Sunday, March 06, 2005

Freeware, Hobbyware and Commercial Software

No longer is it easy to make a distinction between shareware, which could be freely distributed and installed but payment was expected for continued use, and commercial software, distributed through retail outlets on a pay before you install basis. This is because each side has learnt from the other: commercial developers now distribute via the internet and use a system of licence keys to enable trial periods (unlike Microsoft who still use licence keys to control installation), while shareware developers often have online retail 'outlets' and use advertising as readily as their commercial rivals. Obviously it is the low cost and ubiquity of the internet which explains this change. But I am more interested in how it affects the consumer.

I propose that we slightly re-define the traditional software categories, taking the emphasis away from distribution and into the business model. This still gives us three categories:

1. Freeware: obviously the cheapest optiom but there is no guarantee of support, continued development, or even bug fixes. The golden rule here is: make sure that you have some means of exporting your data (preferably a means which does not rely on the app itself).

2. Hobbyware: roughly speaking, this is software written by someone who has a day job but is still aiming to make some money from the software. Because they are trying to make money but are still primarily doing it for fun, these developers usually offer good support, quicks bug fixes and fairly regular upgrades. Because most of the overheads are covered by the day job, hobbyware is often cheaper than commercial software. The risk is that the developer's personal circumstances will change and s/he will not have time or inclination to continue supporting the product.

3. Commercial: what distinguishes commercial software for me is that the people writing and marketing the software do it as their only or main source of income. As such, it is not always easy to spot the difference from hobbyware, especially with one-person commercial operations. But the difference is important to the consumer, because commercial software will continue to be supported and upgraded, just so long as the product is making money (if the company folds but the product is good, it is likely to be bought by another company). Commercial software is usually more expensive but offers the greatest long term security, especially where proprietary file formats are in question.

The same tri-partite distinction could also be applied to websites. This blog is clearly freeware. It generates no income and I have no obligations to readers or advertisers. Sites like Palm24/7 are hobbyware: they generate some income, they recognize obligations to provide content of a certain type with a certain regularity, but they are not commercially viable and rely entirely on the dedication of volunteers. Brighthand would be an example of a commercial operation.