Understanding Shareware

What is shareware? What products are considered shareware? Read on, you might be surprised.
Published: Jan 22, 2006
Author: Michael E, Callahan

This question submitted by Ray Washington, Tad Howes, Liz McCready, William Butler, Andrew Anderson and numerous others

I've received so many questions about the nature of shareware over the past few months that I felt it was time for me to give some answers. I can understand the questions and some of the confusion about what is shareware as well as what shareware is. I'll try to help you to understand the ins and out of the shareware industry from the very beginning.

The Early Days

First of all lets be clear that shareware is a method of marketing software, not a type of software. In the very early days most shareware programs were not highly regarded. That was especially true in the business world. Many companies had strict policies that would not allow a shareware product to be used. Only regular retail products were allowed.

The battle cry of the shareware marketing movement has always been, "Try before you buy!" That was one big problem with any retail product you bought. Once you left the store it was yours, for better or for worse. Slick ads in magazines portrayed many retail software products in a very favorable light. In order to find out if the software did what you wanted, however, you had to buy it. That was not true with shareware.

The shareware marketing concept lets you download a program, try it out, and if you liked it you pay for it. The problem in the early days is that everyone expected to get a full version of the program. No limitations, no timing out, no watermarks, no program restrictions of any kind. Purists would call any program that had limitations "crippleware" and tell others not to download it. Shareware programs had a welcome screen that told you about paying if you liked the program. Often that was the only indication that a program hadn't been paid for. That was great for software users, but bad for the software authors. Unlike those in retail software, shareware authors did not get paid first. That had to change.

Incentives and Restrictions

Shareware authors began to give users incentives to pay for and register their software - extra features, a printed manual, support and more. The problem, however, was that in most cases the users still had the full program and many didn't care about the incentives. So, around the mid 1990s software authors who sold their products via shareware started to put in restrictions.

It was at this point that shareware authors started limiting how long you could try their program for. If you printed from a shareware version the printout might well have "UNREGISTERED" going across it. The ideas and methods were clever and restrictions gradually became an accepted part of doing business in the shareware industry.

Shareware Catches On

People are funny. We like being able to try things before we pay for them. We test drive cars, for example. There are people in the supermarket who offer us samples of new products so we can taste them before we buy some. We get samples of products in the mail so we can try them to see if we like them. So, I guess it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the shareware marketing concept really started to catch on. And the folks who create the retail software started to notice that too.

The definition of shareware that is used for the Shareware Industry Awards is essentially this:

Shareware is software that offers a "try before you buy" (TBYB) capability. The user must be able to try the actual product. Any company marketing a product that meets this definition, regardless of the size of the company, will be eligible for the Shareware Industry Awards.

As the Internet began to expand and people flocked to it, retail software companies wanted to jump in. Sure, you could put up a huge Web site and tell all about your retail product, but most users were used to finding shareware on the Internet. So, what happened? Most commercial, retail software companies developed a trial or demo version of their products that you could go download.

Remember back at the beginning when I said it was important to remember that shareware is a method of marketing software and not a type of software? Well, today we have huge retail companies like Microsoft, Symantec, Qualcomm, Google and countless others who offer trial versions of software. You can download their products, try them out and if you like the product you pay for it. Sounds like shareware to me. There's an old saying that goes, "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck..." Well, though none of them would use the term shareware, essentially these big companies are using the same marketing method to sell their products.

Interestingly enough, it seems that software authors and users also think along these same lines. Why? Well, because in 2005, Microsoft, Google and Corel won both Shareware Industry Awards and the SIAF People's Choice Awards. The software market has changed. Shareware companies have become more like traditional, commercial companies and commercial software companies have become more like shareware companies.

Summing It Up

Back in the early 1980s there were commercial software companies and there were shareware companies. Some very successful software companies, like the makers of WinZip, SmartDraw, Doom, Duke Nukem, UnReal Tournament, McAfee and many more, not only use the shareware marketing model today, but they started out as shareware companies!

The shareware marketing model appeals to users because we can try a product before we lay our money down. We can see for ourselves if it does what WE want. If so, we pay for it. If not, we remove it. It gives all of us the flexibility to try multiple products that all do the same thing until we find the one we like. Take a good look here on Tucows -- we've got 40,000 shareware programs just waiting for your inspection.

I'd like to thank Ray Washington, Tad Howes, Liz McCready, William Butler, Andrew Anderson and numerous others for asking thisquestion.

If you have a question on any technology topic that you'd like someoneto tell you about you can submit it via e-mail by clicking HERE. You will not receive a reply, but all topics will be considered.

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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