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What the Muses Deign: What is shareware, anyway?

Porruka,, April 26, 2002

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Last week, we decided to open the doors and let shareware authors advertise on MacEdition (and other NMR Media, LLC properties as they come along). One attentive author, however, decided to ask the question, “What is commercial and what is shareware?” It’s a question that I thought I knew the answer to until someone actually asked.

The obvious definitions

It’s easy to categorize some commercial software. If you can find it on the shelf of CompUSA, it’s very likely commercial (excluding those “compilation” CDs, of course). MacSoft, Aladdin Systems, Microsoft, Apple – you know these names and you know they’re commercial outfits who earned their place in the bigger world of commercial software. No one says it’s easy in that world, but a certain status comes with being shrink-wrapped.

The obvious shareware? Ambrosia Software, for one. You can order the software from the company, but you’re not very likely to walk into a store and just be able to buy its games. More? PrefsOverload or WebLauncher from Zik Software. Download only, fully functional, pay if you keep using it. Lemke Software’s wonderful GraphicConverter. Traditional definitions, from the older notions of shareware, where you were literally expected to share the software (the primary means of distribution) and each person was on the honor system to pony up some small fee for the right to continue using the application.

The obvious flaws in the obvious definitions

Much has changed in the years since the shareware concept really defined itself. Originally, if you were an author, it was generally too expensive to host your own BBS in order to distribute your software. Word of mouth meant people actually passing your software along on floppies; posting to the various BBSes already running; or posting to commercial services such as CompuServe, Prodigy or America Online. The demarcation line between software such as this and “commercial” software, i.e. software from a company that could do advertising, packaging, documentation and such, was much clearer. Today, with relatively cheap Web site hosting, every author can have his own “BBS,” if you will. Every author can be the download location (even though the old methods of distribution still work well). Every author can have word of mouth point directly to the product rather than hundreds of places on a fragmented community collective.

Quality used to be a good indicator between “shareware” and “commercial” software as well. In the early days, shareware was dominated by whatever someone could slap together using a BASIC compiler or run-time environment. There generally was little hardcore testing or compatibility checking outside the group of people who used the application regularly. Documentation was typically limited to the readme file, and that was sparse.

While there were always exceptions in the shareware world (well written, well tested, well documented apps), commercial software at the time could generally be counted on to have all these things (at least relative to the standards of the day). Companies were, after all, putting their reputations on the line, in an age where reputations actually meant something.

Today, many things are different. While you still have many people banging out code any way they can, slapping a “shareware” label on it and waiting for the riches to roll in, the “shareware” route also includes many small businesses, ones who wouldn’t even have been able to exist in the previous worlds. Testing? There’s a world of useful beta testers out there willing to give useful and thorough feedback. Documentation? Many shareware apps now not only have docs, but have them in multiple languages. Design and interface? Not only is there a stronger overall level of training in the software world these days, even the weaker coders do better than their programming ancestors due to multiple factors, like better tools that help eliminate common mistakes and the widely available storehouse of source code from which to crib essential routines and algorithms without having to completely understand the code or theory behind them.

The vast majority of this leveling of the field is thanks to the rapid expansion of Internet access and the World Wide Web. With the lines blurring rapidly between what was traditionally considered “shareware” and what was traditionally considered “commercial,” where is the division now? Where does this leave us as part of a community of software developers?

The new software world requires new definitions

We could always fall back on semantics, that “commercial” software is about commerce, about making money (tying in concepts like pricing, distribution through resellers, support contracts and the like) and “shareware” isn’t. But that would be doing a grave disservice to people like the fine folks behind Ambrosia and the hundreds of others out there – individual, collective, small or large businesses, who are rewriting the rules of the software-for-money relationship. People who used to write code for a small group of local customers can now market that same software to the world. Niche software no longer need be obscured by its own nature, but rather promoted to those interested anywhere.

Why even make a distinction at all? Why not simply categorize any software-for-money as commercial and be done with it? Just like there are distinctions in the business world between large and small businesses, there should be categories of software, to allow for those who wish to celebrate the differences to do so. Some people will only patronize local hardware stores rather than the Home Depot home improvement warehouse. Similarly, some are attracted to the software output of smaller shops, for any number of reasons. MacEdition makes a distinction now, because it might make sense to pay commercial rates to advertise software that sells thousands of copies month (or at least tries to), but not for software targeted at a total audience measured in the small thousands. Is the latter any less deserving of getting the word out? Not necessarily. Is it wise for MacEdition to lower advertising rates across the board? Not really; the lowest common denominator is what’s tanking the Web ad market right now as it is, and is a recipe for insolvency. So, how are the camps differentiated these days?

Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day

Did the changes that cause such naming problems occur overnight? No, and neither will the emergence of new classifications that will still allow the important characteristics of each group (or groups, now) to be evident. It’s a topic that will take a while to sort out, especially since even among the people involved, there seems to be no urgency to redefine the categories.

Tell us what you think. What constitutes “commercial” software these days? How is it different from “shareware”? Are there one or more categories in between that aren’t really named yet? Post your feedback below or email me directly at porruka

Editor-in-Chief, MacEdition

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