want it.
Walter's MAXAM puts a condensed version of the MS-DOS (or PC-DOS) manual into memory, so that help on using any DOS command or program is always available. We like MAXAM a lot. It is fast, well-written, and reliable. The fact that it is just one keystroke away at any moment means you use it a lot -- even if you had thought you were pretty familiar with MS-DOS. Using MAXAM is simplicity itself. You load it in when you first turn on your machine (I put it into an AUTOEXEC.BAT file). Then, any time you need a reminder or directions on any MS-DOS function, you hit the ALT and RETURN keys simultaneously, and a MAXAM window jumps up on the screen right on top of the letter or spread sheet or whatever you were working on.
Let's say you want to FORMAT a new disk. You type in the command, but then you can't remember the code at the end you need to put a label on the disk. You could reach over for the MS-DOS manual and hunt (futilely) for "label" in the index. Or you can call up MAXAM. It already knows you're using the FORMAT command, and on the screen there's a window telling you how to use FORMAT and listing the various codes. (The one that adds a label is "/V", which presumably made sense to the programmers who wrote MS-DOS.)
"I have seen in hundreds and hundreds of computer science students that the only thing they lack is confidence," Walter says. "People are scared because they don't know how to work these machines. MAXAM is supposed to put confidence right into memory so it's always available."
Walter hit on the idea last May when he saw his new wife struggling to unravel the mysteries of MS-DOS. "I said, 'look, give me two hours and I bet I can write a program to help you,'" Walter recalls. "Well, by July, after six weeks of 14-hour days, I had it pretty much done."
Walter originally wanted to call his new product DOSHELP, but that name was already copyrighted. He chose MAXAM because it is a "mirror invariant palindrome" -- that is, the word reads the same forward, backward, and in a mirror.
He put much time and money into packaging and instructions -- "you have to make the product look professional or the computer stores won't touch you."
After "a lot of soul-searching," Walter decided his software would not be copy-protected. "It's supposed to be friendly, and copy protection is a basically untrusting, unfriendly act." Although he could make some money selling the program for about $30, he set a price of $49.95 to satisfy computer stores, which generally want a 40 percent margin. I find that price a little high, but sadly, it's in line with the generally over-priced software industry.
Now all the work is done, and Walter has only to sell his program to the big software chain stores. He's hoping that some stores or computer schools will use the program as a "hook" -- throwing it in free as a way to close each sale. To hedge a little, though, he has also set up a distribution operation for direct sales. You can buy MAXAM today by calling 1-800-752-7001, ext. 910 (in Texas, 1-800-442-4799, ext. 910).
Walter is nervous these days because he knows that in the copycat world of computer software, exclusive new ideas don't stay exclusive very long. "I figure I've got three months before somebody else is doing this," he says. "What I have to do is show the world that this is a good, useful program before the copies come along."