Shovelware is derogatory computer jargon for software bundles noted more for the quantity of what is included than for the quality or usefulness.
Glorious, glorious shovelware. Nothing gets my nostalgic synapses firing quicker than finding these CD-ROMs (or even sometimes DVD-ROMs!) in charity shops, car boots or discarded in the backs of cupboards. These magical shiny discs contain small snapshots into computer culture of whichever year they are from.
For me shovelware covers the following types of software:
- Compilation CD-ROM’s that came free with various magazines
- Compilation CD-ROM’s that were given away at conventions or were sold for small amounts in the back of magazines
- Budget software compilations sold in stores that had no business in selling computer software (such as supermarkets)
- Free software given away with the purchase of a new computer (this is not the same as recovery media)
Pretty much shovelware to me is software that is often forgotten about or discarded with little regard due to it not containing software of any substantial value or worth. Shovelware doesn’t just mean old software – for example Microsoft Office 97 to me isn’t shovelware, interesting sure but not shovelware – it has to fit the ethos. Hopefully with the list I have built below you will begin to see what I mean.
This page is a way of me finding some kind of purpose for this bad habit of collecting this crap. I’m sure it will help someone out there, as I will try and provide as much information about the software packages here including their format, contents, pictures of the software etc. Maybe you’ll rediscover an item of software from your childhood or you’re performing a personal research project on some obscure software developer or publishing house, or maybe you’re just here for some fun – I know I sure am.
This is something that may change with the times as I slowly upload these items to the website. How to present and structure this collection has been something I have been thinking about for a period of time now. Do I sort it by era, do I sort it by purpose, do I sort it by theme, do I sort it by compatible system, do I sort it by format, do I sort it by content? You get the idea.
Ultimately I am going to sort it by a type of format and then sub section it by a common series or theme – for example Cover Mount Discs will include all packages that were given away with magazines, and then by the magazine it was given away with.
If you get really stuck, we have a pretty decent search function so you could try that if you’re struggling to just browse.
Atlases, Encylopedias and Other Reference
It’s truly amazing to think of a time when if you wanted to look up a place on a map or find out about a topic you had to have an item of physical media to facilitate such an endeavour. Today we all carry around smartphones in our pockets and free online encyclopedia’s such as Wikipedia are just a moment away. These services don’t require any subscription and are kept up to date with all the latest news and developments, they aren’t constrained by a media format or by technical limitations of that era. Out of all of the types of shovelware I come across in the wild I find these multimedia reference packages to be the most common and ultimately the least useful. In the same way many people stopped buying road atlases, dictionaries and multi-volume encylopedia sets the new methods of gaining information and the pace at which we evolve had truly killed off the need for such items in a home. So of course like anything that no longer serves a purpose in a home it is either donated to charity or sent to be recycled.
Admitedly I would be rather sad if I said I specifically hunt out such items, it would also be a complete lie. I am more likely to pick up some dodgy looking shareware compilation over any of these titles, yet for the pure reason of cataloging their existence I do often pick them up.
Nothing screams shovelware more to me than when the software distributor or publisher values their software products so little as to bundle multiple titles onto one CD-ROM. The unsuspecting buyer thinks they are getting great value (which is often indicated on the cover of the compilation in as many words) by ending up with so much software for such a small monetary amount. I can’t look down on those who have fallen for this trick as I myself have fallen for it many of a time. This doesn’t always mean that a bundle = shovelware however as there are a few examples out there when a bundle makes sense or actually is good value for money. An example would be the Rollercoaster Tycoon 2 Triple Thrill pack which includes the base game and two expansion sets – this set is 100% good value for money and the included software (the video game) is so far from being classed as shovelware it might as well be in a different solar system. No for a compilation package to be shovelware the software included within must be able to stand up as shovelware on its own. Hopefully with the examples listed below you will start to get a good idea of what this means.
Global Software Publishing, often shortened to just GSP is a great example of a company who can easily pump out shovelware and often sell their titles in places like supermarkets to unsuspecting senior citizens. GSP make multiple appearances in this list – this section concerns only their compilation titles.
Cover Mount Packages
Something that pretty much never occurs these days, favouring instead to give away useless software codes or other electronic delivery, is the act of giving away a physical item with a magazine. Sure I know that children’s magazines still do it to these days, because to the mind of a 5 year old they’d rather the cheap toy on the front over the content in the magazine, but computer, technology, music and even some news publications all stopped giving away a regular item a long time a go. This used to be anything from computer software, a music CD or a DVD video (and for some really old magazines cassette tapes, floppy disks, VHS tapes etc.!). This might be the area in which I have most of my shovelware collection – these items fill up charity shops across the nation and are often found in the bottom of those dirty tubs you find at car boots. They can contain any manner of software items from just 1 item of software, to 100s of items of software. Some will also include videos, music, interactive Macromedia Flash rubbish and photographs.
A monthly computer magazine published by Dennis Publishing. Ran from 1991 to 2009.
