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Exposing the Myth of "Shareware"

I'm a small Macintosh developer. I started my own business in 1996 to write insanely great software instead of commuting 30 minutes each way to work for a bureaucracy that couldn't see what is needed as well as I do.

As a user, I love shareware. It's great to be able to download a solution right away, to try it before you buy it, and to get great software at a low price. We all know the rules. If you use a piece of shareware for more than a few weeks, you're supposed to pay the registration fee. It's only fair.

As a professional software developer, shareware doesn't work. The problem is, many users don't pay for shareware. They forget, they procrastinate, they don't feel they use it enough, it's inconvenient so they put it off. Despite our good intentions, the return rate for most shareware authors is pretty poor. If you can get the milk for free, why buy the cow? Simple human nature.

To improve my chances of being able to support my professional software development business, I develop "Trialware". Anyone can download a fully functional version, I offer full support, but if you want to keep using it beyond the 21 day trial period, you must register. It's essentially the same as shareware. You can download and use the product instantly. You can try it before you buy it. The price reflects a direct from the author distribution model, you don't pay for packaging, marketing, or retail distribution. The only difference is that if you want to use the program for more than a few weeks, you must register. Simple. It's part of the license. It is not a voluntary if-you-remember system.

Most users don't seem to mind. They like the programs and I've sold many thousands. A small percentage have been surprised when they downloaded the program and it had already expired because they tried a previous version. But even then, most have been understanding once I explained it to them and told them how to reset the demo.

So what's the problem? Publishers don't see trialware like shareware. MacUser, Macworld, AOL, and many others publish on-line shareware collections as a service to the Mac community, but they won't accept trialware. Trialware is considered commercial. If I want them to publish it, I have to pay.

It's their right. They are not in the publishing business to give away access to their audience. But it kind of puts the lie to shareware. They publish and promote shareware widely as a service to their readers. They say if you use it, you should pay for it. But if as a developer I actually insist that users who want to keep using my program pay for it, they'll no longer publish it as shareware. To many people, shareware has become synonymous with freeware. As soon as you have-to-pay to keep using it, it's no longer "shareware."

What's wrong with that? You expect to be paid for your software, why shouldn't magazine publishers treat you as a commercial developer? That would be fine, but I'm a small developer. I don't have an advertising budget, marketing staff, or glossy press kits to promote my $10 or $20 product you can download directly from the Internet. The commercial people think I'm a shareware developer. In fact, the Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP) defines shareware as software you can try on your own computer without any cost or obligation. Payment may still be required if you wish to continue using the software beyond the trial period.

So am I a shareware author or not? The magazine shareware publishers say no. The ASP says yes.

One of the strengths of the Macintosh community is the way it supports small innovative developers. Yet our definition of shareware versus commercial software does not leave much room for the small guys. If we want to encourage small developers using the Internet to offer low cost, high quality software, we need to recognize another software category between shareware and commercially published.

I think we could call this category "Trialware", and define it as follows:

  1. Full commercial quality software that lets you try it before you buy it.
  2. Software that's distributed on-line and sold directly by the author with no retail overhead.
  3. Software that's supported by the developers themselves, and empowers you to communicate directly with the developer for any questions or feature requests you might have.

It's hard to publish commercial retail software today for much less than $40 a box. By the time everyone gets their cut, there isn't much left for the developer. If there is ever to be a viable market for flexible component software, there has to be a way for developers to get paid without charging $40 a box. The Internet makes this possible. Now it's up to the rest of us to recognize and support this model.

Peter Sichel is Chief Engineer of Sustainable Softworks, a Macintosh developer dedicated to finding a simpler way <>. You can send comments to the author at psichel "at" sustworks "dot" com.