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What the Muses Deign: Commercial. Shareware. IndieWare?

By Porruka (, June 14, 2002

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It wasn’t all that long ago (26 April, actually) that I mused upon the historical and current differences between shareware and commercial software, noting the line between the two has been blurring for quite a while.

In addition, I went through a bit of the history of some of the distinctions (and much more detailed histories can also be found at Paul’s Picks and at the Association of Shareware Professionals).

Right topic, wrong direction

The reason I dove into some of the philosophical history was to hopefully guide the discussion toward a more philosophical answer. After all, that column was inspired by a philosophical question: “What really constitutes the difference between shareware and commercial software these days?”

MaxHedrm focused on the payment aspect: “Shareware is software that, through functionality AND licensing structure, allows you to try before you buy. Even if it is a crippled version that is unlocked to full potential with a key.” So did a followup to his post from Ingemar Ohberg, who offered, “In a nutshell we have ’buy before you try’ and ’please spread this’ or, in a smaller nutshell: buyware and spreadware.”

Even the folks who went somewhat in the direction I was aiming did so on a tangent, such as including the “open source” movement as an enabler of the old shareware model. In a sense, that’s part of it. But saying “The economics of shareware comes from commercial support, much like the economics of open-source operating systems do,” is wrong, I believe, because it’s very uncommon in the current shareware world to have to pay a dime beyond the initial registration fees. Perpetual licensing and media-only-fee updates were a couple of the early differentiators of shareware and are still important today, in this age of “rental software.”

All these posts have valid points. You can define the difference between commercialware and shareware purely by when you pay your money, the classic definition. However, this misses a critical change through the history of software development relating to what constitutes a software development “organization.”

Size matters, sometimes

When you were talking about shareware prior to 1995 (to pick a somewhat arbitrary date), the software in question was almost always of questionable quality and limited resources. (If you don’t like 1995, that’s fine – pick your own date of demarcation. There are exceptions on both sides of any fixed point in time.) Software progressed, communication progressed, independent businesses progressed and gained more respect in the world of software purchasing. This led us to a rather improved situation today, where you can have individuals and small teams working on quality software with global distribution capabilities, even for niche-market software. Sure, there are still the one-man spaghetti coders and there are still hundred-person development teams, but the former prairie wilderness in between has been homesteaded.

This is the point that Steve Abrahamson of Ascending Technologies made to me when we talked at length about these differences, and how those differences really weren’t accounted for in the MacEdition Shareware Advertising promotion. It seemed that the point of the promotion, to “give a break to the smaller guys,” missed the point somewhat by relying on more traditional definitions of the classes of software.

Since Steve was kind enough to spend quite a bit of time discussing this topic, I’m going to use him as an example of the difficulty (and no, as a matter of disclosure, he has not yet purchased any advertising with us via the promotion). When you go to his site, there are multiple products that work with FileMaker Pro. He calls his software commercial software, even though it’s possible to download a fully functional version. To Steve, commercial is more a state of mind and intent than payment mechanism. Steve’s inspiration (and some specific suggestions) lead down the road to exploration of what the software designations really mean these days ... enter Hollywood (or more correctly, the film industry).


To generalize way too much, there used to be two categories of movies in the world. Home movies and “studio” movies. Sure, often you’d get stuck watching the home movies at a friend’s house; a dull, dreary, poorly edited (if at all) clip of a vacation somewhere that you’d never visit yourself (especially when you were forced to watch it in all its celluloid glory).

The “studio” movies are the ones that you’d pay to go see (and decide afterward, many times, that you’d been ripped off and you wanted your six dollars and two hours back). The folks that fell somewhere in between, the ones with the talent but not the bucks, fell into a long dark chasm. It’s taken them many years to even claw their way to where they are today, where the description “independent‣ on a film doesn’t automatically subject it to howls of derisive laughter.

This is sort of where many professional software authors are with their applications and services (like Steve’s applications mentioned above or Lemkesoft’s Graphic Converter mentioned in the previous article). Quality software that doesn’t fit the “studio” mold, nor does it belong stuck in someone’s basement being force-fed to an unappreciative audience. Hence the term, “IndieWare.”

A new category or a waste of monitor-inches? You decide!

Independent Software, or “IndieWare," may just be what some people are looking for. Many times, the size of the vendor determines reactions to the vendor’s product. For example, how many people avoid Wal-Mart or The Home Depot in favor of local department or hardware stores? More than you think, because of the expectation or perception that smaller is sometimes better, especially in the customer service department.

The old “commercial” and “shareware” camps almost necessarily segregated along the lines of “businesses” and “hobbyists”; putting “Indieware” in the middle provides a little more breathing room. You’ll still have the Microsofts of the world, and the Joe Random Developers (or “shareware soldiers,” if you will) on the other end, but in the middle, you can now have the Ascending Technologies and the LemkeSofts of the world, too.

There’s nothing wrong with continuing to call products shareware, but IndieWare (should it take off) could add a bit more confidence to the mix. If an author calls his software IndieWare, he is making a statement about the professionalism, the quality, the commitment to the product that is simply undefined when software is called shareware. That’s a good thing in my book, because it helps set expectations (higher or lower) properly.

What’s a new movement without a support system?

A simple promotional tool (the advertising discount) turned into a real eye-opener for me. Some people will most certainly say it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist; others will realize that as long and storied as the current categories are, there’s finally room for more granularity. That’s where MacEdition and NMR Media, LLC intend to help.

In the near future, we’ll be setting up some resources to help get this going. It might be a spectacular flop; if so, perhaps I and the folks involved will learn something. But I suspect that there’s more to it; I suspect that there is a real need for mechanisms by which independent developers can differentiate themselves, get themselves seen, grow their businesses. We think we can help.

Isn’t that what supporting the professional Mac community is all about?

Porruka (a pseudonym) is Editor-in-Chief of MacEdition. Read previous “What the Muses Deign” columns.

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