Here's part of the "Secret Guide to Computers & Tricky Living," copyright by Russ Walter, 31st edition. For newer info, read the 32nd edition at


The information stored in the computer is called software. Most software stays in RAM temporarily and is erased from RAM when you no longer need it. But some software stays in the computer’s circuits permanently: it hides in the ROM and is called firmware.

To feed firmware to the computer, put extra ROM chips on the motherboard or insert a ROM cartridge. To feed other kinds of software to the computer, use the keyboard, disk, or tape: type the info on the keyboard, or insert a disk or tape containing the info.

You can feed the computer four kinds of software: an operating system, a language, application programs, and data. Let’s look at them.…


Operating systems

An operating system (OS) is a set of instructions that explains to the CPU how to handle the keyboard, the screen, printer, disk drives, and mouse.

BIOS versus DOS

In a standard IBM-compatible PC, the operating system is divided into two parts.

The operating system’s fundamental part is in the motherboard’s ROM chips and called the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS, pronounced “buy oss” or “buy us”). The operating system’s advanced part is on a disk and is called the disk operating system (or DOS, which is pronounced “doss”).

From MS-DOS to Windows

The first DOS for the IBM PC was invented by IBM and a company called MicroSoft (MS). That DOS was called IBM PC-DOS or MS-DOS. It came on a floppy disk.

Version 1 came on a floppy disk and stayed there. Version 2 came on a floppy disk but could be copied to a hard disk. (Version 1 couldn’t handle hard disks.) Versions 3, 4, 5, and 6 were even better: like version 2, they came on floppy disks and could be copied to the hard disk but could also be supplemented by a set of extra floppy disks, invented by Microsoft and called Windows, which let the computer perform tricks (such as dividing the screen into “windows of info” and letting you use a mouse instead of just a keyboard).

Windows’ first version (Windows 1) and its early improvements (Windows 2 and Windows 3) were just supplements to MS-DOS. To use them, you had to buy MS-DOS first. They were supplements (called shells) that tried to hide MS-DOS’s ugliness (just like a clamshell hides an ugly clam); they made MS-DOS look prettier. People bought the ugly operating system (MS-DOS) plus the operating-system shell (Windows) to create a new operating environment.

Modern standard Windows

In 1995, Microsoft invented a better version of Windows, called Windows 95, which performed more tricks and was a complete operating system: it did not require you to buy MS-DOS first; it was not just a shell.

Windows 95 came on a floppy disk plus a CD-ROM disk. To use Windows 95, you (or the dealer) had to copy the floppy disk and CD-ROM disk to the hard disk.

After Windows 95, Microsoft invented further improvements. Here are the years:

In 1995 came Windows 95.

In 1998 came Windows 98.

In 1999 came Windows 98 Second Edition (Windows 98 SE).

In 2000 came Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me).

In 2001 came Windows eXPerience (Windows XP).

In 2006 came Windows Vista.

In 2009 came Windows 7.

Windows XP and the versions that came after it (Vista and 7) are called modern Windows. Earlier versions of Windows (Windows 1, 2, 3, 95, 98, 98SE, and Me) are called classic Windows.

Most computer programs require modern Windows: they require “Windows XP or later”. Such programs refuse to run if you bought just classic Windows or MS-DOS.

Windows CE versus Palm

Microsoft invented a tiny version of Windows, for pocket computers and other electronic devices having a small RAM and small screen. That tiny Windows is called Windows Compact Edition for Computers Embedded in Consumer Electronics (Windows CE). It fits completely into ROM chips and requires no disks.

It’s used in handheld computers such as the Compaq iPaq and the HP Journada. It competes against an even smaller ROM operating system, called the Palm Operating System (Palm OS), which is used in cheaper handheld computers such as the Zire, the Treo, and the Sony Clié.

Corporate versions of Windows

Big corporations running big networks used a fancy “corporate” version of Windows called Windows New Technology (Windows NT), invented in 1993. The year 2000 brought an improved version, called Windows 2000. In 2001, Windows XP replaced them and made them obsolete, but later Microsoft invented another corporate version, called Windows Server.


AT&T’s Bell Laboratories invented an operating system called Unix. It’s pronounced “you nicks”, so it sounds like “eunuchs”, which are castrated men. (Be careful! A female computer manager who seems to be saying “get me eunuchs” probably wants an operating system, not castrated men.)

“Unix” is an abbreviation for “UNICS”, which stands for “UNified Information & Computing System”.

The original version of Unix ran just on DEC minicomputers used by just one person at a time. Newer versions of Unix can handle any manufacturer’s maxi, mini, or micro and can even handle networks of people sharing computers simultaneously.

Linux A Finnish programmer named Linus Torvalds (whose first name is pronounced “lee nuss”) invented a Unix imitation called “Linus Unix” or Linux (pronounced “lee nucks”). It’s free!

It runs on 386, 486, and Pentium computers and also on Atari and Commodore Amiga computers. The most popular way to get it is as part of a distribution (which includes Linux plus extras), published by Ubuntu (pronounced “oo-BOON-too”) or Mandrake or Suse or Red Hat.

Ubuntu’s distribution, which comes from England, is free.

Mandrake’s distribution, which comes from France, is cheap and nice.

SuSE’s distribution, which comes from Germany and the USA, is the easiest and most pleasant.

Red Hat’s distribution, which comes from the USA, includes the most features for setting up a network.

Solaris Sun Microsystems (which was recently bought by Oracle) makes Sparc minicomputers, which are used as graphics/engineering workstations and Internet servers. Sparc minicomputers use the Solaris operating system, which is a souped-up version of Unix.

Though Solaris is intended for Sparc minicomputers, you can get a version of Solaris that runs on microcomputers containing an Intel CPU.

Unix versus Windows Though many programmers adore Unix, it won’t outsell Windows, since Unix is harder to learn and had its main features stolen by MS-DOS & Windows. But Unix networks are more reliable than Window networks and form the basis of the Internet.

