Free software - what a concept. All you do is use it a little while and become so attached to it that you can't function without it. Then a little while later you start feeling so warm and fuzzy that you send money to its author at an address miles away (usually in the US). A strange transaction, but pretty straight-forward - free software, right up until you pay for it.
But of course you don't have to pay for it. You can use it every day and ignore the plaintive bleatings of the panel that regularly pops on to the screen saying 'please pay money for this software'. But those with harder hearts use the software for free.
Well, that's shareware for you. When you get it you never know if it's going to be a winner or a complete dog. All we know is that shareware is the result of programmers with too much time on their hands, created just so they can leave some kind of low-cost mark on the world for posterity.
It's enough to give Bill Gates palpitations.
The fact that the program hangs your machine solid in 30 seconds flat is beside the point. It's taking part in the computer industry that counts.
And as if that isn't enough, a lot of PC and Mac magazines are distributing shareware like it's going out of style. Some are even going as far as putting two CD-Roms and a double-density 3.5in disk on the cover.
And then there's the Internet. Not content with flooding the media with information on how to make a bomb, it also seems to be taking over the shareware business as well.
One of the fundamental problems of the shareware market is how difficult it is to promote a company within it. Because the company is not creating the software there are only limited ways that resellers can let people know they exist.
Companies distribute their disks with their names printed on them, and even then they're only talking to other shareware buffs. Also, once the deal is done, the reseller is out of the loop as the customer then registers directly with the software's author rather than the shareware library.
Over the past 12 to 18 months the change has been spectacular. A few years ago there were lots of small companies across the country specialising in selling the labours of the shareware programmers. The programs were sold separately on 5.25in or 3.5in floppy disks. Although the punters don't buy the software until they want to use it full-time, they do pay the shareware company a minimal cover price for the disk (anything from #1.99 to #5) covering the cost of the disk and admin costs.
Now the area has been decimated: there was never a lot of money in it to begin with. One reseller said the shareware writers made more money than the vendors, and now there is even less.
Like a lot of these things, this is directly down to technology. For many companies the rise of the CD-Rom has put paid to the selling of shareware.
Ultra Edge Shareware was doing fine selling its software until this time last year, and then things took a downturn. 'CD-Rom was the end of us because most people can get so much shareware on a CD-Rom,' says Ray Keely, the man who used to run Ultra Edge.
'They get more software than they want, but it is probably more viable for them to get lots of different programs, all the things they wouldn't get on a floppy disk,' he says.
If the cause of the firm's downfall was technology, the problem was money - the money to invest in CD-Rom writing equipment. 'A lot of other companies were able to produce shareware on CD-Rom,' says Keely. 'I couldn't because I didn't have the resources.' Resources - the traditional bete noire of the small business with a small cash flow.
One of the groups sharing the blame for putting pressure on these companies are computer magazines, most of which have the resources to put shareware on to CD-Roms. Ben Tisdall, group editor of VNU's Personal Computer World (PCW), is one of them. He feels the shareware market is still viable and thinks it's a good thing that magazines have such an appetite for shareware software.
Tisdall believes that having so many magazines after the same programs helps focus shareware writers on their products. 'People are getting more selective about the software they put on to CD-Roms,' he says. 'I think the Internet is giving shareware a new lease on life.
'Both as a way of distributing the software and because of the way Netscape and Explorer have changed the distribution model, people are now used to getting major applications like browsers off the Net for free.'
Does this mean there has been an increase in the quality of the software available? 'I don't think there is an increase of quality,' says Tisdall.
Although he does think there has been a change in what is available.
'The days of the shareware wordprocessor or spreadsheet are over. There is no point in writing a shareware version of those any more because the real software is now so cheap and so widely available.'
Tisdall believes the Windows 95 market has helped shareware writers by giving them a standard interface and system platform to write for and by focusing them on support software rather than reinventing the wheel every time they want to write another application.
So how does Tisdall decide which software to use each month on the cover of PCW? 'Our brief is to find 15 decent bits of software a month addressing different areas across all the platforms. Any more than 15 would mean we'd end up using shovelware.' And what is shovelware? 'Bad shareware,' he says, laughing.
But Tisdall doesn't think much for the future of shareware resellers.
'They're doomed. They're being squeezed on one side by the magazines and on the other by the Internet. I do not see how they can compete.'
The Internet as a marketing device was proven a couple of years ago with the release of the PC game Doom. ID Software in the US produced a shareware version of the game. Rather than being a demo it was fully playable with a beginning and an end. It was distributed free on the Internet and people would download the program and play it. Doom quickly became a bestseller.
But this approach was a one-off. Doom II went direct to CD-Rom and the latest in the line, Quake, is partly available on the Internet. But is a whopping 9Mb enough to put off all but the hardiest of players?
Net sites are growing in number and, by the nature of the Internet, allow the users direct contact with the people that wrote the software. They produce the feedback loop to produce better software - and make the exclusion of the shareware vendor even more final.
But after all this dire news there is another shareware market that is in sharp contrast to the high-tech CD-Rom oriented area. It's the 286 user.
There's money in them thar machines, apparently. Jeff Green, technical director of Advantage Software, thinks it's almost worth getting excited about. 'It's a big market for those that want to tap into it - there must be thousands, millions of people that are using old kit,' he says.
Advantage was a traditional shareware reseller, but moved out of the market when times got thin. According to Green it was the same old story.
'We've still got a shareware library but it's pretty dead at the moment because people can buy a whole library on CD-Rom for 10 quid.'
Then, Green says, the old customers wouldn't go away. 'The people we deal with are those who have old or second-hand machines which haven't got CD-Rom drives.'
Advantage has moved from the shareware market to building PCs but has also developed a line in second-hand PCs and Green finds that users of 386s and 286s are very happy with his software. 'We don't buy in new programs any more,' he says. And why should he? 'People are still responding to old adverts and we still get people asking for our catalogue.'
So in the end it is a classic tale of small businesses. If you want to get ahead you need to be able to invest in the latest technology or find a niche that can support you - or at least one that will finance your move to the latest technology.
Whichever the case, the Internet is key. Shareware sites are growing everywhere, if you have shareware but no CD-Rom machine, getting on the Web is the way to stay in the game.
Anything to keep Bill Gates on his toes.
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