The Price of Quality Software

by Tom Smith

What is user-supported software (shareware)? What should it be?

These questions have garnered a lot of attention recently. Many users take issue with shareware authors who ask to be paid for their work. Some commentators go so far as to label those programs "greedware" and suggest boycotts. But does the greed lie with software authors seeking a reasonable return on their efforts, or with users who insist on running software without paying for it?

Shareware is a marketing technique, not a breed of software. It is intended to put inexpensive quality software into the hands of users, allowing them to try the product before they put their money down, much like test-driving a car. The cost is kept low by letting users help with the advertising and distribution, eliminating two major expenses of publishing software.

Shareware distribution offers benefits to users and authors alike. Users can evaluate software on their own systems before making an investment. Costs are typically much lower than for traditionally marketed software of equivalent functionality. Authors can bring their software to market with very few start-up expenses while maintaining complete control over development. And software quality improves through the close interaction between creators and users.

But shareware is not intended to be free. Andrew Fluegelman, who originated the user-supported concept, stated that it was "an experiment in economics more than altruism." The Association of Shareware Professionals, a professional society of more than 300 successful programmers, states its position clearly: "If you try a shareware program and continue using it, you are expected to register."

Is this so unreasonable? If you had put months or years of your life into creating a product that others found useful, wouldn't you expect to be compensated?

Free software is great, and the authors who place their works in the public domain, or who keep their copyright but allow unlimited free distribution, deserve to be thanked. But that's the authors' choice. And if the authors choose to request payment, users have a moral and legal obligation to honor those requests.

Recently the language in shareware licenses has grown stronger as authors try to get more users to recognize their obligations. Some publishers have gone beyond the bounds of good taste with threats of lost karma or other silliness. But can you blame them? Most shareware authors report that only 5 to 10 percent of those who use their product on a regular basis ever pay for it. Increasing clarity and forcefulness in shareware licenses is a reaction to this dismal response.

How long can a programmer afford to develop, support, and expand a program that everyone uses but no one buys? Shareware's try-before-you-buy offer is unmatched by any other industry, and it comes with the ultimate money-back guarantee: If you don't like it or don't use it, don't pay for it. But if you do like it and use it, pay the author so that he or she can continue to write practical, low-cost software.

Shareware can significantly improve the way software is priced and sold, but only if there is adequate incentive for talented authors.

Tom Smith is coauthor of ProComm and ProComm Plus from Datastorm Technologies. He is also a founding member of the Association of Shareware Professionals.


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