Shareware sucks. Time for a change.

Written by David Frampton @ 8:40 am, February 25, 2009

Shareware sucks

Ryan at untoldentertainment recently went to an interesting place, perhaps via my post on iPhone App Store Marketing, particularly the part where I discuss pricing too low and the negative reviews you may receive.

From Ryan’s post:

A fifty dollar steak will generally taste better than a six dollar steak, even if they’re the same cut and are prepared by the same chef. Humans are funny that way.

All this is enough to make me rethink the benefits of free-to-play models, as both a business owner and a consumer.”

This “free-to-play” model is basically the same as the Shareware model. Free for a start, and then pay to keep playing, or unlock content.

I see many, many more downloads of my Mac software than I see registrations. My Mac Shareware apps are actually way worse off than the 2-5% registration rate that is normally reported. I’m yet to figure out exactly why. 

Perhaps it’s the horrible lengthy form that users have to fill out to actually purchase. Perhaps it’s the design of my site, or other parts of the registration process that put people off. Perhaps I offer too much or too little content in the free version. Perhaps my applications just aren’t worth the price I’m charging.

But whatever the reason, I have long been wondering if the Shareware model is the best way to sell Mac applications and games, and if there is a viable alternative.

So this blog post is me saying that Shareware sucks, why I think it sucks, and where the alternatives may lie.

Shareware gets less downloads than Freeware

For consumers, downloading Shareware should seem like a win. With very little effort, possibly a tiny cost in bandwidth, and a short wait while you do something else, you can try it out. It’s probably easier, and as cheap, as downloading a free iPhone app.

But that potential downloader knows that it’s limited somewhere. The future potential for having to pay something will put some people off even downloading an app. Freeware apps look better than Shareware apps. 

Developers take a major hit from this small negative slant towards Shareware. It’s not just the few people who don’t download it because it may cost something, it’s the few people who they won’t recommend it to. It’s the few review sites that won’t bother to review it, or the few places in various ranking systems that are lost. These few add up, and feedback on themselves, and ultimately result in a major difference in the number of downloads. 

Just look at apple – most recent vs apple – most popular and count the number of Freeware apps in each. It’s a small sample, but I would be surprised if the number of freeware apps in the most recent category ever exceeded those in the most popular category.

Shareware gives good stuff away for free

No matter what a Shareware app’s limitations are, there is always some content given away. Right now, enough developers give enough stuff away that anyone who really doesn’t want to pay anything can probably get what they want with what is freely available.

A developer might see a gap in the market, make a Shareware app to fill it, and perhaps unknowingly provide for free exactly the functionality that was only in the paid version of another app. Consumers that are willing to spend time trying, and learning, how to use the free parts of Shareware apps to save a few bucks are probably common.

It’s not certain that these consumers would ever pay for any software – in fact they probably won’t. But developers have created this situation. Developers have fought each other by price to get attention, and price is a major consideration for consumers – be it money, time, or any other cost. Consumers expect to be able to get any functionality via price-free means. The majority seem to end up happy to spend an hour to save a dollar. This hour is probably fun. It’s amusement to attempt to get something for free, and they saved a dollar. Hourly rate equations don’t apply.

Of course, piracy doesn’t help. Any consumer can get a copy of any software off their family 16 y/o ‘hacker’ who got it off their 18 y/o facebook friend named Brandy (aka 40 y/o George), who got it off some dodgy website located on a server in some offshore country. Any developer who offers a complete app, with code-based protections to limit it to Shareware will be cracked within days, if not hours.

A Shareware app download is nearly always a giveaway. Those that don’t download the cracked version are probably quite happy playing within the limits of the free part. Very, very few will reason that it’s worth spending money because the developer did a good job and deserves to be paid for it. A few more might get frustrated enough with the limitations to pay to get the rest. Which brings me on to my next point.

Shareware annoys people, whatever the limitation

The main reason that the vast majority of people buy a Shareware app is because it’s pissed them off enough that they have to. 

Whether  it’s a game with only 5 out of x levels, or an app with only 30 days of usage, it’s the same tactic. Give something away for free that is broken, and charge people to fix it. It’s like a boat repairer giving away leaky ships.

Anyone who is entering their credit card details on a developer’s website is bound to be reluctantly handing over their cash to be able to do the thing that the app said it did on the box. Chances are that they were in the middle of an epic struggle to beat the previous high score, or are on a tight deadline that could do with the use of the app in question. It’s annoying. ‘Awesome, I’ll just do this…. Oh crap, it’s expired…Hmmm… Guess I’ll buy it then.’ Or even worse, if they weren’t that dependent on it: ‘Oh crap, it’s expired. Oh well, I’ll just use some other app.’

