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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Software developers find the Internet a handy way to give away their product


    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #333  March 12, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    There's a lot of free stuff available on the Internet--free information, free entertainment, free software. It's been something of a tradition--the Internet has its roots in the UNIX users of academia, who have a long history of writing software as class assignments or just as a challenge, and distributing it for free.

    The Internet resembles the world's largest bulletin board system--everything you can find on local and commercial on-line systems is available through the Internet, if you know where to look. For instance, you can check out ftp.cica.indiana.edu for the University of Indiana's CICA site, famous for its collection of Windows stuff. (And remember that you're expected to register and pay for shareware if you find it of use and value.)

    And of course, the Internet is also the world's largest source for pirated commercial software. (And no, I'm not going to list any addresses for that.) Illegal sites come and go with astonishing rapidity, like Prohibition-era speakeasies.

    But now, the 'Net is becoming a source for something unusual--free commercial software. These are real, working business-oriented applications, made freely available by commercial software providers to anyone who can access them with a Web browser or FTP (file transfer protocol) program.

    Initially, this was limited to technical support for software companies--bug fixes, upgrades, drivers to work with new versions of hardware or software. Users could order them over the phone, but usually at a cost of $10 or $15 for shipping. At those prices, companies didn't really make any profit, and users had to wait a week or more for them to arrive. So companies and users alike welcomed the free availability of such technical support products on-line: users got them instantly, and companies needed fewer people to answer the phones and package and ship disks.

    Recently, however, companies have discovered that there is money to be made giving software away for free. Often, the freebies are working, but limited, versions of a new commercial product, or of a product that's been around for a while without becoming the market-leader in its class. Users can get work done, save files, and so forth, but are encouraged to purchase the full version for more features, often at a discount. It's good advertising, and helps make a name for a new product. And once users have adopted your product, they can be sold add-ons or upgrades. It's the digital version of Gillette's famous strategy of giving away razors so that users would buy their blades.

    Borland recently did this to launch the Windows version of its DOS classic, SideKick. Similarly, software giant Computer Associates made a dent in Quicken's stranglehold on the personal-accounting market by giving away hundreds of thousands of copies of Simply Money.

    But it costs to set up a 1-800 number, process orders, and mail out disks, and no one wants to lose money distributing a free product. So with the explosion of interest in the Internet, it appears that this has become the distribution method of choice for free commercial products. For example, in recent weeks, you could get:

    * Presto optical character recognition software, which allows you to scan photos or text directly to your word processor, along with basic image-editing and faxing capabilities. You can buy it for $149 from Envision Solutions Technology, or get it on the 'Net from PC Magazine (http://www.ziff.com/~pcmag).

    * 3D Fax from InfoImaging, which is designed to let those using computer faxing to send digital files (of course, you need a computer fax on the other end, too). For example, you could send colour-image files that would be reconstructed in colour at the other end. You could also use your fax to send multimedia sound or even video. The free version limits you to sending four pages, although it has a complete read-module, making it a limited version of the full $99 program. Check http://www.infoimaging.com for this one.

    * McAffee is best known for its shareware virus Scan and Clean utilities, but on that base, they've become the fifty-seventh largest PC software producer, with 1994 revenues of $43 million. McAffee's latest product is NetRemote, a program for remote control of computers--very useful when you're away from that critical document or application at the office. McAffee is trying to cut into a market held by bigger companies with long-established products such as Symantec and its pcAnywhere, so it's selling it for the cut-rate price of $49, and making it freely available at http:// www.mcafee.com. (This one is more like traditional shareware: you can get it for free, but there's the expectation that you'll buy it if you plan to continue to use it.)

    In all three cases, these companies expect to make money in the long run by giving commercial-quality software away for free over the Internet. At the same time, business users can reap the benefits of getting something for nothing, or at the very least, getting something back on the cost of their Internet connection.



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan