Team Murder No Brain No Headache.

7Aug/06Off

This Chocolate Tastes Funny

The latest post (at least while I was riding the bus and nowhere near a wireless connection) on Red Sweater Blog poses some questions and gives some answers to what might be one of the more controversial topics for Mac users and developers: how much do you price software that isn't churned out of one of the app factories like Adobe or MSFT? It's been sort of weird for me to do a partial migration to OS X after spending most of my time for the last five years or so largely working in a Linux environment because there is comparatively so little free (beer and speech) software available for the platform. The choices narrow considerable if you're anal retentive like me and try not to run anything that runs emulated under Rosetta. This limits the commercial choices considerably as many of the big guns are dragging their feet when it comes to porting their applications to Intel or Universal binaries.

There are plenty of smaller projects (and bless them one and all for continuing without much community support or recognition) that do much of what needs to be done if you're looking to do development work (actually there is a huge amount of software out there intended for developers but that availability sort of comes with that particular territory) or more basic/less compatible with the big names sound/video/graphic tasks than you'll likely be fine with free software offerings. I'd rather adapt than deal with free trials and the other annoying traveling salesman/teenage Mormons in suits on bicycles nonsense of shareware. I don't have a terribly difficult time just learning the available tools or altering them to suit my own needs. Hell, I spend nine hours a day working a Windows box that has an uptime somewhere around two months (the only reboot being one done by a student when I left my machine locked and someone else wanted to use it) and when I simply use it for work tasks without trying to do anything terribly fancy. It is an appliance that runs a couple of basic applications and little to nothing else. I can deal but there are many who can't and that is allegedly what dictates the direction of markets if you listen to the wild eyed libertarians soap boxing about free markets while living large on trust fund dollars. Perception is a huge part of what creates value or worth or whatever you want to call it.

One point he makes in the post at least by example is the slow transition from free software to paid (the dreaded demo-ware in the parlance of the cottage industry) which seems pretty sensible to me. The number of revision somethingb17 pieces of semi-commercial (I mean shareware but I'm trying to be sarcastic here) is somewhat discouraging. For nearly all of this software there is a free/open source analogue that will consider bug reports and won't lock your patches up in binary/get pissed at you for decompiling their software to patch it so it functions properly. The only sane solution seems to be the one mentioned above which is less like free to commercial and more like beta testing which is gasp what most of the large software companies do. The biggest problem is the total lack of support. Even if you never dial the magic and bug dissolving eight hundred number on the side of the box it add some worth to the fifty dollar plus price tag that doesn't really exist for most smaller commercial projects. You are buying in to software that may or may not respond to your demands and may just disappear tomorrow. Again, this is a matter of perception which gets cloudy when you are doing the complicated balancing act between being a wad of code in active development and being a commercial entity. The perception of stability, I think, is a pretty important factor in wringing cash out of the folks that use your software. Developing that software under a free beta implementation seems like a pretty transparent way of establishing that dedication to existing next month that people dearly want when plunking down cash for binaries transmitted through the ether. Sometimes that means knowing that said software will still be available for download from the same place as it was the week before or having a hard copy on CD. There are aspects of ownership missing from that equation that likely dilute the perceived value of being a license holder. Once again, that value to the person waving bills around, imagined or not, is what makes the price of entry stick.

One thing that I did some thinking on is the 'people hate it when something formerly free becomes something that suddenly costs money' part of the original argument. One of the most discouraging parts for people who used a piece of software when it was free is that they feel, again imagined or not, like they helped with shaping the development of that software whether through feature requests, bug reports, or even patches to the existing code. The sweet spot seems to me to be offering existing users even the freeloaders who did nothing but complain when the software was free either a huge discount on the finished product or a version worth of freebies. How do you determine which are the useful users and which are just people who waited around for you start charging to piss and moan? There are a few that I can think of immediately: were you a registered user of the bug tracking software before x date? Were you a pretty damned active ranked member of the help forums? Is there documented proof that you created some traction for the success of a piece of software? Give some exchange of value for that service rendered that doesn't involve locking up other parts of your project that were once freely available and plastering a price tag over it. Nothing pisses people off more than that -- the instant conversion of something that seemed like a community or grew rapidly because it was seen as a community being kicked out and then insulted by being hit up for money. If that isn't obvious then I don't know what is.

Unfortunately, a handful of days after the start of getting this written, I realize that this topic is one exhausting almost by design. Staying true to the Team Murder tradition it is closer to thinking aloud than the approach more careful (necessarily) meditations that others done on the topic. The post on the Red Sweater Blog is scathing at times but generally pretty well thought out and reasoned. I have no such aim. The glut of shareware/informal commercial software being developed for OS X is pretty baffling and a fairly saturated market if you're looking for an RSS reader or something. I'm glad that so many people are writing code regardless of which license they release under. What irks is much of the bitterness that seems to spill out of developers with somewhat lofty expectations of what being a small developer might mean. Hopefully these forces will balance one another out over the course of time because that championing the little guy by venting fountains of bile until enough units sell to unload the whole works onto a larger company doesn't do either developers or public perception of the platform much good. Alternative points of view even those I can't pretend to sympathize with, understand, or even respect are welcome. I may proofread later but likely not.

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