In general, artificially limiting people is a bad way to get money. It’s a bad user experience; it’s a bait and switch tactic; it’s extortion; it’s wrong.

Shareware requires a laborious payment system

I’m yet to find anything close to a decent way of actually selling Shareware licenses online. I am using eSellerate, which at least makes my side of the dealings relatively painless. But the user experience is horrid.

Ideally, it should be two clicks. One to purchase, one to confirm.

But as it is, purchasers usually have to:

  1. Find the menu/button that will register the app, and click on it to launch a web browser or bring up a form
  2. Decide if they can trust this form with their credit card details
  3. Fill out a stupid amount of personal details
  4. Find a piece of plastic and copy 16 random numbers from it, plus 3 that are usually obscured on the back
  5. Find some large sequence of random numbers and letters in an email that might show up at some point or perhaps somewhere in some subsequent screen
  6. Find in your app the place where this number has to be entered
  7. Type the number in, or copy and paste it in, with NO MISTAKES!!! NO SPACES AT THE END!!!

It’s just crazy. It requires a lot of effort, and a lot of trust. At no point can a user be sure that their money won’t just disappear into a black hole. Of course it probably won’t, it’ll probably all work out, but there is no way a user can know this for sure. It’s stressful, difficult, and time consuming.

And then they can’t even be sure that they actually own it. Can they unlock another version on another machine they own? If their machine dies and they have to re-install their OS will they be able to continue using it? There is no consistency, no history to deserve trust. It’s a punt on an unknown developer that only a small percentage of experienced users will be prepared to take.

The alternatives

A good viable alternative to Shareware for small developers is way overdue, and I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who thinks they have found one. I’m just going to mention a few alternatives, and my thoughts on them.

There is no doubt that online distribution is the future (well, the present, really), so putting CDs in a local store is out. 

Getting a publisher may help a little, as it provides some consistency with payment systems, but at what cost? For me, I like to control my marketing efforts, as well as own the complete rights to my software, so this is not an option. But even if a publisher seems the right way to go, the increase in trust applies to a limited number of purchasers. And it’s probably still Shareware. It’s still giving stuff away for free, annoying people, etc.

Advertising in a free application is a viable alternative. Again, I’d never go there, as I hate ads and the time (and hence productivity) that they waste across the world to force crap products on people who don’t really want them – but that’s another story. It’s viable, for some. A few developers are making money out of advertisement placement in games/apps, and most consumers don’t seem to mind too much.

Charging for the full version, while offering no feature limited version, or a real ‘demo’ (with only videos/tutorials) is also an option. For users this may seem like a bad deal, but with a good description, a YouTube video and some unbiased reviews it can work. It gets rid of some of the difficulties with payment/registration, doesn’t offer any real content, so helps with the annoyance factor, and doesn’t really give anything away. Currently however, most of the ways that people will initially find an app come from download sites. Without having a popular download (usually by offering some real content), some serious marketing effort is required.

I am hoping above all else that Apple will create a Mac App Store. Apple must either already have it planned, or has decided it’s not feasible for some reason, but the potential benefits are huge. For developers it would solve pretty much all of the Shareware issues, and provide another gold rush. For Apple, it would provide a drawcard for developers to develop for the Mac again, after the iPhone stole so many Mac developers, and would also create some extra revenue using the back-end they have already created for the iPhone App Store. For users it would mean a huge number of fart apps… err, I mean quality software at lower prices, easy to get, easy to buy. It’s win, win, win! Or perhaps I’m missing something… It seems too easy.

So Shareware sucks. It sucks for developers, it sucks for users, it sucks for purchasers. But right now it’s the best we have. Time for a change. But to what?


  1. PoV


    I’ve been investigating the cross platform equivalents recently and came to pretty much the same opinion. If google checkout did more than payment process, then it may be a viable option. But it seems we’d all have our work cut out us to make it happen. 

    Comment by PoV — February 25, 2009 @ 9:52 am

  2. Computer Articles blog » Shareware sucks. Time for a change. « Majic Jungle Blog

    [...] Original post:  Shareware sucks. Time for a change. « Majic Jungle Blog [...]

    Pingback by Computer Articles blog » Shareware sucks. Time for a change. « Majic Jungle Blog — February 25, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  3. Christopher

    I have to agree about relying on the ‘user’ to end up paying or even donating money. I wrote a few scripts years ago and put them on version tracker to let others download.

