Can shareware survive the Net?
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1997. First
published in Computer Player, June 1997
The myth?like all myths, there?s a core of truth?has a
alone with his (or her) computer writing an innovative piece of
filling a real need, and making his (or her) fortune. Think of it as
late-20th century version of the lone inventor, creating something
in the garage.
The reality?in between that lone programmer and the
millions of potential
customers lies a gap, requiring advertising, packaging,
In late 20th century society, to make that fortune, the lone
inventor or programmer, would seem to need the clout of a big
to bring their dream to the public?s attention.
In the early 1980s, however, several of our mythic
had a vision?a vision of a different channel to distribute software.
or less independently, Andrew Fugleman, with a modem program called
and IBM-programmer Jim Button (well, not really his name) with the
database, and Bob Wallace, with the PC-Write word processor had written
programs for the then-new IBM PC. None wanted to sell their products to
other companies, losing control in exchange for a small royalty.
Instead, they started to distribute their software
a screen that appeared at startup, asking users to register the product
and pay a modest fee. With this guerilla marketing scheme, shareware
Programmers, particularly in the university-oriented
had a long tradition of distributing their code for others to modify.
shareware authors allowed users to freely copy and distribute their
Unlike them, they hoped that users who liked their programs enough to
using them would register them?commercial software on the honor system.
Much to many people?s surprise, it worked. At least
sort of. Many, perhaps
most people using shareware failed to register it, but then, many
pirate traditionally commercial software as well. By distributing
through shareware channels, lone programmers and small companies were
to avoid the overhead, advertising, and distribution costs of
distribution. And at least some shareware authors were making
incomes on voluntary registrations. PC Write, for example, had
totaling over 2 million dollars by the late 1980s. By that time, there
was even an Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP).
Computer users could get shareware programs in a
variety of ways?volunteer
user groups, online services such as CompuServe and local BBSs offered
libraries of shareware to members. Most cities had storefronts and mail
order services with a catalogue of shareware programs on disk,
for a couple of dollars a disk?some even started distributing their
in book stores and supermarkets; several of these businesses, such as
Public Software Library started distributing shareware North
CD-ROM collections of entire shareware libraries were also released?at
one time, users could copy shareware from the PC-SIG CD-ROM on a
in the Vancouver Public Library!
(There were problems though, with these sorts of
many people, having purchased a disk with a program on it assumed that
they had purchased the program. In fact, they hadn?t?the shareware
received nothing from the sale of the diskette, but all too often, the
program was never registered).
By the early 1990s, however, it seemed to me that
shareware was in decline.
A number of factors may have been to blame:
- In a number of cases, if a program was successful
as shareware, the
moved to commercial distribution. The popular ProComm
program, for example, started as shareware, but since 1987 has been
- While a few shareware programs took in enough
registrations to provide
their authors with a modest living, other, often more obscure products
received virtually no registrations?little incentive for their authors
to continue with shareware distribution.
- The commercial software environment changed. More
with the basic DOS and Windows operating systems, leaving fewer niches
for shareware authors. And major commercial applications became less
In 1988, Word Perfect sold for $495. Instead, I registered the $60
Galaxy word processor. By 1997, I could purchase a commercial copy of
Perfect for not much more than that shareware registration.
As well, the Windows environment was harder to write for than the
simpler DOS environment. While many do-it-yourself programmers still
programs using tools like Visual Basic or Delphi, there were no
competitors to Microsoft Office.
While there were still programs being written and
distributed as shareware,
the shareware community seemed less vital, less exciting than it had a
few years earlier.
The exception was with games. A companies like ID and
used a twist on shareware marketing to get their products onto
millions of computers. First Castle Wolfenstein and then Doom became
legends; in each, episode 1 could be freely distributed? users wanting
subsequent episodes were required to register.
Enter the Internet. As in other areas of computing, in
the last couple
of years, the Internet has changed everything. The effect on shareware
has been mixed.
On the one hand, it?s opened up new possibilities for
seemingly an ideal setup for shareware. Massive software libraries
widely available, intially university-based ftp sites, such as the
University of Indiana ftp.cica.indiana site, but then quickly spreading
to more attractive and easy to access Web sites such as www.cnet.com,
the game-site www.happypuppy.com, and more. Web sites could easily
descriptions and reviews of programs, and could actually be virtual
no longer needed to have an actual copy of the program on their drive?
potentially a web site could include listings for thousands of programs
by simply listing links to the programs? actual locations.
However, shareware is only one of a wide range of
software types being
legally distributed over the Net (to say nothing of the Net underground
distributing pirated so-called ?warez?). Stemming from its Unix roots,
there?s a long tradition of free software distributed over the Net.
tools such as the free Eudora mail program and the Web browser Mosaic,
which helped create the ?new Internet? represent that tradition.
Big software companies, too, have started to give
product away over
the Net. In many cases, these are either pre-release beta versions, or
time or feature-limited demos, in both cases hoping to get users to
the full products. Game demos are particularly popular?a 3 inning
of Electronic Arts? Triple Play Baseball game, for example.
While Microsoft?s Internet Explorer web browser is
being freely distributed
over the Web, the even more popular Netscape Navigator browser seems
like traditional shareware?if you read the fine print, the license,
see that it?s free for students, teachers, and non-profit
all other users are expected to purchase their copies (at about $50
The result of all this free stuff on the Net, I
suspect, is that the
idea of registering shareware has gotten lost? the vast majority of
expect to pay for software if it comes from a store in a box?but if
downloaded from the Net, the expectation is that it?s free. And without
enough registrations, there will be no more shareware.
I hate to be so pessimistic?I really want the
shareware concept to succeed;
I like both its vision of the individual bucking the big corporations,
and its assumption that enough users, given an option, will be honest,