Shareware CDs on a blue background
The Internet Archive / Benj Edwards

In the mid-late 1990s and into the early 2000s, you could purchase CD-ROM discs containing thousands of shareware apps, games, pictures, and otherwise. These CDs were gateways to numerous hours of cheap entertainment. Here’s a look back at their origins and impact.

Thousands of Free Apps on CD

Imagine buying a CD for $10 or $20 that contained thousands of games or apps and not committing theft or piracy. That was the promise of the shareware CD, a software distribution platform that thrived in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Shareware CDs were handy because you could gain access to many programs at once in an inexpensive way—so many programs, in fact, that sometimes people called them shovelware CDs, as if the programs had been loaded into the CD by the shovel full.

Two shareware CDs
Internet Archive / Benj Edwards

Shareware CDs became popular when CD-ROMs became commonplace on home PCs in the mid-1990s. They persisted well into the 2000s, often available for purchase at office supply stores, book stores, game retailers, computer stores, and general merchandise stores such as Target.

A Brief Refresher on Shareware

In the 1980s and 1990s, enterprising software developers decided to directly sell their programs to people using the shareware concept, which allowed users to freely demo apps and games for a trial period. If they liked the software, they could send money to the program’s developer and either receive permission to keep using the app or gain access to new features like new game episodes.

Also, shareware developers encouraged ordinary computer users to freely share copies of these programs with others (hence the shareware name). Unlike other forms of commercial software, it wasn’t considered piracy to distribute shareware for free. They were often distributed on dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSes) at the time.

Although many shareware apps were available through BBSes in the 1990s, it could take hours to download a single large file with the slow modem speeds at the time. And some apps (such as larger games in the mid-late 1990s) wouldn’t fit on a floppy disk, so it was easier to install them from a single CD rather than multiple floppies.

Compact Disc Magic

Originally launched in the mid-1980s, the CD-ROM (Compact Disc Read-Only Memory) disc represented a huge leap in cheap, mass-produced data storage. Each disc could typically store 650 megabytes of data, which represented a huge leap from floppy disks that typically held around 0.36 to 1.44 megabytes of data each. Typical PC hard drives between 1985 and 1995 ranged from about 20 MB to 500 MB in size.

On one CD, publishers could store enough data to fill hundreds of floppy discs or multiple hard drives. Meanwhile, when produced in large batches, a typical CD cost a mere 10-15 cents worth of raw materials to manufacture (and 30 cents for the printed label and jewel case).

"Best-of-Class" Shareware CD Collection
This ten-CD shareware collection looks impressive, but it was mostly show: All the data on the ten discs could actually fit on one CD. Foone Turing

The sharing element of shareware made collections of shareware programs on disk and CD possible. With low costs of manufacturing per unit, publishing on CD could support low-cost print runs of shareware (typically retailing for anywhere between $1 and $100 per disc), which often cost nothing for the publisher to obtain. Publishers such as Night Owl Corp typically downloaded collections of files available on BBSes for free. Some, like Walnut Creek CDROM, distributed collections of shareware acquired from online sources like the Simtel archive.

Firms also sold and distributed shareware on floppy disks before (and during) the era of the shareware CD. But the limited size of floppies usually meant that only one program (or a handful of simple programs) would ship on each disk. In contrast, CD-ROM’s capacity could offer a bonanza of data all in one place that floppy disks couldn’t match.

And due to the miraculous capacity of CD-ROMs, some shareware CDs came pre-formatted to use as BBS file sections. Sysops (the people who operated the BBSes) could just insert the CD into a CD-ROM drive attached to their BBS machine and have callers download the files directly from the CD itself.

RELATED: Remember BBSes? Here's How You Can Visit One Today

What Did Shareware CDs Contain?

Shareware CDs could host a wide variety of content, but most often included large collections of games, applications, or utilities. The discs shipped for many different computer platforms, including IBM PC, Macintosh, Atari ST, and Amiga in particular. Some discs focused on a specific subject (such as Linux or Windows apps), while others were collections of user-made levels for games like Doom and Quake. If it was available for free somewhere on the Internet or BBSes in the 1990s, chances are it made its way to a CD-ROM at some point or another.

On many shareware game CDs, you could find PC gaming’s greatest shareware classics, such as the id Software games like Commander Keen series, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Apogee games like Duke Nukem, classics from Epic Games like Jill of the Jungle, Epic Pinball, or Jazz Jackrabbit, and a whole lot more.

images from 12 MS-DOS and Windows shareware games.
Shareware CDs often contained large collections of shareware games.

Also, you could often find discs full of digitized or hand-drawn graphics images in GIF or JPEG format, mostly downloaded from BBSes. Popular subjects for GIFs distributed this way included cars, military, women and men in swimsuits, computers, digitized cartoon strips, and many others.

RELATED: From Keen to Doom: id Software's Founders Talk 30 Years of Gaming History

Were Shareware CDs Legal?

Shareware CD sellers operated in something of a legal grey area. Ostensibly, they only collected fees that covered the cost of manufacturing, printing, and distributing the disks or CDs. But let’s be honest: If it weren’t profitable to sell a disc of free software, very few would have done it.

Whether or not the app developer tolerated resale on CD depended largely on the developer itself. According to shareware historian Richard Moss in an interview with How-To Geek, some developers saw the discs as a means of free distribution, getting their programs in front of as many eyes as possible so they could sell more copies. Others viewed unauthorized shareware distribution on CD as a type of infringement. “Most shareware authors set out terms in their shareware notice that specified where, how, or by whom the software could be redistributed,” says Moss.

The House of Games Shareware CD Cover
The cover of “The House of Games” CD, which carried a hefty $79.95 suggested retail price.

The ethical shareware collections contacted authors individually for permission to include their programs. Others put out calls to shareware authors who would then submit apps for inclusion. But it’s likely those were the exception rather than the rule.

Some developers like MVP Software, says Moss, often sued companies that produced shareware CDs with its games included, claiming it was bad for their business. “They were far from alone, and I’ve seen numerous shareware authors complaining on forums, message boards, in magazines, newsletters, and newspapers going right back to the 1980s that they believed their work had been distributed illegally.

Other developers embraced the inevitable fact that someone, somewhere would sell their program without the developer’s explicit permission. On the title screen of Doom, for example, id Software wrote, “Provided by id free of charge. Suggested retail price $9.00.”

Twilight of the Shareware CD—and How to Find Them Today

Ultimately, as high-speed broadband internet plans became widespread in the 2000s, physical distributions of shareware became much less necessary. Instead, people could quickly download the same shareware apps from the web, and today people download games quickly through app stores. The rise of broadband and the decline of the optical disc have made shareware CDs largely extinct (although there are probably some exceptions, somewhere).

But luckily for us, intrepid digital archivists have captured disc images of shareware CDs of yore so we can study them today. If you’d like to check out a modern-day archive of shareware CDs, the Internet Archive has you covered, thanks in great part to the hard work of Jason Scott, who originally archived many of them for his website. For most discs, there’s a catch: They’re usually in ISO format, which will need to be mounted, extracted, or burned to disc before you can view the files.

Even then, you’ll usually need either a real vintage computer or an emulator such as DOSBox to run the programs themselves. Just be aware there are some CDs with adult (NSFW) material on the Internet Archive, so viewer discretion is advised. Have fun exploring the past!

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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