Adrift in a sea of floppy diskettes? Try a software matchmaker. Programs lend a hand in sorting out the choices
San Francisco — Adrift in a sea of floppy diskettes - that's how computer enthusiasts at a recent software show here feel. The introduction of new computer programs at lightning pace is beginning to swamp computer veterans, not just newcomers. Dealers have been left in the dust; even the best-stocked shops can carry only a tiny fraction of the programs currently available.
Packaged colorfully and promoted with Madison Avenue glibness, roughly 50,000 different software packages are on the market. Between 50 and 100 new products are appearing monthly.
The National Software Show, held here in late October, marked something of a departure from tradition. In the past, computers and software (the programs needed to operate them) were usually displayed together at regional shows. But the number of products today make such a show so unwieldy that the software has split off.
At this show over 200 companies, ranging from Academic Products to Zyword, displayed a variety of products - word-processing programs, accounting packages, filing programs, electronic spreadsheets, a gourmet cookbook on disk, a computerized encyclopedia, an expert-systems program that uses psychological theories to help salesmen tailor a successful pitch, and much more.
The embarrassment of riches has made it so difficult and time-consuming to choose the right software that a new service area is springing up - software matchmakers. They include:
* PC Telemart. Launched in August in the Washington, D.C., area, this service lets your fingers do the walking across a computer keyboard that can display a software smorgasbord. The system is located at special kiosks in computer stores. On the terminal, one enters information about the kind of computer, program, and price range one wants to consider. The Telemart system then sorts through thousands of packages cataloged in its memory to display data on those that fit the specifications.
The descriptions seem too brief to be of much help to the comparative shopper. But Telemart's Doreen Norris says the listings soon will include the well-considered opinions of InfoWorld, a computer newsweekly. Also, the company intends to provide on-line demonstrations of some software packages.
PC Telemart is available to shoppers at no charge, because software sellers use it as a marketing tool. A shopper who decides to buy a software package on the PC Telemart system can order over the system if the item isn't in stock at the store. PC Telemart will soon supply Radio Shack with a similar system limited to Radio Shack programs.
* ITM offers a service similar to PC Telemart's, but available by subscription for $100 a year, rather than in stores. This cost can be offset, however, by discounts of up to 30 percent. The ITM system lists some 3,000 software packages for business and professional users.
The company also prepares evaluations of selected software products, such as electronic spreadsheets. Subscribers can get questions answered via a toll-free telephone number, and ITM experts will give advice. According to Steven Cloudtree, ITM president, the company hopes to put its information on floppy diskettes so customers can do their shopping on their own computers. (ITM is located at 936 Dewing Avenue, Heritage Square, Suite E, Lafayette, Calif. 94549 .)
* Micro-Information Publishing, a market-research house, has a computerized software data base with some 7,000 software titles. Its services are available to anyone through a toll-free call (800-328-7847). The company compiles information from users on program problems and then passes this information on to inquirers. Micro-Information Publishing uses the calls as a source of marketing information, which the company then sells to the software industry.
The company recently published a software directory, which runs on the IBM Personal Computer, containing information on 2,950 programs. The directory sells for $19.95. It is well organized, but the descriptions don't seem to deal with problems, just strengths. Micro-Information Publishing plans to introduce similar directories for the Apple and other second-generation machines. (The company is located at 15420 Eagle Creek Avenue, Prior Lake, Minn. 55372.)
* LIST is a monthly magazine devoted entirely to listing and evaluating business software. The LIST staff tests programs, but also contacts people who have used the software to report their opinions as well, in line with editor in chief Ted Leonsis' feeling that ''the only way to really evaluate a program is to talk to those who have used it.'' LIST's one-year subscription costs $23.10. (The magazine is located at PO Box 319, Martinsville Center, Martinsville, N.J. 08836.)
* A new directory designed to accentuate the positive - in its own irreverent way - is Stewart Brand's ''Whole Earth Software Review.'' Modeled on the popular ''Whole Earth Catalog,'' this publication will premiere in January. Brand and his group (with a $1.3 million advance from Doubleday & Co.) won't limit their gaze to software, but will examine the entire microcomputer scene. They will include recommendations on hardware and computer books, as well as pungent quotations and cartoons. (The subscription address is Box 27956, San Diego, Calif. 92128.)