From the June 1998 issue of Startups

The Internet is full of free or low-cost software. Of particular interest to entrepreneurs are business and productivity tools. The trick is to find them. Fortunately, there are Web sites to assist you. These sites give you a search engine to hunt for software programs. They may divide files into categories or list the most popular ones.

I tried a series of searches to test some of the most popular sites. The searches were for:

1. a restaurant-management software program (a typical small-business function);

2. a compression utility (the well-known PKZIP and WinZIP); and

3. a picture of a pyramid (to use in a marketing campaign).

Experimenting showed a single word was enough to narrow the results. Boolean searches (e.g., "pyramid AND egypt") weren't helpful.

Filez

Filez (http://www.filez.com) claims to be the largest file site, and it's probably the best-organized. You can use its subject categories, or browse the top 20 applications or new files posted in the past 20 days.

A search for "restaurant" under the heading "Windows" yielded one hit: a compressed file called McDonald's Restaurant.zip. A search for "compression" under "Windows-All" resulted in 13 utilities for various file formats, but no PKZIP or WinZIP. (I did find WinZIP listed as one of the Top 20 applications.) A search for "pyramid" under "Graphics" produced 20 files with .jpg and .gif extensions, two common graphics formats.

FTP Search 97

Scroll past the crass ads to reach FTP Search's prompt (http://www.ftpsearch.com). This site provides several options for displaying search results, but they don't add much value. The odd thing about this site is, it seems to use the Filez search engine rather than its own. Even odder, each search generated more than 100 matches.

That doesn't mean the matches were accurate. "Restaurant" produced mostly FAQs about restaurants, not software. "Compression," however, did list what appeared to be compression utilities, but not PKZIP or WinZIP. "Pyramid" gave a variety of results, including one for an Alan Parsons Project album.

Shareware

Shareware (http://www.shareware.com) lets you scan its "New Arrivals" and "Most Popular" files. It gives a brief description, not merely a single line, for each matching file found.

Under "MS-Windows (all)," "Restaurant" yielded two matches, both demo programs. One was for point-of-sale software and the other for taking inventory. "Compression" gave 90 matches, all apparently compression utilities; one was WinZIP. "Pyramid" generated 13 matches, including a screensaver with an Egyptian scene and several games.

helpful hints

If a site lists several files, a few tips will help you identify the right one. Look at the file's extension. If it's an .exe or .com, it's a program. A .jpg, .gif or .tif is a graphic, and a .doc, .txt or .faq is a document.

The file's name may include its directory and subdirectory, preceding the actual name and separated by slashes. Often, the directory parts will give you some idea of what the file is and what platform it's for (WINDOWS or MACINTOSH).

File-searching is still hit-or-miss. Because there's little or no duplication between the sites, your best bet is to start with one and work your way down the list.

Robert Schmidt is a computer and business writer in Culver City, California.

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