Mac OS

The Mac uses its own operating system, called the Mac OS. To invent Windows, Microsoft copied many features from the Mac OS. Windows and the Mac OS are very similar to each other.

Versions 1-9 of the Mac OS were invented completely by Apple. Version 10 of the Mac OS is based on Unix instead: it’s a version of Unix modified to resemble and surpass Mac OS 9. To emphasize OS 10’s Olympic greatness, Apple writes it in Roman numerals (like this: Mac OS X), which Apple says to pronounce as “Mac oh ess ten”. Apple will forgive you if you say “Mac oh ess ex”, which sounds like “Mac — oh! — is sex!”, since Mac OS X is the sexy operating system that makes the Mac gorgeously appealing.


Apple’s small gadgets (the iPhone and iPad) use an operating system called iOS, whose newest version can handle touchscreens. To compete against iOS, Google invented an operating system called Android, whose newest version is Android 3, nicknamed Honeycomb.

Old computers

Old computers used old operating systems:

Apple 2 computers used Apple DOS or Pro DOS.

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 computers used TRSDOS (pronounced “triss doss”).

DEC’s Vax minicomputers used an operating system called the Virtual Memory System (VMS).

Ancient microcomputers used the Control Program for Microcomputers (CP/M).

IBM maxicomputers use the Multiple Virtual Storage (MVS) system or the Virtual Machine with Conversational Monitor System (VM with CMS).



Languages that humans normally speak — such as English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese — are called natural languages. They’re too complicated for computers to understand.

To communicate with computers, programmers use computer languages instead. The most popular computer languages are Basic, Visual Basic, Java, JavaScript, C, C++, C#, Python, Perl, and PHP.

Each is a tiny part of English — a part small enough for the computer to master. To teach the computer one of those tiny languages, you feed the computer a disk (or ROM chips) containing definitions of that tiny language’s words.

Of those 4 computer languages, Basic is the easiest to learn and the most practical for most purposes; JavaScript is the best for creating small but thoughtful programs on the Internet; Java is the best for creating deeper Internet programs (and animated Internet cartoons!); C++ is the hardest to learn but runs the fastest, consumes the least RAM and gives you the most control over the computer.

Although those languages have become the most popular, many others were invented.

Back in the 1960’s, the most popular languages were Fortran (which let computers do advanced calculations for engineering and scientific research) and Cobol (which let computers do accounting for big corporations).

During the 1980’s, most schools taught elementary-school kids to program in Logo, high-school kids to program in Basic, college kids to program in Pascal, graduate computer-science students to program in C (which was the forerunner of C++), and business students to program in Cobol (for maxicomputers) and dBase (for microcomputers).

This book discusses many languages, so you become a virtuoso!



The Internet is an international network of computers that share info. You can make your computer become part of the Internet too!

Web The most popular part of the Internet is the World Wide Web (WWW), where people publish Web pages that everybody else using the Internet can view.

If you want to view the Web pages that other people have created, and browse through them, you need a program called a Web browser.

The most popular Web browsers are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox, and Google’s Chrome. They’re all free.

To invent and edit your own Web pages (so other people on the Internet can view them), get a Web-page editor. The fanciest is Adobe’s Dreamweaver, which costs $399, but others cost less and are easier to learn.

Some Web pages let you copy software from the Internet to your own computer’s hard disk. Copying from the Internet is called “downloading from the Internet.” Copying to the Internet is called “uploading to the Internet.”

E-mail If you attach your computer to the Internet, you can send electronic mail (e-mail) to another computer on the Internet, if you have an e-mail program.

The most popular e-mail programs are Windows Mail (which is part of Windows Vista) and Outlook Express (which is part of older versions of Windows). Other e-mail programs are Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and Gmail.

Application programs

The computer will do whatever you wish — if you tell it how. To tell the computer how to do what you wish, you feed it a program, which is a list of instructions, written in Basic or in some other computer language.

To feed the computer a program, type the program on the keyboard, or buy a disk containing the program and put that disk into the drive, or buy ROM chips containing the program. But before buying the disk, make sure it will work with your computer. For example, if the disk says “for Windows”, it will work with a modern IBM-compatible PC but not with the typical Apple Mac computer.

A person who invents a program is called a programmer. Becoming a programmer is easy: you can become a programmer in just a few minutes! Becoming a good programmer takes longer.

You can buy two kinds of programs. The most popular kind is called an application program (app): it handles a specific application, such as payroll or psychotherapy or chess. The other kind of program is called a system program: it teaches the computer how to handle various kinds of hardware and various computer languages. An operating system (such as Windows or Unix) is mainly a collection of system programs, bundled together to form a nice package. Application programs are usually purchased separately, though a few applications programs are included in the operating system’s price.

You’ll want several kinds of application programs. Here are the most popular.…

Word processing

A word-processing program helps you write memos, letters, reports, research papers, articles, and books. It also helps you edit what you wrote.

As you type on the keyboard, the screen shows what you typed. By pressing buttons (on the keyboard or the mouse), you can edit what’s on the screen and copy it onto paper and onto a disk.

Most operating systems include a simple word-processing program.

MS-DOS                   includes a simple word-processing program called Edit.

Classic Windows      includes a simple word-processing program called Windows Write.

Modern Windows     includes a simple word-processing program called WordPad.

Mac OS 6                  includes a simple word-processing program called TeachText.

Mac OS 7, 8, and 9   include a simple word-processing program called SimpleText.

Mac OS X              includes a simple-word-processing program called TextEdit.

Those simple word-processing programs are very limited. For example, they aren’t smart enough to correct your spelling.

Most businesses use a fancier word-processing program instead, called Microsoft Word. It can correct your spelling and perform many other tricks. It costs about $100. It works just if you’ve already bought Windows or the Mac OS. Its main competitor is WordPerfect, which costs less and is published by a company called Corel.

