August 28, 2004

Will free software kill shareware?

Author: Dave Fancella

Will free software kill shareware? Every day we celebrate the victories of open source software against the big guns, enjoying each corporate and governmental adoption as it comes. We talk about how wonderful it is that open source software is taking part in a larger social and economic revolution and comment on how we're looking forward to the day when open source software will dominate the software industry. The little guys, the story will go, put together a series of tools that evolved into a complete operating system which ultimately took over and threw down the big monolithic software giants. And all along, we, the little guys, kept to our values and ideals, held strong in the face of corporate threats, and banded together to Fight the Good Fight. What started as a bunch of little guys turned into several companies, and these companies grew until they were big guys. Then we garnered the support of several large companies and flirted with even more. Until one day we looked around and realized we weren't the little guys anymore.And we forgot about the little guys.

A brief history

In the late '80s, software began appearing on bulletin board systems that came with a little text file in the archive that said, "This software is shareware. You can copy it, upload it to BBSes, and so forth. If you like it, send a few bucks to ." It was shareware, because you'd share it with anybody you liked. No copy protection schemes, no boxed copies on the shelf, none of that. The developer didn't have the money to run large print runs of his own, and he didn't have a publisher that wanted to run it, but he wanted to make some money off it.

Not too long after that, I guess the original idea flopped, and we started seeing feature-limited programs -- "You can do anything except save the datafile. To do that, you have to register it. Registering has its benefits!" and so forth.

Nowadays, shareware is popular in some parts of the world that have a favorable exchange rate with other parts. It's economically feasible for a developer in, say, Russia, to market a program to the U.S. or the U.K. and eke out a decent living, using the Internet as his distribution channel.

Shareware is all about keeping the source code. If you release the source code to your shareware program, then you're back to square one, which is, "Send me money if you like this program!" It didn't work for those guys back in the '80s, and it doesn't work for free software projects that try it now.

Today, the question is, "What is the relationship between free software and shareware?" The predictions of open source software ruling the world are starting to come with a feeling of inevitability; where is shareware going to fit in this brave new world? I asked several respected open source developers, and got some interesting answers.

Julian Smart of wxWidgets said, "I don't see that there's any incompatibility between the concepts of open source and shareware; it makes perfect sense to me that some code is shared as open source (particularly generic code such as GUI toolkits), while the developer sells products that use these and other tools. In fact I would have expected more shareware products to use open source than conventional commercial products because the culture of open source is closer to shareware." He added, "If you want to have the model of being paid to do consultancy on OSS, then fine, but for me personally that pretty much sucks. I've done it, but it's not very exciting or reliable; I'd rather be using OSS as a 'virtual team' to
get certain infrastructure done, and then using it build something (hopefully) interesting. I would certainly be disappointed if open source made developers like me redundant (I don't have any alternative career), but it's just not going to happen, because (a) some stuff is just too boring for OSS people to do, (b) sometimes the OSS model simply can't cut it (e.g. defense or safety-critical work), and (c) each person brings their own angle, and it may be a better angle than the OSS equivalent."

I find his last statement of particular interest. Once upon a time I needed a miniature POS program for my Sony Clie, and the only stuff I could find were either completely inadequate (no reporting) or very expensive. I found no open source application that didn't depend on a Web browser and Internet access, and in the farmer's market where I wanted to use the program, that wasn't a possibility. But I found a nice little program from a Russian shareware developer that did exactly what I needed. I've been in quite a few situations where this seems to be the case; the commercial solutions were pricey and bloated, and the open source solutions were bloated and unfinished, but there was a polished and sleek shareware program that did exactly what I needed.

Dominic Mazzoni of Audacity had a similar response. "I think that the key is that it has to be very small, very slick, and the price has to be right. In the case of most of these utilities, I download the free trial, get so I can't live without it, and then pay the 25 bucks or so a week later when the trial runs out." He went on to say, "I've found that some shareware authors are very much like open source authors. I've asked some of them for code snippets and they've been happy to share (especially if I already paid for my copy)." He concluded with, "I'm very much a pragmatist when it comes to free software. I'm perfectly happy to pay for software when I think the price is worth it. I think
that open source is great, but I don't think it's appropriate for everything."

So what happens in 15 or 20 years when free software rules the world? Where will the shareware guys be? Will it still be possible to eke out a living holding back portions of your intellectual property in exchange for money? Will there still be a business model in keeping your source code to yourself?

Open source developers don't address every need. Shareware developers write tools that make money, or at least that they think will make money. Some of these guys do real market research before committing to a program. Open source tools are available for shareware authors to adapt to a multi-platform world, and they are able to adapt quicker than a monolithic software giant. So not only do they share the edge of platform support enjoyed by open source developers, they also write tools people need that make money.

I started this article intending to determine whether free software would kill shareware. I'm still not sure, but I wonder -- if free software kills shareware, who is going to write all the truly useful applications?


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