July 24, 2002

Commercial shareware authors depend on Open Source software

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I spent part of last week at the annual Shareware Industry Conference, held in St. Louis this year, and had the opportunity to meet several hundred shareware authors. These people are not Open Source advocates. They make their money by selling proprietary software. But many of them rely on Open Source tools, and more than a few would be interested in porting their programs to Linux -- if they believed Linux users would pay for software, which they don't.
These are not evil people

Assuming the people I met at the conference are a fair sample of the breed, the average shareware author either works alone or for a company with fewer than 10 employees, and never expects to be as rich as Bill Gates. "Success" to most shareware authors means earning enough money to support their family in typical middle-class circumstances; to have freedom to write the software they love to write on their own schedules instead of on someone else's; and to enjoy self-employment (or to work for a very small company) instead of being just another anonymous body in a corporate cubicle farm.

I saw a tremendous amount of attention devoted to usability issues. Users only pay to register shareware if they like the trial version they download for free, so every successful piece of shareware is, by definition, easy to install and run. This is a powerful incentive to make shareware user-friendly that does not exist in the Free Software community.

Shareware authors are also concerned about usability because customer service is expensive. One shareware company owner I spoke to has twice as many people doing tech support and customer service as he has actually writing code. In his case, there is little hope for changing this ratio. His company produces video-conferencing software for corporate use, and he says most of the tech support involves hardware setup and other issues not directly related to the software itself. He also says customer support is the reason he gets most of his word-of-mouth business; that in a market where there are many programs from which to choose, that all have similar functionality, his fanaticism about support is necessary, and that one of the biggest things he can offer that a larger software company cannot is that that he will, personally, work to solve a customer's problem in the middle of the night if no one else is available. Of course, this is a software product sold to corporate clients for thousands of dollars, not a $29.95 utility program for home use, and that makes a big difference. But even the authors of low-cost, user-level shareware programs seem to spend a large percentage of their time and effort on customer support, not only because happy customers mean good word-of-mouth, but also because close contact with their customers gives them ideas for future upgrades and potential added features.

Shareware authors are just as geeky, in their way, as Open Source developers, and usually just as nice. A fair number of those who attended the conference even wore the same "Good Morning Mr. Gates, I'll be Your Server Today" giant Penguin T-shirts from Penguin Computing, and various ThinkGeek fashion accessories, that you see all over the place at Linux or Open Source gatherings.

No love for Microsoft

The typical attitude I sensed toward Microsoft was along the lines of, "Yeah, Microsoft sucks, but I make my living writing Windows software so I have no choice but to deal with them." There was a great deal of interest in Mac OS X, and speculation about whether Apple would, finally, be able to grab enough market share so that it would be possible for a substantial number of shareware developers to make money purely from Mac software and cut off Windows entirely. The consensus seemed to be that a more Mac-intensive software world would be nice, but that we weren't going to see it in our lifetimes, so everyone might as well grit their teeth and put up with Microsoft, perhaps start writing more of their programs for both platforms not only because there might just be enough Mac users out there to make the effort worthwhile, but also because these smart developers are fully aware that the more software is available for Mac, the more likely ordinary users are to choose Mac over Windows in the future.

No love for Linux, either

"Linux users won't pay for software, so there's no point in writing software for Linux," or some variation on this statement, was heard over and over. A number of shareware authors, most notably CoffeeCup Software, have tried to sell Linux versions of their programs, and almost every one of them has lost money on the attempt.

CoffeeCup not only ported its original, highly popular HTML editor to Linux, but went to Linux trade shows and actively courted Linux users. At one point, according to one CoffeCup executive, "We had around 100 people per month registering our Linux editor." Compared to the money CoffeeCup poured into Linux-oriented promotions, this income was trivial. The big problem with selling to Linux users when CoffeeCup first tried it, a couple of years ago, was that "our product was geared toward beginning users, and most Linux users at the time were pretty advanced and really didn't need it all that much."

Now the CoffeeCup Linux HTML editor is a free (but not Free) download, and one CoffeeCup guy says, "It's so obsolete now, it's kind of an embarrassment. We really ought to take it down." Besides, the CoffeeCup people say, there's now an excellent GPL program called Bluefish for Linux and Unix that has much of the same functionality as CoffeeCup. "Bluefish is a lot geekier than our stuff," one of the CoffeeCup guys says, "but it's a great program, and since Linux users are a lot geekier than our average customer, they might as well use Bluefish and be happy with it."

In this crowd, FUD about GPL "infecting" other software cuts no water. Shareware authors are, by and large, programmers smart enough to see through such nonsense. They are also smart enough to realize that it's rough for proprietary programs to compete in the GPL-oriented world of Linux.

Bottom line: Don't look for Windows-oriented, consumer-oriented shareware authors to suddenly start turning out Linux ports galore. A few might test the Linux waters a little bit, but that's about all. Things might be different for people who write commercial-level software, because Linux penetration of the server and enterprise market is now strong enough that it can no longer be ignored.

Open Source tools help shareware development

Shareware developers who don't see money in writing Open Source applications or commercial Linux apps don't turn up their noses at using Open Source software. Almost every shareware developer I talked to uses Open Source somewhere along the line. The vi editor is popular. GCC use is strong. The vast majority of shareware authors' Web sites and download servers run Apache on either Linux or *BSD Unix. And more than a few of these folks run Linux desktops because, for their personal use, they prefer Linux to Windows.

A few shareware developers I met have contributed to Open Source projects. I only got one diatribe, from one person, about how GPL is the enemy of all that is Right and Good and American. The general feeling I got about GPL and other Open Source licenses was neutral; that they were good in many ways, but not necessarily for retail software. Some of the developers whose products are made primarily for corporate use spoke of using code escrow as a way to overcome potential clients' worries about small commercial developers going out of business and leaving them without the ability to update code or fix bugs (a potential problem that doesn't exist with Open Source software), and a few said that because a large percentage of their efforts and a large part of the value they offer revolve around support and customization, open-sourcing their code probably wouldn't make much difference to their incomes, but that none of their customers have ever asked to see source code. They said the marketplace was set up around a "buy the software and you get service thrown in as part of the purchase" model, and because customers are used to doing things this way they have no incentive to change.

Perhaps there is some hypocrisy to an, "I use Open Source software but I won't write Open Source software," attitude, but is it really any different from the hypocrisy of a Free Software zealot who expects all programmers to give away their work for free and support their families by waiting tables, driving taxis or laying brick?

We seem to be moving toward a general software ecosystem where many different licensing schemes all have their own niches, and the different licensing "camps" coexist happily with each other, except for a few people on the fringes who feel their personal licensing preference is the only right one and that all others are evil.

Luckily, the fringe people are rare, although both the, "All software must have commercial licenses and be owned by its creator," and the, "All software must be Free," crowd tend to be vocal out of all proportion to their respective numbers.

Meanwhile, there are a few notable cases of proprietary or "hybrid licensed" software publishers, like Codeweavers, that successfully sell to Linux users. Indeed, Codeweavers and Wine were both discussed heavily by some of the shareware authors I met, because they potentially represent a simple and inexpensive way to port Windows apps to Linux, and if Linux use continues to grow, and Linux continues to become easier to use for non-geeks, at least a few shareware authors will inevitably want to test the Linux market for their products despite past failures. And who knows? Enough of them may succeed -- or at least cover their Linux porting costs, especially if Wine helps keep those costs down -- that we may one day see enough user-level shareware applications for Linux to overcome the endless, "but there are hardly any cool desktop applications for Linux," whine that has been such a big barrier to Linux adoption by home and small office computer users.

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