Instead of saying “word-processing program”, it’s shorter to say just “word processor”, but beware: “word processor” can mean a program, a person, or a machine. Yes, “word processor” can mean 3 things:

“a word-processing program”

Example: “Does this computer’s hard disk include a word processor, such as Microsoft Word?”

“a person who knows how to use a word-processing program”

Example: “I’d like to hire a word processor (such as Joan Smith) who’ll type my book for $10 per hour.”

“a computerized typewriter whose only purpose is to run a word-processing program”

Example: “Instead of buying a full computer, I want a cheaper machine, such as the Brother Word Processor.”


To analyze a company, accountants examine the company’s financial data (each month’s expenses and revenues) and arrange all those numbers to form a huge “table of numbers”, spread across a big sheet of paper. That’s called a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet is a table of numbers, spread across a sheet of paper — or across the computer’s screen.

A spreadsheet program lets you create a table of numbers on the computer screen. You can type any numbers you wish. For example, you can type amounts of money (for accounting) or scores (from sports or student exams) or measurements (from science-lab experiments or sociology surveys) or your ratings of members of the opposite sex.

The typical spreadsheet program is powerful. It can automatically do these things:

compute “the total, average, percentages, and other statistics” for each row & column

rearrange the data (to put the topics in alphabetical order or from “best” to “worse”)

draw pretty graphs summarizing the results

copy all that to paper and disk

automatically change all the sums, averages, percentages, and graphs whenever you edit the original data

It’s great for analyzing budgets, scientific experiments, statistics, and you!

Most businesses use a spreadsheet program called Microsoft Excel. It requires Windows or a Mac. Its main competitor is Corel’s Quattro Pro, which requires Windows.

Danger: compulsive perfectionism

The most successful business programs are the ones that make work become fun, by turning the work into a video game. That’s why word processing programs and spreadsheet programs are so successful — they let you move letters and numbers around the screen, edit the errors by “zapping” them, and let you press a button that makes the screen explode with totals, subtotals, counts, and other info.

Sometimes, word processing can be too much fun. Since it’s so much fun to edit on a word processor, people using word processors edit more thoroughly than people using typewriters or pens. Word processing fosters compulsive perfectionism.

Word-processed documents wind up better-written than non-electronic documents but take longer to finish. According to a survey by Colorado State, people using word processors take about 30% longer to generate memos than people using pens, and the word-processed memos are needlessly long.

Danger: intimidation

Word-processing and spreadsheet programs can become weapons that mesmerize people into believing everything you say — even if what you’re saying is wrong.

For example, suppose you want to submit a budget. If you scribble the budget on a scrap of paper, nobody will take you seriously; but if you put your data into a spreadsheet program that spits out beautifully aligned columns with totals, subtotals, percentages, bar charts, and pie charts, your audience will assume your budget’s carefully thought out and applaud it, even though it’s just a pretty presentation of the same crude guesses you’d have scribbled on paper.

Similarly, if you want to talk somebody into believing your idea, scribbling it on a scrap of paper won’t impress anybody. Instead, print the idea beautifully, using a word processor to create headlines, footnotes, etc. That will make the idea seem carefully thought out, even if the thought is actually the same garbage.

Try it! If you’re a kid, write a formal report on why your dessert tonight should be strawberry ice cream instead of vanilla. After submitting it to your Mom, submit it to an ice-cream company and watch yourself get praised, quoted, and hired! That’s what marketing is all about: bad ideas, nicely packaged.


A graphics program helps you create pictures that are pretty or bizarre or whatever else you want! You’ll want to get several types of graphics programs.

One type is called a paint program. It lets you create pictures easily. These paint programs are the most famous:

Program          Characteristics

Mac Paint           the first paint program; ran on Mac OS; no longer marketed

Deluxe Paint       best early paint program; ran on Commodore Amiga and MS-DOS; no longer marketed

Paintbrush          came free as part of Windows 3, which is no longer marketed

Windows Paint   comes free as part of modern Windows (Windows 95 and later)

Corel Painter       fanciest paint program; imitates oil painting, charcoal, etc.; for Mac and Windows

Kid Pix               best paint program for kids; lots of fun; includes stars and many other kid shapes

Another type is called a photo editor. It lets you put a photo into the computer (by using a digital camera or scanner) and see the photo on the computer’s screen. Then it lets you edit the photo: it lets you crop out the irrelevant parts, cover scratches and embarrassing details, improve the contrast and brightness and colors, remove red-eye (caused when eyes become accidentally red from the flashbulb), and add special dramatic effects. These photo editors are the best:

Program                 Characteristics

Photoshop                    performs the fanciest tricks, but hard to master; for Mac and Windows by Adobe

Photoshop Elements a stripped-down version of Photoshop; easier to learn but reasonably powerful

Digital Image Suite by Microsoft and even easier than Photoshop Elements

Another type is called a drawing program. It resembles a paint program but specializes in drawing straight lines instead of squiggles. It’s best for drawing pictures of things that have straight lines, such as buildings, machines, and charts for technical illustrations. These drawing programs are the most famous:

Program                 Characteristics

Microsoft Draw        included free as part of Microsoft Word and some other Microsoft products

Corel Draw               the fanciest drawing program for Windows

Adobe Illustrator       an old program; still the professional standard; expensive; for Mac and Windows

Another type is called a computer-aided drafting & design program (CAD program). It resembles a draw program but does more math. For example, it can print mock blueprints, showing the lengths of all parts. It can compute the surface area (square feet) of any shape, so you can compute how much material to buy to build your structure and cover it. It lets you give fancy geometric commands, such as “draw a 37-degree angle, but make the point be round instead of sharp, so nobody gets hurt” or “draw a circle that goes through these three points” or “draw a line that grazes these two circles, so it’s tangent to them”. These CAD programs are the most famous:

Program                 Characteristics                                                                                        List

AutoCAD                  the standard that professionals use; expensive                                            $3995