    As it currently stands, one script has 1,182 downloads and the other has 2,255 downloads for a combined total of 3,437 downloads of their current versions. I wrote a note on my website as well as in the scripts saying ‘if you use this, send me $5 via paypal.’

    These scripts have been online now for over 3 years and ive had a total of ONE person actually send me some money. I considered them DonationWare, and was never looking to actually make any money off of them, but hell, even if there was a way to hav those 3400 people spend $1 to download that would be $3400 in my pocket and actually make me want to update and continue to add features to those scripts. I don’t maintain those scripts anymore because I no longer do what those programs were meant to do. I dont have a personal use for them, so I have no interest in updating them.

    Comment by Christopher — February 25, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  4. Ed Palma

    @Christopher: Just a note I download lots of stuff and just decide it’s not what I need or not worth the cash. Certainly one is probably a low number but maybe a link to your scrips will convince me.

    Anyway David, your point still stands. I think the best way I’ve seen shareware done is a brief but enjoyable free version and a low barrier to get the rest of the content. I think First 5 and then $4.99 would be great for the Mac game chopper. I’d risk the rest of the game sucking for five bucks. Ten is pushing it. Anything more and you’d better have something pretty convincing.

    As far as payment, you’re right, faster is better. Make is as painless as you can. Paypal accepts credit cards- you might even be able to build a page into you app using webkit. Always have at least 2 options. Google Checkout is lots of places as well.

    As far as DRM, don’t bother playing the cat an mouse game. MSJ will have a serial and a crack out within the week anyway. Keep the price low enough that it’s not worth cracking over paying. Make registration simple, permanent and without activation or phoning home (eventually someone will want to install on a not-online or parentally controlled Mac). Some apps let you just copy and paste the registration email into the registration dialog. That’s handy. If someone registers in a web browser, give them a code immediately and email it as well. Make sure it all works over dialup. Options are good.

    That’s pretty much due diligence. The other thing is to make sure you have a great app and market it like heck. Build a culture, enlist help, get rated and reviewed.

    And I think a Mac App store is a next logical step for Apple. I’m hoping for it- I hate to use the word “Trusted” in this context but I think that it’s becoming increasingly important to have a trusted point of distribution. There’s so much malware out that people are either rightfully paranoid or vastly underskilled to decide what software is safe.

    Cheers, Ed

    Comment by Ed Palma — March 14, 2009 @ 10:35 am

  5. Ed Palma

    And just to clarify, Chopper is worth AT LEAST ten dollars, but you only know that after you’ve played through.

    Comment by Ed Palma — March 14, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  6. Ed Palma

    I just had an epiphany. Why not petition MacUpdate to develop an App store. They already have mupromo and they’re a fairly trusted reviewer, they just need system to submit apps to the store, a simple universal registration system (haha), and some work with developers.

    Also of note: Google Checkout has an API.

    Finally, make sure to reward loyalty- release bonus levels for free, give coupons/discounts to repeat buyers etc. Not only will they buy again but they will keep saying good crap about your company.

    Comment by Ed Palma — March 14, 2009 @ 10:48 am

  7. Ed Palma

    Here’s two examples of great Demo-ware. I say Demo-ware because neither game uses a registration system. So you can download a demo or you can download (for a fee) the full game. I believe the developers benefit from three things:

    1. They made great games. Lots of polish, variety in gameplay, completeness etc…
    2. They built a community around them (in the online sense)
    3. They choose to put a lot of trust with their customers- no codes, no online-activation, just a link to a disk image

    Here they are: Zen Puzzle Garden and World of Goo.

    2DBoy, the makers of WoG also have a fun blog going- they even talk about their choice to remove all DRM.

    Comment by Ed Palma — March 22, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  8. Chris

    I usually avoid shareware which has little fanfare for concern that if I choose not to purchase it after the trial expires, a sloppy uninstaller will still leave junk on my computer. I am less likely to be dissatisfied with software for which I have made no investment in (freeware) so I am willing to take a higher risk installing it onto my computer. I am neither a developer nor IT person, just a software customer for many years.

    Great blog.

    Comment by Chris — March 31, 2009 @ 3:50 am

  9. hugociss

    Wow! That explains everything so clearly. And yes, a Mac App Store will create another gold rush. I totally agree on a shareware’s annoyance. Another point is that a large audience out there simply can’t pay for apps. They are mostly children with parents that decides their purchases. Just seeing half the word “share,” kids just go to another page. You are exactly correct, shareware purchasing is too complex.