Edutainment (Educational Software)
Edutainment, the notion of creating entertainment with the main objective of education, straddles the line between shovelware and genuinely useful software. See there are many popular examples of Edutainment software existing within the sphere of useful software – see this playlist by LGR on YouTube for some examples of such titles, however I do often find many titles that I feel drift into the realm of shovelware. Usually lacking maths or language titles with popular children’s characters slapped over the top with little regard for the “entertainment” value.
For this reason I have actually created a separate section entirely away from the Shovelware Showcase which focuses on just Edutainment titles, the good and the bad.
See the Edutainment Showcase.
Internet Service Provider (ISP) Sign Up Discs
It seemed like an endless stream as a child of these CD-ROMs. You’d get them at the supermarket, the electronic retail stores, in the mail, with your cereal – everywhere you would be asked if you would like to sign up to this new ISP provider. Spearheaded mainly by AOL, giving away x amount of free hours, many other ISP’s began to jump aboard. I feel that these CD-ROM’s truly do embrace the term shovelware as they were simply distributed by a shovel, regardless if you wanted them or not. They were also disposed of by the shovel too.
- Freeserve “Free Unlimited Internet Access” 1999 Sign Up CD-ROM
- Freeserve 7.0 2001 Sign Up CD-ROM
- Freeserve Anytime “Internet Starter Pack” 2002 CD-ROM
If anyone bought a PC or laptop sometime before around 2009 you probably remember that you would often get the device, a lot of paperwork and some CD-ROMs containing things such as component drivers, operating system recovery images and additional software. These days you don’t get much more than the device itself and maybe a regulatory scrap of paper about safety or something similar and so for people like myself who get nostalgic for old PCs, OEM software (i.e. the software that was “bundled” or otherwise given away with the new device) is something worth saving, recording and talking about. OEM software is probably one of the most difficult items of software to obtain, short of specialist commercial software, because they are often discarded soon after the ownership of the system or are just discarded in general because of their very specific use case – also the software bundled is often a bit, er, naff. So when I come across these CDs at car boots, in bins or in other locations I do often buy them – strictly speaking I shouldn’t be exchanging any currency for them as they are all often plastered with NOT FOR RESALE warnings on them, but hey whats a couple of pence to save some computer history right?
OEM software often comes in very basic packaging usually amounting to paper, cardboard or plastic sleeves and that is it. No cases or manuals or anything like that. Some bundles are packaged in boxes which just act as a way to group said sleeves together nicely. Unfortunately I rarely find a box like this which is full. Some bundles do also come in branded CD wallets (like those you would use in a car back in the early 2000s) but I haven’t actually got any of those so far.
This section concerns itself with just the additional software. Recovery images and bundled video games are covered elsewhere on this website, along with driver packages. This section is divided into sub-sections on the OEM brand such as Packard Bell or Time.
- Talk to Me Deutsch, English, Espanol, Francis (1998)
Another item of software that died soon after the widespread arrival of fast internet and websites laden with Macromedia Shockwave content were the print studios. Print studios (or activity centres) were rather simple – take a well known licensed character, TV show, movie or theme, create software which allows for the creation of fun documents or images using content from said licensee and finally make profit. Initially a lot of these print studios were quite innocent and were more akin to desktop publishing software, however at some point during the 1990s a bright spark sitting in a meeting room somewhere thought of the idea to combine beloved TV and movie characters with the idea and we in return ended up overwhelmed by often sub-par print studios. Print studios really for me are another perfect example of shovelware – a lot of the software was dumbed down in comparison to what you could achieve with any level of desktop publishing suite and simply acted as an excuse for kids to waste expensive printer ink. But there really is something magical about them.
- Looney Tunes PhotoFun (2000)
I am often conflicted as to if this section should exist. Ultimately what decides if an item of software is shovelware is really down to opinion of the individual. I can see an item having little to no value, whereas to someone else it may be of great value. To combat this I try and make a justified judgement for each item of software. Video games are probably one of the most difficult to categorise as out of all of the types of software they can be of great value to some and little to others. So what would make a video game title be shovelware? Really for me it comes down to quality of the product. Video games are an easy sell, easier than trying to sell garden planning software, because all you have to do is utter the word “game” to a child and their imagination is already going crazy and they are instantly pestering their parents to buy the game so they can enjoy it. A lot of the games that we as adults consider classics would never make it on this list – Fallout, Grand Theft Auto, Quake, Doom, The Elder Scrolls, Unreal Tournament etc. but (as you will probably see below) there are a lot of movie license, or otherwise children’s titles that fall into this trap. Pretty much if I think that the game was made with the sole intention of parting a child with its pocket money and the quality of the experience was an after thought then it will probably make the list.
Board Game Tie-Ins
- Guess Who? (2001)
Kind of But Not Really Shovelware
I thought it might be useful to include a section of titles that I feel could be classed as shovelware (in the sense that they are of little value) but don’t really fit the bill. These are titles that are actually useful or fun to enjoy and are often from big name publishers.