AutoCAD LT             a “light” cheaper version of AutoCAD, for students and experimenters      $899

TurboCAD Deluxe much cheaper than AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT, but not as fancy                  $150

Another type is called a presentation program. It lets you create a slide show, to accompany your speech. In the slide show, each slide can include photos, charts, and notes. These presentation programs are the most famous:

Program                 Characteristics

PowerPoint                by Microsoft, for Windows and Mac

Freelance                   by Lotus (which is part of IBM), for Windows

Corel Presentations   by Corel, for Windows


A video editor lets you edit the home movies your video camcorder creates. These video editors are the best:

Program                          Characteristics

Adobe Premiere                  performs the fanciest tricks, but hard to master; for Mac and Windows

Adobe Premiere Elements   a stripped-down version of Adobe Premier; easier to learn

Pinnacle Studio                   even easier than Adobe Premiere

Windows Movie Maker      the easiest of all; comes free as part of Windows XP & Vista

Desktop publishing

A desktop-publishing program resembles a word-processing program but lets you more easily create newsletters, newspapers, magazines, posters, and signs, by letting you more easily include pictures, captions, multiple columns, and jumps (such as “continued on page 5”). These desktop-publishing programs are the most famous:

Program              Characteristics

PageMaker             the first desktop-publishing program, for Mac & Windows, expensive, by Adobe

InDesign                from Adobe, newer and better than PageMaker

Quark XPress        competed against PageMaker and became the most popular, but then InDesign beat it

Microsoft Publisher  cheap, easy to learn, the best for beginners, lacks advanced features, for Windows

Print Shop              cheap, easy; was popular in 1980’s but too limited, beaten by Microsoft Publisher


A database program helps you manipulate long lists of data, such as names, addresses, phone numbers, and comments about your acquaintances (friends, customers, suppliers, employees, students, and teachers).

As you type the list of data, the database program automatically copies it to the hard disk. Then the program lets you edit that data. For example, you can insert extra data in the middle of the list. The program lets you view the data in any order you wish (such alphabetical order, ZIP-code order, or chronological order) and print that view onto paper.

The program can search through all that data and find, in just a few seconds, the data that’s unusual. For example, it can find everybody whose birthday is today, or everybody who’s blond and under 18, or everybody who lives out-of-state and has owed you more than $100 for over a year.

Most businesses use a database program called Microsoft Access. It requires Windows. Unfortunately, it’s hard to master. You might be happier with an easier database program instead, such as FileMaker Pro, which is published by a division of Apple and runs on Macs and Windows. Other famous database programs are Approach (for Windows and published by IBM’s Lotus division), Oracle (for large corporations), Q&A (for beginners using MS-DOS), dBase (for MS-DOS or Windows), and FoxPro (which resembles DBase but is fancier).

Office suites

Instead of buying a word-processing program, a spreadsheet program, and other programs separately, you can buy an office suite, which includes them all!

MS Office The best and most popular office suite is MicroSoft Office (MS Office). The newest version, MS Office 2010, requires modern Windows (Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7). The list price is $500 because Microsoft wants rich people & companies to pay that, but Microsoft has invented many schemes to squeeze a few bucks out of normal folks too. Here are the schemes for you to take advantage of:

The $500 price is for the Professional edition, which includes 7 programs: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote (for organizing your materials), Outlook, Access, and Publisher. Just $280 gets you the Home & Business edition instead, which omits Access & Publisher, so you get 5 programs.

If you buy one of those editions, you’re allowed to use it on 2 computers: your desktop plus your laptop. But you must be the primary user on each: you’re not allowed to copy the software onto a friend’s computer.

Just $150 gets you the Home & Student edition, which resembles the Home & Business edition but omits Outlook (so you get just 4 programs), is licensed for any 3 computers (so 2 of your friends can copy it), but is illegal to use for anything serious: you’re not licensed to use it for any business work, government work, non-profit work, or in schools; it’s licensed just for doing homework & fun stuff at your home, though Microsoft doesn’t have much ability to enforce that restriction.

Those prices get you a CD, which you (or your dealer) must copy to your hard disk. Some computers come with the Starter edition already installed. That edition includes just stripped-down versions of Word & Excel (so you get just parts of 2 programs) and forces you to watch ads.

To pay less, buy a Product Key instead of a CD. Here are the Product Key prices: $350 for Professional, $200 for Home & Business, $120 for Home & Student. After buying the Product Key (which is just a license number), you get it to work by either downloading the software from Microsoft’s Website or telling the Starter edition to unlock the extra features. Unfortunately, when you buy the Product Key, it works on just one computer (not 2 or 3).

To pay nothing, you can download a free trial version of the Professional edition from Microsoft’s Website. But after 60 days, the trial version won’t let you edit further until you buy a paid version.

If you’re a student who has an e-mail address at a college approved by Microsoft, you can buy an academic version of the Professional edition for just $80. It acts the same as the regular Professional edition but is to be used just by you.

All the prices I mentioned are the list prices. Discount dealers charge less, especially if you buy Microsoft Office at the same time as a computer. For example, many discount dealers often sell the Home & Student edition (which is the most popular) for just $100. If you join Sam’s Club (by paying dues of $35 or $40 per year), you can buy the Home & Business edition there cheaply (the CD for $215, the Product Key for $169).

All those versions, editions, prices, and deals are for computer that use Windows. If you have a Mac instead of Windows, you must use MS Office’s Mac version. The current version is Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac, which includes just Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook: Microsoft never invented a Mac version of Access, PowerPoint, or OneNote. The Mac’s free trial version works for just for 30 days, not 60.

WordPerfect Office The main competitor to MS Office is Corel’s WordPerfect Office. The newest version is called WordPerfect Office X5, costs $200, $130 for an upgrade, $100 for a Home & Student edition (which can be installed on 3 computers but isn’t licensed for business use). You get the upgrade price if you own an earlier version of WordPerfect Office, Microsoft Office, or Microsoft Works Suite.

Open Office Another competitor to MS Office is Open Office, which is put together by volunteers who let you download it free from the Internet. It imitates an old version of Microsoft Office. It used to be called Star Office and was a commercial product, but now it’s free.

Integrated programs

Instead of buying an office suite, you can pay less by getting a cute little program, called an integrated program, which does a little bit of everything!

The best integrated programs are Microsoft Works, iWork, and Q&A. Here’s how they compare.…

Microsoft Works This is the best integrated program for handling word processing and spreadsheets. It also handles databases.

Its Windows version is good. Its DOS and Mac versions are not.

Its newest Windows version, Microsoft Works 9, lists for $40. Many computers come with Microsoft Works 9 installed on the hard disk already, since Microsoft charges manufacturers just $10 per copy for permission to do that. (Microsoft has stopped selling a souped-up version called Microsoft Works Suite.)

Here’s a trick: buy Microsoft Works (or a computer whose hard disk contains it) then use that as an excuse to get the upgrade price on other products. For example, that gets you the upgrade price on MS Office 2007 and WordPerfect Office.

iWork This is the best integrated program for handling desktop publishing. It also handles word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentations, painting, and drawing. It’s published by Apple, which used to call it AppleWorks and Claris Works. It runs on  Macs and costs $79.

Q&A This is the best integrated program for handling databases.

It handles word processing poorly and doesn’t handle spreadsheets at all, but its DOS version is great, and I still use it.

The Windows version is terrible, so I keep using the DOS version. If you’ve been using the DOS version but need to switch to Windows, try Sesame Database Manager, which imitates the database part of Q&A, runs in Windows & Linux, and can be downloaded from Lantica Software (in Pennsylvania at 800-410-6315) for $79.


You can get a checkbook program. It helps you balance your checkbook, track your expenses (and categorize them so you can get tax deductions), manage your credit cards, track your investments (stocks, bonds, and bank accounts), and compute your net worth.

The first program to do that well was Quicken, published by Intuit. Then Microsoft invented a competing program, called Microsoft Money, which was easier, but recently Microsoft gave up trying to sell it. Quicken and Microsoft Money are fine for personal use or to run tiny businesses.

If your business has lots of employees, you’ll want a program that’s better at “paying your employees” and “billing your customers”. The easiest powerful program is Intuit’s QuickBooks, which is a souped-up version of Quicken. Other accounting programs, which is are even more powerful (and slightly harder to learn how to use) are Peachtree Complete Accounting and Manage Your Own Business (MYOB).

Vertical software

Software that can be used by a wide variety of businesses is called horizontal software. Programs for word processing, spreadsheets, and databases are all examples of horizontal software.

Software targeted to a specific industry is called vertical software. Programs specifically for doctors, lawyers, and real-estate management are all examples of vertical software.

Vertical software is expensive because it can’t be mass-marketed to the general public and isn’t available from discount dealers. The typical vertical-market program costs about $1000, whereas the typical horizontal-market program costs about $100 from discount dealers.

Until the price of vertical software declines, use horizontal software instead. With just a few hours of effort, you can customize horizontal software to fit your own specific needs.


Some nasty programmers have invented computer viruses, which are programs that purposely damage your other programs and can sneakily copy themselves onto every disk and e-mail message that you share with friends. To avoid catching a virus, protect yourself in 4 ways:

Be aware of the 6 kinds of common viruses, by reading this book’s virus chapter.

Make sure all software entering your computer comes from reputable sources.

Keep your eyes open for suspicious behavior.

Get an antivirus program, such as Microsoft Security Essentials or Norton AntiVirus.



The typical program comes on a CD-ROM disk. To use the program, put its CD-ROM disk into the CD-ROM drive. Then copy the program to your hard disk.

The CD-ROM disk containing the program might also contain lots of music, video, and other data. If the data is too big to fit on the hard disk, you must keep the CD-ROM disk in the drive while running the program, so the computer can access whatever part of the CD-ROM’s data is needed at the moment.

Some programs let you create your own data, by typing the data at your keyboard. The computer stores that data on the hard disk. You should occasionally copy that data onto a floppy disk, as a backup copy, to protect yourself in case the hard disk gets damaged.

Software companies

Will your computer be pleasant to use? The answer depends mainly on which software you buy. Software companies will influence your life more than any hardware manufacturer.

The 13 dominant software companies are Microsoft, Novell, Corel, IBM, Borland, Symantec, Oracle, CA, Intuit, Adobe, Autodesk, HM Rivergroup, and Electronic Arts. Here’s why.…


The most important software company is Microsoft, which takes in about 62 billion dollars of revenue per year. It makes the most popular operating system (Windows) and the most popular office suite (Microsoft Office).

The company’s main founder is
Bill Gates.

Because of Microsoft’s success, when he was 30 he became a billionaire and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. When he turned 40 (on October 28, 1995), he was worth 14.7 billion dollars.

At the beginning of 1997, he was worth 24 billion dollars. Seven months later, at the end of July, he was worth 40 billion dollars. Two years later, in mid-1999, he was worth 100 billion dollars! He was the richest person in the world.

100 billion dollars is a lot of money! For example, even if you earn 100 million dollars per year, you’d have to work 1000 years to get what Bill had. 100 billion dollars was enough to give $360 to each American, or $16 to each person on the planet. 100 billion one-dollar bills, if laid end-to-end, would stretch to the moon and back, 20 times. Programmers often measure their salaries in microbills, where a microbill is defined as being a millionth of Bill Gates’ worth, so a microbill became $100,000.

Bill didn’t have 100 billion dollars cash in his pocket, of course. Most of his billions were just on paper, invested in Microsoft stock: he owned 12% of Microsoft, whose stock was overpriced.