    Think, parents let their kids buy songs off iTunes. Why? BECAUSE IT IS SO SIMPLE!!! The parents have total control over the account, and a big company like Apple can be trusted. Parents issue their kids gift cards, allowing them to buy a limited amount of music. Now, change the music to apps, yes apps! Apple would need to make a iTunes/App Store-like store for the Mac OS X platform. And the cycle goes again, parents give their children limited amount of money. The parents lecture their children. Then off the kids go! Clicking the “Purchase” button on every game they can find until their gift card runs out of money. So simple, so easy, all we need is some cooperation from Apple.

    Of course, such a store would greatly benefit the part of the audience that actually has money. Think, the 30 secs preview of a song is basically the “free” part of the otherwise shareware. After trying out the preview, people would want the rest don’t they? Then, all it takes is a simple “Purchase” button!

    Comment by hugociss — April 10, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  10. Philippe

    Hi there!

    I think you wrote a very honest blogpost there, it seems as if you’re contemplating a question I ask myself quite often, even if I’m in a completely different trade than you (I’m a chef)… do all of your efforts and hard work actually pay off in the end and is the time and effort you spend on providing quality software, as a developer rather than a big company actually worth the return you’re able or not to get from it.
    I sincerely believe in try before you buy, I rarely download “freeware” because to me it implies second grade quality… why would anyone who spend hours, days, month’s or maybe even more time, give away some really useful and high quality software away for free? To me it means there probably will be no support whatsoever, something that has been developed but where the developer has no time or motivation to follow up on his development or it’s a sort of market research to find out if there’s enough interest in the app he/she developed. Because I don’t want my mac cluttered with second grade or buggy software I always pass on the offer of a free app. As for donationware, i feel exactly the same. Why pay for it when the purchaser can decide wether to help the developer get the funds he needs to develop further? You’ll never know, as a customer, if the developer will ever reach his desired target (goal) to continue improving his software or has a desire to do so anyway…
    The good thing about the apple store is the rating system. It obviously weeds out the “occasional let’s give it a go” developers who have no serious intentions or desire to develop quality software they’ll be following up with regular updates hence improvements. You’re absolutely right in your doubts it’s all worth the effort with so much competition on the app store, growing each day with dev’s who want to try their luck and get a share of the cake… I think it’s un****ing believable how much repetitve apps are on there… one charges 2$ for their flashlight app whereas the other gives it away for free, and then you have a choice of literally tens of apps that basically do exactly the same…
    I will take your own work for an example : a while ago I downloaded Fluidtunes, it’s an app that hasn’t been done before and I think it’s a great innovation. It really shows your creativity and technical skills… Every new mac has an isight and you turned this into something actually usefull even if it is more like a “hey look what I can do with my mac”-app than anything else… But seriously, how many people wouldn’t want this cool “minority report” like functionality on their computer?!? I downloaded it, hesitating because it was a free app and as I stated above, this usually means no following up from the developers part. I remove all shareware apps if I decide they’re not worth my money and buy them if I believe I’ll get the support I want of a quality “paid’ app. There’s many things people buy in their life without the possibility of trying it out first, then decide if they’ll keep it (pay for it) or not… but software is not a physical product, I want to have at least some screenshots even better a screencast, I want to give it a go to see if the software fits my needs or not, try-out the competition. Get a full experience before taking the plunge (in my wallet). I always check release dates and sometimes equally important to me, I’ll check wether the dev’s website has been kept up to date, before I buy. It’s obvious the future lies in downloads, I seriously believe it’s only a matter of a year or 5 that cd’s and dvd’s will become obsolete. But this means it’s time for a serious change in how the content, wether it’s software, music or movies is distributed… a physical product is exchangeable, refundable and resaleable, but not so for software, so it’s only fair, for now and until a better scheme is in place that people can download shareware along with the annoying messages, incomplete functionality and such instead of emptying their wallets and be stuck with software there not happy with or don’t get the support for…

    Comment by Philippe — May 18, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  11. Zach808

    I have to agree. Especially about the app store and unusable free versions. One example is IshowU. The registered version is okay, but the free version puts ads in the middle of vids you record. Who wants their videos ruined? I’m off to The Pirate Bay to get that full version, because the free one is just unusable. And as for the app store, I agree with you completely. That would be so much easier than using a credit card.

    Comment by Zach808 — August 19, 2009 @ 5:49 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.