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 lone programmer, alone with his (or her) computer writing an innovative piece of software, filling a real need, and making his (or her) fortune. Think of it as the late-20th century version of the lone inventor, creating something great in the garage.

The reality?in between that lone programmer and the millions of potential customers lies a gap, requiring advertising, packaging, distribution?marketing. In late 20th century society, to make that fortune, the lone creator?whether inventor or programmer, would seem to need the clout of a big corporation to bring their dream to the public?s attention.

In the early 1980s, however, several of our mythic lone programmers had a vision?a vision of a different channel to distribute software. More or less independently, Andrew Fugleman, with a modem program called PC-Talk, and IBM-programmer Jim Button (well, not really his name) with the PC-File 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 freely?but included a screen that appeared at startup, asking users to register the product and pay a modest fee. With this guerilla marketing scheme, shareware was born.

Programmers, particularly in the university-oriented Unix environment, had a long tradition of distributing their code for others to modify. Similarly, shareware authors allowed users to freely copy and distribute their software. Unlike them, they hoped that users who liked their programs enough to continue 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 people pirate traditionally commercial software as well. By distributing software through shareware channels, lone programmers and small companies were able to avoid the overhead, advertising, and distribution costs of traditional distribution. And at least some shareware authors were making respectable incomes on voluntary registrations. PC Write, for example, had registrations 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, available for a couple of dollars a disk?some even started distributing their disks in book stores and supermarkets; several of these businesses, such as Houston?s Public Software Library started distributing shareware North America-wide. 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 computer in the Vancouver Public Library!

(There were problems though, with these sorts of distribution mechanisms? 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 author 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 company moved to commercial distribution. The popular ProComm telecommunications program, for example, started as shareware, but since 1987 has been strictly commercial.
  • 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 utilities were included with the basic DOS and Windows operating systems, leaving fewer niches for shareware authors. And major commercial applications became less expensive. In 1988, Word Perfect sold for $495. Instead, I registered the $60 shareware Galaxy word processor. By 1997, I could purchase a commercial copy of Word 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 produced programs using tools like Visual Basic or Delphi, there were no shareware 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 Apogee successfully used a twist on shareware marketing to get their products onto literally millions of computers. First Castle Wolfenstein and then Doom became shareware 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 electronic distribution? seemingly an ideal setup for shareware. Massive software libraries became widely available, intially university-based ftp sites, such as the classic University of Indiana ftp.cica.indiana site, but then quickly spreading to more attractive and easy to access Web sites such as,, the game-site, and more. Web sites could easily offer descriptions and reviews of programs, and could actually be virtual libraries?they 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. Internet 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 purchase the full products. Game demos are particularly popular?a 3 inning version 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 more like traditional shareware?if you read the fine print, the license, you?ll see that it?s free for students, teachers, and non-profit organizations? all other users are expected to purchase their copies (at about $50 each).

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 users expect to pay for software if it comes from a store in a box?but if it?s 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, and register.

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