Bill said he planned to donate 95% of his wealth to worthy causes. To start that process, he and his wife Melinda created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given big grants to libraries, schools, and third-world health agencies. When I was writing this book in June 2010, Bill’s worth had dropped to 56 billion dollars, because of the donations he made and because the stock market dropped. Now he’s just the second-richest person in the world. (The richest is a Mexican, Carlos Slim Helú, who has 74 billion dollars and owns many companies, such as Latin America’s biggest cell-phone service.)

Bill is semi-retired from Microsoft (which is now run by his friend Steve Ballmer), so Bill devotes full attention to giving his money away — by helping Melinda run their foundation.

Microsoft is the most diversified software company:

It has sold operating systems (MS-DOS and Windows), a word-processing program (Microsoft Word), a spreadsheet program (Excel), a desktop-publishing program (Microsoft Publisher), database programs (Access and FoxPro), an integrated program (Microsoft Works), a computerized encyclopedia (Encarta), programming languages (Visual Basic, Visual C++, and others), and a wide variety of other software. It’s the main software publisher for the IBM PC and Mac. It also wrote the versions of Basic used by primitive computers (such as the Apple 2 family, Radio Shack TRS-80, Commodore 64, and Commodore Amiga).

It also sells hardware (such as mice, keyboards, and the Xbox game-playing system) and Internet services (such as MSN).

Microsoft continually develops new products because of pressure from competitors. For example, Microsoft was forced to improve Microsoft Word because of competition from WordPerfect and improve Microsoft C because of competition from Borland’s C. Those continual pressures to improve keep Microsoft a vibrant, dynamically changing company.

Novell & Corel

Novell invented Netware & Intranetware, which are programs that help create computer networks.

In 1994, Novell bought WordPerfect Corporation (which made the most popular word-processing program, WordPerfect). Novell’s purchase was natural, since both companies were in Utah. WordPerfect Corporation sold out to Novell because WordPerfect Corporation was having financial trouble, since many customers were switching to Microsoft Word, which has been improving dramatically.

In 1994, Novell also bought Quattro Pro (a top-rated spreadsheet program invented by a company called Borland). Borland sold Quattro Pro to Novell because Borland was having financial trouble competing against Microsoft.

Novell was founded by Ray Noorda. Novell’s next CEO, Robert Frankenberg, tried to make the company smaller and more manageable, so in 1996 he sold WordPerfect and Quattro Pro to a Canadian company, Corel, which was famous for inventing a graphics program called Corel Draw.

In 2004, Novell bought a German company called SuSE (which made the nicest version of Linux, SuSE Linux).

Novell takes in about 1 billion dollars per year. Corel takes in about ¼ of a billion dollars per year.

Microsoft owns 25% of Corel.

Lotus & IBM

Lotus made the most popular spreadsheet program (which was 1-2-3). For too many years, Lotus sat on its laurels, and customers gradually began to switch to competitors such as Microsoft Excel and Quattro Pro. We expected Lotus to die.

But during the 1990’s, Lotus displayed good taste and made wise moves: it dramatically improved 1-2-3; it bought a company called Samna, which made the nicest word-processing program (Ami Pro), so Ami Pro became a Lotus product; it began selling an easy-to-use presentation-graphics program, Freelance; and it began selling a product called Notes, which helps people send electronic mail to each other and edit each other’s documents.

In 1995, IBM bought Lotus, so now Lotus is part of IBM, which takes in about 100 billion dollars per year.

Borland & Micro Focus

Borland was started by Philippe Kahn, who grew up in France.

To study math, he went to a university in Zurich, Switzerland, where he got curious about computers and decided to take a computer class.

The university offered two introductory classes: one explained how to program using a language called PL/I, the other explained how to program by using a language called Pascal instead. Since Pascal was brand new then, nobody had heard of it, so 200 students signed up for PL/I and just 5 students signed up for Pascal. Philippe signed up for Pascal because he hated big classes. His professor was Pascal’s inventor, Niklaus Wirth.

In 1983, Philippe went to California and started a computer company. Since he was an illegal alien, he tried to pretend he was thoroughly American and named his company Borland, in honor of the land that produced astronaut Frank Borman. His first product was Turbo Pascal, which he’d created back in Europe with the help of two friends.

Most other versions of Pascal were selling for hundreds of dollars. Philippe read a book saying people buy mail-order items on impulse only if priced under $50, so he charged $49.95. The book and Philippe were right: at $49.95, Turbo Pascal became a smashing success.

Later, Philippe improved Turbo Pascal and raised its price to $149.95. He also bought other software publishers and merged them into Borland, so Borland became huge.

Philippe occasionally experimented with dropping prices. For example, he dropped the price of Borland’s spreadsheet program, Quattro Pro, to just $49.95, even though Quattro Pro was in some ways better than 1-2-3, which Lotus was selling for about $300. Microsoft’s head, Bill Gates, said that the competitor worrying him the most was Borland, because he feared Philippe would pull another publicity stunt and drop prices below $50 again, forcing Microsoft to do the same.

During the 1980’s, Borland bought two companies that invented wonderful database programs: Reflex and Paradox. Borland eventually stopped selling Reflex, but Paradox lives on.

Paradox’s main competitor was dBase, published by a company called Ashton-Tate. Philippe decided to win the competition against Ashton-Tate the easy way: he bought Ashton-Tate, so now Borland publishes both Paradox and DBase. Philippe said he bought Ashton-Tate mainly to get his hands on Ashton-Tate’s mailing list, so he could sell DBase users on the idea of converting to Paradox.

But Philippe paid too much for Ashton-Tate, whose products, employees, and mailing lists were all becoming stale. Since Ashton-Tate was bigger than Borland, Philippe had to borrow lots of money to buy Ashton-Tate, and he had trouble paying it back. Buying Ashton-Tate was his biggest mistake.

By 1994, he was having trouble competing against Microsoft’s rapidly improving products and trouble repaying the money he’d borrowed to finance the takeover of Ashton-Tate. Financially strapped, he sold Novell his crown jewel, Quattro Pro, gave Novell the right to make a million copies of Paradox.

