How has shareware changed over the years?

As someone who has been in this industry for a long long time, I'm prone to noticing changes. Noticing patterns in things. In the 25 years I've been in computers I've seen lots of changes. The rise in popularity of shareware is one of the biggest changes.
Published: Sep 1, 2005
Author: Michael E, Callahan
Tucows Editorials

The Times They Are A-Changin'

by Michael E. Callahan aka Dr. File Finder

As someone who has been in this industry for a long long time, I'm prone to noticing changes. Noticing patterns in things. In the 25 years I've been in computers I've seen lots of changes. I've been around to see monitors go from monochrome to EGA to VGA to SVGA. I've watched online speeds go from 300 baud (about 25 characters a second) to speeds in the megabytes per second. Printers have gone from black-and-white "daisy wheels" to color printers that are also faxes, scanners and copiers. And computers, geez, where can you start? My first computer didn't even have a hard drive, just one large floppy drive. Today, if you buy a computer odds are it has a huge hard drive, a DVD burner, built-in networking, half a gigabyte of software, wireless keyboard and mouse, and lots more. And during all of these changes, the software industry has changed as well.

In the very early days of the PC, or "personal computer," a few software companies sprang up. Microsoft was obviously one of them and at that time they provided DOS, the operating system used on computers, but no programs. There were companies like MicroPro that produced WordStar, the first real word processor. There were other products like VisiCalc, dBase, Lotus, AutoCAD, SideKick and many others. Many of the companies that created these programs started in the 1970s before the PC was even created. They grew to be large commercial software companies. Then, in 1982, the rumblings of the shareware marketing method started. A simple definition of shareware would be:

If you can download it and fairly evaluate it before you pay for it, it's shareware.

In those early days of shareware there was always a kind of "us versus them" undertone. It became the shareware authors against the big commercial companies. And the shareware people were the underdogs.

Shareware, as a marketing concept, was facing an up-hill battle. It was small, one-person companies going up against huge companies. Single-programmer companies going against companies that had entire teams of programmers. To make the battle even harder, shareware was often thought to be inferior. People said it was the source of trojans and worms and viruses, oh my. In reality, however, it was really pirated commercial software that was the prime carrier of viruses. In an interview I did with John McAfee, then head of McAfee Associates, in 1993, he said, "You have a much greater chance of getting a virus from a piece of shrink-wrapped, commercial software you buy in a store than you do from a shareware program you download from a reputable software site!" So, from the outset, shareware was getting a mostly undeserved bad rap.

Despite the negatives, however, shareware started to prosper in the market place. One key reason is that people inherently like to try things before they buy them. And "try before you buy" became a catch-phrase for the shareware industry. People liked being able to check out a piece of software before they paid for it. Another reason for the prosperity of shareware was some of the great products that arose from it.

To me, one real turning point was the release of some truly innovative games by some of the shareware game companies. Commander Keen and Wolfenstein by Apogee and id Software working as a team are just two examples. Wolfenstein was a ground-breaking game and it took all computer games to a new level. The guys from id Software, the makers of games like Doom, came up with revolutionary programming techniques. They added new things to games, like light effects, that had never been seen before. EPIC Games also came out with some truly innovative games like One Must Fall 2097 and Jazz Jackrabbit. It was games like these, and others, that helped to draw the attention of the public to shareware programs.

With increased interest in shareware, some companies began to create "rack packs" that were sold in stores like Wal-Mart, Target and even super markets. This brought shareware to the general public and put it in the hands of people who weren't online. Keep in mind that at this point, the early 1990s, "online" meant bulletin boards and a few online services like CompuServe and America Online. The Internet was not yet available to the public. So, rack packs made a wide range of shareware programs available to users who never went online.

With the coming of the Internet a whole new range of computer users were introduced to shareware. Large software sites, like Tucows, made lots of shareware products available to users. And, when that happened, more and more users were introduced to the idea of being able to try software before they bought it. This is where an interesting twist takes place. For years, large commercial software companies sold their products in stores. They advertised on television and even radio. You didn't find commercial products on bulletin boards or even on sites like CompuServe. The Internet changed all that. Now there was a new place where these products could be sold, but unlike their shareware counterparts they only had versions that were in boxes. Time for a change in the game plan.

What happened? Well, gradually nearly all software companies began to create what they called "trial" versions or "demo" versions. Personally, I have to agree with Shakespeare who wisely said, "What is in a name?" Remember the short definition of shareware that I gave earlier? Well, here it is again:

If you can download it and fairly evaluate it before you pay for it, it's shareware.

Hmm, sounds a lot like the software you find on all the big commercial software sites doesn't it? I guess that's because regardless of what you call it, these companies are now using the shareware marketing model. Large companies like Microsoft, Qualcomm, Corel, Symantec, McAfee, and many more all have trial versions. You download them, you try them out, if you like them you pay, if not you remove it. Yep, that's shareware as far as I can see. But, it's not just my opinion either.

In 2005 we had the 14th annual Shareware Industry Awards and the SIAF People's Choice Awards. And this year, for the first time ever, three major software companies won awards. That's right. Microsoft won two - the Shareware Industry Award for "Best Sound Application or Utility" with Microsoft Media Player and a SIAF People's Choice Award in the "Best Business Application or Utility" for Microsoft Office 2003. And they weren't alone. Corel won an SIAF People's Choice Award in the "Best Graphics Application or Utility" category for Paint Shop Pro, and Google won a Shareware Industry Award for "Best Program for PDAs" for their Google Mobile service.

I have to say that I was surprised. When I created the Shareware Industry Awards in 1992 I would have never imagined that a huge company like Microsoft would win even one shareware award, much less two. I would never have imagined that a company like Microsoft would embrace the members of the shareware industry - providing development materials for shareware authors and even being a sponsor of the annual Shareware Industry Conference.

In closing I feel I need to make a few remarks. As someone who has been in the shareware industry since it started, it's gratifying to me to see that ultimately the shareware concept triumphed. Despite an uphill battle the shareware marketing concept has become the way to sell software online whether you're a giant corporation or a one-person company. So, a heads-up to those companies that don't yet have a (ahem) "trial" version. The times they are a-changin' - the shareware marketing concept, no matter what you call it, has arrived!

About Michael E, Callahan

Michael E. Callahan, known around the world by the trademarked name Dr. File Finder, is regarded as the world's leading expert on shareware. Dr. File Finder works with software programs and developers full-time, and in the average year he evaluates 10,000 programs. Since 1982 he has evaluated over 250,000 software and hardware products. Mr. Callahan began evaluating software online in 1982 and no one has been at it longer. He currently works doing online PR and marketing for software companies, and is the Senior Content Producer for Butterscotch.Com.

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