In cheerful violation of economic "rationality", thousands of people have created digital images, documents and programs, distributed them free of charge, and encouraged others to distribute them further. Transmission media have included diskettes, the Internet and CD-Roms cover-mounted on magazines.
There are companies which amass this free material on CDs and charge money, not for the content but for the considerable service they perform in garnering it from the Internet's four corners.
One is Network Cybernetics Corporation, of Irving, Texas, which publishes huge collections of freeware and shareware on CD-Rom. Anything that runs on any platform is fair game, including programs for Amiga, Atari, Macintosh, OS/2, Windows, various Unix implementations and the Unix-like Linux operating system. The CDs are in ISO 9660 format, the multi-platform standard which has made CDs more universally readable than diskettes.
NCC's United Kingdom distributor is a small business run by Ray Burcham, a further education lecturer in Swindon. Do not call your US CD-Rom outlet: for once something costs no more in the UK than in the United States. Save your money for paying shareware authors if you find their products useful. Shareware is not free software: it is a way to try before you buy.
NCC's most successful title has been The AI CD-Rom, which takes in the territory of artificial intelligence, neural networks and genetic algorithms. Other collections have covered image processing, virtual reality and astronomical software and images. Web Wrangler is the latest. It is a collection of World Wide Web resources, and it serves at least three distinct needs.
For those who merely want to browse the Web its main attractions are unusual browsers such as Arena (for HTML 3.0) and Amadeus (for Hyper-G). Also intriguing are two extensible browsers written respectively in the Tcl and Viola scripting languages. These might suit the enthusiast who wants a personalised browser, or anyone building Web-enabled applications.
For Web page designers the disc has more to offer: much of the essential reading that nobody reads because it takes too long to download from the Net; a choice of HTML editing tools (up to Hotdog Pro but not yet including WebEdit); utilities to fix most of the irritating problems such as image format conversion which made the early days of HTML authoring so frustrating; and masses of graphics to pretty up your pages.
But above all the disc is a webmaster's toolbox. There are several HTTP servers - the first software you need when setting up a Web site. There are scripts in Perl, Tcl, Rexx and other languages to perform common Web-related chores. SATAN, the program that caused near-panic last year with its ability to probe the security on any Internet site, is here.
There is a special section for Common Gateway Interface scripts and programs, which are activated by users and can make Web pages more interactive in various ways. Some of these are for exotic or highly specialised purposes, while others are more widely applicable and allow the webmaster to implement things like visitor's books and server push - the image-cycling technique seen on advertising sites where several images timeshare a prime web-page position.
Also potentially useful are the various tools for extracting meaningful statistics out of server log files. The more popular your site, the more megabytes of log files you have to process, which can be quite a problem.
There is a brief description of each file on the disc, but to find out more you really have to decompress the file, which may unfold into a whole directory. Most files are in PK-Zip or Binhex format. Decompression tools are provided, but even for those who are computer literate enough to use them, this precludes rapid browsing. NCC's decision was to cram the absolute maximum onto the disc, rather than making the goods ultimately easy to unpack.
The Ghostscript interpreter is included on the disc for those who wish to view Postscript documents on screen instead of printing them. But the publishers themselves warn that Ghostscript is a big program and rather hard to instal. It seems a lot easier to break out another ream of sustainably forested A4.
Graphical resources are plentiful but of mixed quality. Backgrounds? There is any amount of granite, marble and hand-made paper here. Symbols? You got 'em: balls, cubes, and more arrows than the Battle of Hastings. Flowers? There is a whole page of them in the style of Edwardian paper scraps. For the home page of a country lady, perhaps.
One of the few areas of the disk where there are some uncompressed graphics (an obvious honeypot for the lazy reviewer) is the HTML Writers Guild copyright-free collection of icons, buttons, bars and other web-page props. It should have been easy to explore this area with a Web browser. Unfortunately, many of the links did not work. A look at the HTML code revealed the superfluous leading backslashes which caused the problem.
Better luck with NCC's own collections of rules (horizontal separators) and background patterns. These are, as claimed, directly viewable from the CD with a Web browser.
Web Wrangler was released in January in the US and reached the UK a couple of months ago. No CD can be totally up to date, but if you find something you like on the disc, you can usually go to the Net for the latest version.
Previous NCC discs have offered only the most basic assistance in finding what you want. On Web Wrangler, however, you will spot a file called index.htm which leads into a set of Web pages which are navigable by mouse-clicks in the usual way. This is the beginning of a good idea. The main problem is that most files on the disc are compressed and cannot be browsed.
On the next version of Web Wrangler, NCC should consider providing at least some of the documentation and readme files for each program in plain text, even if the executables are zipped. That would not consume very much disc space.
And they should include at least one Web search engine - Excite, for example, is now available free. Might they find a way to use the search engine to index the disc's contents? Then your quest for blue up-arrows, Linux Perl interpreters or lists of Java sites would be even easier.
Web Wrangler 1: Network Cybernetics Corporation
ISBN - 1 886376 05 0
Publisher - Lambda Publications
Price - £45.00
Pages - Multi-platform CD