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Introduction to Shareware

Shareware is, in my opinion, one of the truly great things in computing today. As time goes on, software, like all other media, is becoming increasingly corporate and large scale. Multi-million dollar products fight for limited store shelf space with massive advertising budgets. It's huge, cold, and business-like, and, to be honest, there's nothing wrong with that. Software is a major, grown-up thing now. The world relies on it, and things need to be done in a serious, large scale, systematic way.

The problem with this, however, is that the little guy and the small company tend to get squeezed out. Are you a lone person, out in the middle of nowhere, who wants to try to design a computer game? Well, a large company, with 2 million dollars riding on each product, is not going to look at you until you have many years of programming and design experience. There's too much at stake for them, and they would be insane to trust a major product to an unknown.

This is where shareware comes in. The brilliant thing about shareware is that it's a way for a lone person to create great software, sitting in his or her basement, with nothing but a computer, hard work, some potato chips, and some Mountain Dew. Even better, when that software is done, the Internet makes it possible to get your software to tens of thousands of people and make money from it as well. A few people even make a lot of money, enough to build a business, hire employees, and retire early.

Note, however, that shareware is not a get-rich-quick scheme. You can make money writing shareware, but it requires work. Lots of hard work. It's a long road to releasing a finished product, with a lot of decisions to make, potential problems, and almost infinite opportunities for screwing up. Creating great software is both art and business, and there can be no success in either arena without pain.

The purpose of this web site is to make this journey easier. I am a professional shareware developer, and I've spoken with many others like me. Over the years, I've assembled a lot of information, tricks, and techniques for creating shareware, getting it out the door, and marketing it properly. It's a scary, confusing thing, and I felt that there should be a place where people could come to get advice. And a friendly, reassuring pat on the back.

Everything on this web page is an opinion, and should be taken as such. There are things that have worked for me and for others who have contributed. The answer for us may not be the answer for you. There are always more options. Remember this before you totally redo something based on what you read here.

Enough introduction. On with the advice. Just one more thing. When things get stressful, time is short, bugs are everywhere, and you're ready to give up, remember one thing: Shareware gives you the ability to create your dream and share it with others. It's a rare thing, and it's a wonderful thing. Roll with the punches, don't let the inevitable things get you down, leap in there, and create something great!

- Jeff Vogel

What is shareware?

Before going too much farther, we should all be on the same page. What is shareware? What is this thing that's so great that this web site needed to be created about it?

Shareware is a marketing technique.

This is an important definition, because it clarifies what shareware isn't. Shareware is not a type of software. Shareware is a way of selling software.

A program being sold as shareware is legitimate, real software, as valid and real as any piece of software sold in a store in a shrinkwrapped box. They're just being sold in a different way. One comes in a box, the other comes over the net. That's the difference.

A program sold as shareware is not a lesser program. It's just sold in a different way. If you don't believe this, look at how many major game releases now send out a free demo over the Net. The shareware concept certainly has nothing to be ashamed of if so many major publishers are so keen to emulate it!

But again, what is shareware? Shareware is a way of selling your software. Generally, it works like this. You create a good computer program, good enough that people will pay for it. Then you split this program into two versions.

One of these is the unregistered (or demo) version, which is limited in some way. For example, the demo of Doom only let you play 1/3 of the total levels. Some programs disable the save feature. Others stop working after a period of time (like a month). The demo is the version that is distributed over the net, generally for free.

The other version is the full version, the complete program. It is not limited in any way and everything the program should be able to do is there. This is what the user who pays gets access too. Sometimes the full version is obtained by entering some sort of password into the demo version. Sometimes the full version is mailed to the user on disk. There's a variety of different ways to get the full version in the hands of the user.

Once the two versions are ready, the demo version is distributed as widely as possible. It's sent to online services, placed on the Internet (and hopefully a web site) for download, and sent to magazines for inclusion on CD-ROMs. Users find it and try it out. If they like it, they pay for the full version, which is promptly sent to them.

This is how the system works, more or less. It's a great system, with several good qualities:

* Low cost of entry. All a person needs to release a shareware product is a computer, some software, and a lot of time. Advertising is cheap on the net and no products are shipped in boxes, so costs are extremely low. The profit margin for shareware is exceptionally good.

* Integrity. The user always gets to try your product out before they buy it. Everybody who pays is getting their money's worth.

* Independence. You get to work alone, be your own boss, make your own decisions, and avoid focus groups, endless meetings, and all the soul-killing productivity-sucking features of the corporate world.

Shareware also has several problems.

* Big risk. To succeed at shareware, you need to write a program good enough for people to pay their real, hard-earned money for it. Unfortunately, you won't know if people will pay for it until you release it, at which point you've spent hundreds of hours of your valuable time. Like all businesses, there is risk, and this risk will fall upon you.

* Lack of respect. People often consider shareware to be lesser software. This reputation is sometimes justified. There's no shortage of trivial, buggy shareware. Of course, there's plenty of trivial, buggy shrinkwrapped software too.

* No support network. Running your own company has its drawbacks too. Everything falls on you. All decisions come to you. All mistakes are your fault.

Selling software is a lot of work, with a lot of rewards. Shareware provides a route by which anyone can create a program, sell it, and even make a good living at it. It's even easy to get started. All you need to do is start writing a program.

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