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On The Nostalgia For Shovelware Magazines

I have covered nostalgia before, and honestly I’m not among those who find the whole “good old days” should come back (I might have labeled those people, a time or two, as Computer Conservatives and I stand by that naming), but that does not mean I’m totally immune at looking back at how carefree and happy I was as a kid, compared to now. I am, though, aware that the reason why I’m less happy now has less to do with whether things improved or got worse, and more to do with the fact that I was a kid that didn’t have to balance a bank account and pay bills.

But one thing I felt myself reflecting on, is how much I enjoyed the type of shovelware magazines I was able to convince my father to buy for me from time to time — and at the same time how weird, and somehow borderline illicit, some of its content were.

I’m sure that, even though they’re much more rare, and going entirely out of fashion nowadays (even National Geographics appear to have stopped printing their glossy cover edition), everybody reading this knows what a magazine is — but it might not be obvious what a shovelware magazine was, particularly because I honestly don’t know whether these were a specifically Italian thing or if they existed in the rest of the world as well.

In Italy, these were magazines, usually published monthly, that came with some storage media – I had a few with floppy discs, but for the vast majority these where CDs, and more rarely DVDs – loaded with a bunch of software and other content, usually downloaded from BBS or the Internet. Namely that usually meant demos of commercial software, shareware, and freeware utilities.

Different magazines focused on different topic, but I was a big fan of the more generalist ones, two of which were published by the same company: Computer Magazine (talk about generic titles) and Il Mio Computer (My Computer — that was, to the best of my recalling, named that way well before Windows 95 was released.)

The primary selling point of Computer Magazine in particular was not in the articles in the magazine (the other had better content from that point of view), but rather that, in addition to the usual shovelware, it came with one “full software” a month. This usually meant a full, non-commercial license for an earlier version of a proprietary software that just released. I’m not sure how exactly they pulled these particular contracts, but it was this way that I had my first experiences with Macromedia software, as the first three issues of the magazine came with xRes, Extreme 3D, and FreeHand. The idea behind these is quite clear: the non-commercial license meant that you couldn’t (legally) use these in offices, but you could basically try them out enough to get used to them, and possibly convince your boss or partners to buy the full license of the more recent version.

Technically, this worked, although on a very long timescale: one of the early issues with a copy of Borland C++ Builder 1.0, the Borland C Compiler Collection, and a demo of C++ Builder 3.0 — I learnt contemporary Windows development with that copy of C++ Builder, and many many years later when a client asked me to develop a Windows application for them, I had them pay for a licence of C++ Builder (by then a Codegear product.)

From one side, I fond memories of these magazines, from the other I know that they are something of their time: even as they started switching to DVDs rather than CDs, Internet connections started being a lot faster and reliable, so most of the “shovelware” lost both its charm and its need: even with a 56K modem you could download WinZip and WinRAR fast enough you wouldn’t need to go out of your way to buy a copy of a physical magazine to get it on CD — which I did gladly before I had an Internet connection at home. And at least in Italy, which is not known for its law abiding citizens, once the network became fast enough, warez was the way, making even the offer of outdated, legal non-commercial software not particularly interesting.

I also understand that it’s kind of pointless to revel in the content that these magazines brought to you. Yes, the fairly wide range of software is definitely something that would be fun to analyze: IDEs and compilers, photo editors and 3D builders (in 1998!), vector graphics and databases. But at the same time, we live at a time when there’s the most widely available collection of, pretty much everything in you may imagine: FLOSS and proprietary, commercial and amateurish, if you want it, it’s there out there!

While a few ComCons seems to think that systems like the C64 were superiors because they only had a BASIC interpreter, or that MS-DOS was more useful because it came with QBASIC, it has never been easier to pick up a programming language and an IDE and share whatever you built with the world. Much as Apple’s and Google’s walled gardens have made it more cumbersome to distribute your software, web development is almost certainly the easiest way to make your work seen — though definitely not compensated.

But I still find it quaint and interesting to think back on it, and I wouldn’t mind a version of Gemini’s old show dedicated to those magazines. It’s not like every CD had a lot to go for itself: a a lot of the content was drivers, or generic utilities that stayed the same month by month. This is how, for many years, people would get Antivirus software updates!

One particular magazine (The Games Machine, but the Italian edition) added to the mix a good selection of tracker music which honestly I sometimes miss – my CDs might no longer be usable so I would have to find another source for them if I wanted to play some back for the nostalgia factor.

I’m also sure that, if I was to go through them to figure out what was in there in the first place, I would be surprised. Back in the days I didn’t realize they definitely couldn’t be distributing the Gameboy ROMs for Super Mario Land, Bomberman, and Parodius, as much as I had fun playing them. And I’m still not quite sure how I ended up with a demo version of InstallShield’s creator, which I used to make never-distributed installers for the emulator and ROMs that were on the CD.

But, let me repeat it now, I definitely do not believe it was a better time. We have a much more equitable access to the tools of the trade now than we ever had before, and I’d rather never go back to those days except in the flight of fantasy that nostalgia brings me.

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