Rant: Supporting Shareware Developers–Grumblers and Recalcitrants

Many Mac users content themselves with the software that comes included with their Macs: Mail, Safari, and the iLife programs (iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and Garage Band). Others may buy additional software for work (such as Microsoft Office), home management (Quicken, or other accounting programs) or play (games, games and more games).

But other users are more interested in leveraging their Macs to do as many tasks as possible. These users generally scout out the sites that list shareware and freeware programs (Version Tracker and MacUpdate), and check other web sites that present new software, such as the Macworld website, which reviews programs regardless of their type of license.

Many of these latter users have anywhere from a half-dozen to several dozen such programs that they use regularly. In the case of freeware, they’re delighted to get what is often top-quality programs for nothing. As for shareware, things are different. While freeware developers are more often driven by an altruistic desire to provide something to the community, some shareware developers are actually professionals who make their living from their software. But most merely earn some extra cash from their registration fees, allowing them to pay for their Macs, web hosting, and a dinner or two.The concept of shareware is an interesting one. With shareware, as with demo versions of commercial software, you try before you buy; in some cases, you have full access to a program’s features and functions for a set period of time, and in others the functionality is limited (often such that you can’t save or print documents). Then, if you like the program, you either pay for it, purchasing a license from the developer’s web site, or delete the software.

I use a fair amount of shareware; I’ll mention the programs I use most here, if only to highlight the wide variety of such software: Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro, to record audio chats and to digitize cassette tapes (together with the same developer’s Fission, which allows me to easily split and edit the recordings); Panic’s Transmit, an excellent FTP program; Lemke Software’s Graphic Converter, a great, inexpensive image editing and conversion tool; Objective Development’s LaunchBar, for launching applications–one of those programs I couldn’t live without; Blue Technologies’ Ulysses, an astounding text editor for creative writers; Circus Ponies’ Notebook, a program for organizing ideas and storing text snippets; and much more. (I also use lots of freeware, too many programs to list here…)

I try out a lot of software, both as part of my work and because I’m constantly intrigued by the astounding range of programs that Mac developers offer. While I don’t use dozens of programs, I certainly want to get the best software that saves me time and makes my work easier. I have no qualms about paying for such software, though, at times, I have decided not to purchase certain programs because I felt they were too expensive for the features they offer.

So I was slightly surprised when, the other day, a friend who develops software shared with me an e-mail from a Disgruntled Customer. This Developer, who will remain nameless here, offers many free applications from his web site, and has one program that he charges money for. Just one. The previous version was $7, and he just updated it, and is now asking $10. He hasn’t charged for upgrades in the past two years, so anyone who bought the program during that period benefitted from improvements at no extra cost. Nevertheless, he received an e-mail from the Disgruntled Customer, who was insulted that he was asked to pay for the upgrade. The Developer replied with what I find to be exemplary tact, but also impeccable logic:

“I’m sorry you feel that way. Don’t you think that I am entitled to compensation for the time and work I put into upgrading my products? I have been developing shareware for over twenty years. In that time it’s been my experience that regular users understand the shareware tenet, which, if I may put it so, goes something like this:

Users keep using + Developer keeps developing = User pays Developer

Developers keep developing because of the incentive of shareware. Yes, I certainly could offer free upgrades in perpetuity, but that doesn’t really seem fair since only the user gets the benefit of the product, whereas my time and efforts go un-rewarded.

That’s like expecting to get a brand new free car every model year.”

Notwithstanding my relationship with this Developer and my understanding of the work he does, I find the attitude of the Disgruntled Customer to be quite surprising. After all, $10 for a program that the person uses regularly is, well, a pittance. It’s the cost of a movie, a couple of coffees, an album download on iTunes, a couple of magazines, or half a DVD. Ten bucks! For a Developer who, as I pointed out earlier, offers lots of free software on his web site, and only charges for one program. A Developer who works on this software because of his passion, and who, most likely, could earn a heck of a lot more money devoting the same amount of time to other work.

Okay, I’ve had bad experiences with some shareware that didn’t work well, wasn’t well supported, or in one case, that will remain nameless, a program that I purchased a couple of weeks before the release of Tiger which was not compatible with OS X 10.4. I was stunned that the developer of that program expected me to pay for an upgrade just two weeks later… But in most cases, I’ve found shareware developers to be far more receptive to user comments, feature requests, and especially problems. I’ve had e-mails responding to technical support requests answered in minutes in some cases, but generally within less than one day. Few commercial software developers can boast that kind of customer service.

(While I’m ranting, how about the commercial software company that released the first Mac version of its product, which simply wouldn’t work on my Mac. I spent hours with them trying to resolve the problem, and eventually found the cause. The back-and-forth lasted for several weeks until we nailed down the issue, and, when it was over, my demo period had expired. The company didn’t even have the simple respect to offer me a license for the product in thanks for the work I did for them, and the time I saved them trying to find the incompatibility, and, since my demo period had run out, I was never even able to try the program.)

This rant may seem a bit disjointed, but the overall idea I’m getting to is this: some people want to always get something for nothing. Cheapskates abound. Perhaps this is more common in the computer world where there is so much free stuff, but that’s no excuse.

Support your local shareware developer. He or she is the one who makes the programs the big guys will never release; the one who rolls in the features you request without having to get a focus group together; the one who provides the little ideas that make your Mac do so much more. He or she is the future of Mac software, and the person who makes the Mac such a useful computer.