Novell’s founder, Ray Noorda, said candidly he wasn’t thrilled by Quattro Pro but wanted to buy it anyway, just as an excuse to give Philippe some money, so Philippe could stay in business and scare Microsoft, so Bill Gates would devote his energy to fighting Philippe instead of fighting Novell.

In 1995, Philippe stepped down from being the head of Borland. He spent most of his time running a start-up company called Starfish Software, which Motorola bought in 1998 then resold to Nokia, which makes cell phones using Starfish Software’s patents.

Borland changed its name to “Inprise”, then changed back to “Borland” again, then became part of Micro Focus, which takes in about ½ a billion dollars per year.

Why fight?

The heads of computer companies still act like a bunch of tussling toddlers. I’m waiting for their mama to say, “Boys, will you please stop fighting, shake hands, and make up!”

Why can’t Bill Gates make peace with his competitors? Answer: they’re all greedy — and Bill is brash. (For example, during an interview with CBS’s Connie Chung, he walked out when she mispronounced “Dos” and asked a pointed question about a competitor.)

But Bill’s actually somewhat glad at his competitors’ successes, since Microsoft needs to have enough successful competitors to prevent the Justice Department from declaring that Microsoft’s too big a monopoly. By letting several competitors invent new ideas and bring them all to market, we consumers get to choose for ourselves which ideas are best — and vote on them with our dollars — rather than kowtow to a single dictator.


My favorite database program, Q&A, is published by Symantec.

Like Lotus, Symantec shows good taste in acquisitions: it bought two companies making good versions of the C programming language (Lightspeed and Zortech) and also bought two companies making DOS utility programs that fix DOS’s weaknesses (Peter Norton Software and Central Point Software). Now Symantec takes in about 6 billion dollars per year.

Symantec tries hard to improve all those acquired products, but I wish it would improve Q&A instead! I’m sad to see Q&A, the world’s best database program, be neglected and fall into obsolescence.

Specialized companies

Oracle and CA make software that runs on computers of all sizes: maxicomputers, minicomputers, and microcomputers.

Oracle’s software handles databases. Oracle takes in 27 billion dollars per year. Oracle was founded by Larry Ellison, who still runs the company. Since he owns 24% of Oracle’s stock, he’s a multibillionaire, nearly as rich as Bill Gates, and yes, he’s still single!

CA’s software handles accounting (such as bill-paying, bill-collecting, inventory, and payroll). CA was founded by a Chinese immigrant on Long Island, New York: Charles Wang (pronounced “wong”, not “wang”). Try saying this sentence fast: “wong” is right, “wang” is wrong. In August 2000, Charles Wang retired and turned the company over to another immigrant (Sanjay Kumar, who came from Sri Lanka when he was 14 years old). CA’s software is so boring that consumers don’t know it exists, but CA is huge, though shrinking: it used to take in 6 billion dollars per year but now takes in just 4½ billion. 25% of CA’s stock is owned by a single rich man: Swiss billionaire Walter Haefner.

Intuit makes programs that handle accounting on microcomputers. Intuit’s programs are cheap: under $100.

Intuit’s most popular accounting programs are Quicken (which tracks expenses and balances your checkbook), QuickBooks (which handles all major business accounting), and Turbo Tax (which helps you fill in your 1040 income-tax form for the IRS). Turbo Tax used to be published by a company called Chipsoft, but Intuit bought Chipsoft in 1994.

In 1995, Microsoft tried to buy Intuit — and Intuit agreed — but Microsoft changed its mind when the Justice Department accused Microsoft of becoming too big a monopoly.

Intuit takes in 3½ billion dollars per year.

Adobe makes Postscript software (used in many laser printers), Photoshop (which edits photographs), and Acrobat (which does desktop publishing and lets you easily transmit the results by Internet). In 1994, Adobe bought Aldus (the company that invented the first desktop-publishing program, PageMaker). Adobe takes in 4 billion dollars per year.

Autodesk publishes AutoCAD, which is the fanciest program for handling computer-aided design (CAD). Autodesk takes in 2 billion dollars per year.

Electronic Arts (EA) makes excellent educational games and low-cost tools for budding young artists and musicians. It’s also the world’s biggest producer and distributor of video games for computers and for video-game machines (such as Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox). It takes in 3½ billion dollars per year.


Buying software

You’ll want 4 kinds of software: an operating system (which teaches the CPU how to handle the keyboard, screen, printer, and disks); a computer language (such as Basic); application programs (such as a word-processing program, a spreadsheet program, and a database program); and data.

When shopping for a computer, beware: its advertised price usually does not include all 4 kinds of software. Ask the seller which software is included and how much the other software costs.

The typical fancy program (such as a word-processing program, spreadsheet program, or database program) has a
list price of $299. That’s also called the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). If you buy the program directly from the software’s publisher, that’s the price you’ll pay. (You’ll also pay about $7 for shipping & handling. If the publisher has a sales office in your state, you’ll also be charged for sales tax, even if you’re phoning the manufacturer’s out-of-state headquarters.)

That list price is made ridiculously high as a marketing ploy, to give you the impression that the program is fancy.

But if you walk into a typical computer store, you will not pay $299 for the program. Instead, you’ll pay $249. That’s called the street price because it’s the price you see when you walk down the street and peek in the windows of computer stores. (You’ll also pay sales tax.)

Instead of charging $249, mail-order dealers charge slightly less: $229. That’s called the mail-order price. (You’ll also pay about $7 for shipping & handling, but you won’t pay tax if the mail-order company is out-of-state.) Another way to get that kind of price is to visit a discount store, such as Best Buy or Staples, when that item is on sale.

Version upgrades

If you already own an older version of the program, you can switch to the new version cheaply, by asking for the version upgrade, which costs just $99. You can order the version upgrade at your local computer store, or from mail-order dealers, or directly from the program’s publisher.

