It has been exactly a year now since Dick Walter launched his marvelous program "Maxam" onto the treacherous seas of the software market. The program is still afloat, and Dick is still smiling. But somehow, I think the distributors and retailers of software missed the boat on this one.
As noted in this space 52 weeks ago, Maxam is a beautifully organized, easy-to-use, lightning-fast, non-copy-protected program that performs a useful task. It puts a condensed version of the MS-DOS (or PC-DOS) manual into your computer's memory, so that instruction on any DOS command is instantly available. Instead of hunting for half an hour through the fat, poorly indexed manual that comes with DOS, you get the answer to your question at the touch of a key. (And because Maxam automatically keeps track of what you're doing on the computer, it usually knows ahead of time what question you're going to ask.)
Dick Walter, a financial consultant and computer addict with bushy gray hair and a white beard that makes him look like a slimmer version of Santa Claus, chose to package and market his program by himself rather than offer it up to one of the established software houses. He had a belief that, if reviewers and users liked his product, distributors and retailers would come knocking on his door to sell it.
With one exception, which I'll get to in a moment, every review and every comment from users has been extremely favorable. And yet none of the big computer retail chains has shown any interest in carrying this product. Don't ask your friendly local Computerland for a copy of Maxam; the chain declined to stock it. (Decisions like that help explain why Computerland managers are in open revolt against the corporate headquarters.) The upshot is that Dick Walter has only sold about 400 copies of his program in the year since its birth.
Things started out so positively last fall when Maxam came out and the first rave reviews appeared. In the first week, Walter got an order from the White House for two copies of the program. "That was pretty neat," he says. "Not just that the president's office wanted my program, but also that they ordered two. That meant they were honest enough not to just buy one and copy it."
Reviews in several trade journals and computer magazines were uniformly favorable. Even the software reviewers in the Congressional Budget Office (yes, your tax dollars pay for congressional staffers to write software reviews) gave Maxam a rave. The "comment cards" that came in from users of the program were euphoric -- except for one guy who sent in a sour note saying Maxam wouldn't run on his computer. "That one drove me crazy because he didn't sign his name," Walter says. "I wanted to give him his money back, but who is he?"
Nonetheless, Walter struck out when he tried to get computer stores to sell his program. One problem was that he didn't have an advertising budget. Another was that some computer retailers didn't know enough about computers to understand what a "memory resident DOS help program" is. One retailer asked Walter if this MS-DOS help program would run on the Apple II.
Finally, Maxam was too cheap, at $49.95, to provide the retailer a big profit. The stores don't want to waste time and shelf space on a $50 program, where each sale earns the store a profit of $20, when they can put the same effort into a $300 program and net $120 profit per sale.
Of course, customers might like to have access to that useful $50 program, but computer retailers never have shown much concern for the needs of customers.
It must be said that Dick Walter is less upset about this than I am.
"It's been a lot of fun, I've made back almost all the money I put into it, and I'd do the whole thing over again," he said the other day at his home in this Denver suburb.
Moreover, Walter has found that Maxam, despite the disappointing sales, has been a boon to business -- that is, his business as a computer "Red Adair" who flies around the country helping companies faced with programming crises.
"I get a call from somebody with a horrendous problem on a program that has to be finished within five days," he says. "They've heard about me by word-of-mouth, but I can tell they're a little wary -- you know, 'Is this guy really any good?' So I send them a copy of Maxam, the program I wrote. And it immediately validates me as a super-techie."
And so this fall Walter sat down and came out with a new version (v. 3.1) of Maxam. It has the same quick, reliable help function plus some additional goodies, including powerful file organizing and sorting commands for hard-disk users. He's lowered the price to $24.95 on a test basis and is selling it through an 800 number (800-752-7001, ext. 910; in Texas, 800-442-4799).
That gives this column a nice happy ending, just right for the Christmas season. But I still can't help complaining.
With all the overpriced junk software lining the shelves at computer stores, why won't the retailers carry this useful and reliable little program?