To qualify for the version upgrade, you must prove that you already own an older version of the program. You can do that in several ways:

If you’re ordering directly from the program’s publisher, the program’s publisher will check its records to verify that you had sent in your registration card for the previous version. If you’re ordering at a local computer store, bring in the official instruction manual that came with the old version: the store will rip out the manual’s first page (the title page) and mail it to the publisher. If you lost that manual, you can instead give the store Disk 1 of the old version’s set of disks. The store needs the original title page or disk; copies are not accepted. If you’re ordering from a mail-order dealer, send the dealer the title page by mail or fax.

Some manufacturers (such as Microsoft) use a simpler way to qualify you for the version upgrade: when you install the new version, it automatically searches your computer’s hard disk for the old version and refuses to run if the old version is missing.

If you bought the old version shortly before the new version came out, you can get the new version free! Just phone the publisher and ask for the free version upgrade.

Here’s how you prove you bought the old version shortly before the new version came out (where “shortly before” is usually defined as meaning “within 60 days”): mail either your dated sales slip or a “free version-upgrade certificate” that came in the old version’s box. Though the upgrade is “free”, you must pay an exorbitant charge for shipping and handling ($10 for just the disks, $30 for disks plus manuals).

Competitive upgrades

If you don’t own an older version of the program, you can’t get the version-upgrade price. Here’s the best you can do:

If you already own a competing program (such as a different brand of word processor that competes against the word processor you’re trying to buy), ask for the competitive-upgrade price. It’s usually $129, which is just slightly higher than the version-upgrade price. Get it from your local store, mail-order dealer, or directly from the publisher.

To prove you qualify for the competitive-upgrade price, provide the title page or Disk 1 of the competing program (or have Microsoft’s software automatically scan for such programs).

Copying software

If you buy a program, you should make backup copies of the disks. Use the backup copies in case the original disks get damaged.

You’re not allowed to give copies of the disks to your friends. That’s against the law! If your friends want to use the program, they must buy it from the software publisher or a dealer, so that the programmer receives royalties.

If you give copies to your friends and become a lawbreaker, you’re called a pirate; making the copies is called piracy; the copies are called pirated software or hot software. Don’t be a pirate! Don’t distribute hot software!

Some software publishers use tricks that make the computer refuse to copy the program. Those tricks are called copy protection; the software is copy protected. But even if the software publisher doesn’t use such tricks, it’s still against the law to make copies of the program for other people, since the program is still copyrighted.

If your friends want to try a program before buying it, don’t give them a copy of the program! Instead, tell your friends to visit you and use the program while they sit at your computer. That’s legal, and it also lets you help your friends figure out how to use the software.

If you buy a version upgrade, you’re not allowed to give the older version to a friend to use on a different computer. You must destroy the older version — or keep it just for emergencies, in case the newer version stops working.

Demo disks

Besides sitting at a friend’s computer, another way to “try before you buy” is to phone the program’s publisher and ask for a free demo disk.

Although some demo disks are just useless animated ads, the best publishers provide useful demo disks (called trial-size versions) that closely imitate the full versions. For example, the typical trial-size version of a word-processing program has nearly all the features of the full version, but it refuses to print memos that are more than a page long and refuses to copy your writing onto a disk.

Trial-size versions are nicknamed crippled software, because each trial-size version has one or two abilities cut off. Playing with crippled software is a great way to give yourself a free education!


Software that you’re allowed to copy and use freely is called freeware. For example, most demo disks and trial-size versions are freeware.

Most software invented by schools, government agencies, and computer clubs is freeware. Ask!


Shareware is software that comes with a plea: although the author lets you copy the software and try it, you’re encouraged to mail the author a contribution if you like what you tried.

The suggested contribution, typically $25, is called a registration fee. It makes you a registered user and puts you on the author’s mailing list, so the author can mail you a printed manual and newer versions of the software.

Though most shareware authors merely “ask” for contributions, other shareware authors “demand” that you send a contribution if you use the software for longer than a month. Software for which a contribution is “demanded” is called guiltware — because if you don’t send the contribution, the author says you’re guilty of breaking the law.

To get shareware, copy it from a friend. If none of your friends own the shareware you want, buy the disks from a computer club or store for about $5 per disk; but remember that the $5 pays for just the disk, not the registration fee (which you’re honor-bound to mail in if you extensively use the program).

Beta versions

After inventing a program, its publisher must test it, to make sure it works on many kinds of computer equipment and in many situations. At first, the publisher’s employees test the program on their own computers: that’s called alpha testing. Next, the publishing company lets outsiders try the still-not-quite-perfected program: that’s called beta testing.

The outsiders who try it are called beta testers; the version being tested by outsiders is called a beta version. Beta versions are sometimes distributed for free or at a reduced price; but if you use a beta version, don’t rely on it, since it hasn’t been perfected yet.

Special deals

If your office wants many employees to use a program, ask the publisher for a site license, which permits your company to make copies for all employees in the office. Typically the employees are not allowed to take the copies home: the copies must all be used at the same site.

If you’re in a school and trying to teach kids how to use a program, ask the publisher for a trial-size version or academic version or educational site license.

If you own two computers and want to put the same program on both, you must typically buy two copies of the program. For example, if you want to put Windows 98 on two computers, you must buy two copies of Windows 98 (to avoid piracy), unless both computers are on the same site and you have a site license. Microsoft and some other major software publishers permit this exception, called the portable-computer rule:

If you’re sitting at a computer, and you’re the main person who uses that computer (so no other human uses it more than you), you’re allowed to copy application programs from that computer to a portable computer (so you can work while you’re traveling and take your work from office to home and to client sites); but just you are allowed to run that program on your portable computer (not other colleagues, not other family members, not friends). This rule lets you copy just application programs (such as Microsoft Word), not operating systems (such as Windows), not programming languages (such as C). Moreover, the application programs must have been purchased normally (not site-licensed).