Shareware is dead – long live shareware!

Today it is relatively easy to market your software (through a web site), distribute the software (via Internet downloads) and collect payment (using an online payment provider). It wasn’t so easy before the Internet existed. “Shareware” appeared in the 1980s as a way for small commercial developers to reach a large market.

Shareware was one of the surprises of the early personal computer industry. Who would have thought that you could make a living from software paid for on the honor system? Make it publicly available, invite people to make copies of it and give them to their friends, and base your income prospects on a little notice asking people to send you a few dollars if they found the program useful.

Michael Swaine, Dr Dobbs, January 2000

Early shareware pioneers including Andrew Fluegelman, Jim Knopf (Button), Bob Wallace and Marshall Magee proved the commercial viability of the shareware concept, reportedly making millions.

The Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP) was formed in 1987 to promote shareware as a business model and to further the interests of shareware developers. Today it has over a thousand members. But times have changed. It is no longer necessary to distribute software by sharing floppy disks or to pay with a check in the mail. Many consumers, fairly or not, have come to see “shareware” as short-hand for “amateurish”.

Today, the Association of Shareware Professionals announced that it was renaming itself to the Association of Software Professionals, following a unanimous vote by the board. It has widespread support from the members in doing so. It also follows in the footsteps of a number of other organizations who have already dropped “shareware” from the name, including SIC (formerly ‘Shareware Industry Conference’, now ‘Software Industry Conference’) and ESWC (formerly ‘European Shareware Conference’, now ‘European Software Conference’).

I approached a number of shareware veterans to find out how they felt about the name change. I asked them:

  • How do you feel about the ASP name change?
  • Do you think the term ‘shareware’ is still one that small software developers should use?
  • The try before you buy model first popularized by shareware is completely standard now. But, unlike early shareware, it is usually limited in some way until you pay. Do you feel the idea of shareware won or lost?

Here are their responses:

I don’t like the new name.

Jim Knopf (Button), one of the earliest and most successful pioneers of the shareware model, his Buttonware company reportedly grew to 35 employees, a broad line-up of shareware products and a $4.5 million gross annual income before its sale in 1992

The consumer software industry has changed and I applaud the ASP for adjusting its strategy as well.
I believe we’ve seen the shareware concept brought forward over the years and the original concept has sustained the test of time. At the end of the day, people like the option of trying something before they buy it.

Marshall W. Magee, Founding President of the ASP,
he released Automenu in 1983 and became one of the first shareware authors to make more than $1 million dollars in sales. Automenu is still for sale

Shareware was invented as a means of taking advantage of the underground sharing of software (usually copyrighted commercial software, but sometimes, small utilities and code fragments). In the early days the great majority of this sharing took place on BBS’s and user groups and then came shareware distributors who reached a broader and more business oriented audience.

I suspect that the distribution methods which shareware was supposed to take advantage of are all but gone.  Obviously, there are still shareware sites online, but I don’t know if they generate significant sales for programmers.

The idea of shareware won if the programmers made more money with it than they did without it. My shareware company, PsL, not only got software out to users all over the world, but we took phone (and later Internet) and mail orders for hundreds of shareware authors, so we had a pretty good idea of how different programmers were doing.

Of course, there were many, many thousands of shareware authors, all of them expecting to make a lot of money from their software. Supply and demand tells you that just can’t happen. The people who made little or nothing tended to blame shareware, despite the fact that some authors made a lot of money, and a few made a LOT of money.  One of the most successful shareware programs of all times in terms of sales was WinZip, and it was marketed in the purest form of shareware – completely unlimited, nothing sent to the customer but a receipt.

Nelson Ford, ASP founder and member since 1987, founder of the Public (software) Library – the largest commercial library of public domain and shareware software

I’ve always advocated an evolutionary model for shareware. Our quick adaptability gives us a decisive edge when we compete with “the big boys” who can’t make decisions. If our evolution has led us to the point where we should drop the word “shareware,” then so be it.
And we really can make a case to drop the “shareware” moniker, given the fact everyone uses the shareware sales model these days. We now distinguish old, non-evolved sales tactics as “oh, that’s one you can’t try first” software. So why not change our name to keep up with evolution?
Consider the analogy of the telephone’s evolution here in the U.S. When wireless handsets first came out, we described them specifically as “cordless phones”. When radio phones first came out, we described them specifically as “mobile phones”. But the concept of wireless is now so pervasive (except in the U.S. government and military), that we distinguish the original non-evolved phone as a “landline”.
At some point you gotta admit “Homo Erectus” isn’t good enough to describe this evolved species. Let’s call it “Homo Sapien”. At some point you gotta admit the same thing for shareware. If the membership feels we need to give it a new name, then it’s time to give it a new name.
I’ve always been against crippling because I believe in the “pervasive” theory of software distribution. In particular it explains why antivirus software is so pervasive – John McAfee wanted his name emblazoned on every desktop in the world and he made it so. His non-shareware competitors quickly realized their traditional non-shareware sales channels didn’t hold a candle to McAfee’s aggressive electronic giveaway scheme.
I think shareware achieved a big win with its “time-limited fully functional” sales pitch. In the early days, shareware authors were constantly looking for better ways to make a sale. We had so many different people trying so many different techniques that we were bound to come across the better ways of doing business. Those who limited the product’s functionality were perceived as not trusting their customers; those who committed the user to a decision were perceived as simply making the customer give a definitive answer (“yes I want it” or “no I don’t”).
We see this philosophy in other “shareware” realms, like auto dealerships. Some people take a dealer’s car home with them for 24hrs, then they have got to buy it or return it. I once took a pickup truck home to make sure it fit in my small garage – why wouldn’t I want to do the same thing with a piece of software before I invest money in it? That’s a big win for shareware in my book.
We won in 1997 when Microsoft released a 120-day fully functional copy of Office.

Rob Rosenberger, ASP member since 1988,
publisher of the Shareware Compendium

The Shareware Industry Conference changed its name to the Software Industry Conference in 2007. Twenty plus years ago, when many (most?) PC users were still hackers, the term “Shareware” had wide spread recognition. Although, even then, there was some confusion between shareware, freeware, crippleware etc. Nowadays, the term is nebulous at best, and very misleading. It’s mainly used to describe “everything one can download from the Internet” (as an aside, a very useful experiment would be to ask 100 teenagers and 100 business people what they think of when they hear the world shareware).
The SIC had been created to bring together “small” developers, all of whom, at the time used to be software authors distributing their products as “shareware”. The industry changed over the years, the term shareware lost its token value and many SIC attendees use a number of different marketing venues for their wares, so the term “shareware” was no longer describing the conference.
I think as a concept, the shareware distribution model was instrumental in convincing mainstream software vendors that users are more likely to buy a product, if they get to try it first. And, let’s not forget that not all products distributed as shareware were fully functional, even in the old days. That was one of the early requirements for ASP membership, but a lot of us fought for years to use that requirement as a convincing argument to get users to choose ASP member products, and not other “shareware” products which had limited functionality, were time limited, etc.
I think the name change has been a long time coming. The ASP has come a long way since the days when I was a member, and I think changing the name to “Software” will help the association grow, as it will probably attract developers that may have felt there was a perceived stigma associated with “Shareware”. Though I don’t have any hard statistics, I think similar to the SIC, many ASP members distribute their software through many different channels, one of which is shareware, so for the association name to reflect “just that marketing channel” was restrictive.

Paris Karahalios, SIAF co-founder, Software Industry Conference board member and co-founder of Trius Inc

I’m not sure anyone outside the ASP will notice the change, but I’ve found the word “Shareware” less recognizable over the last few years, so it is time to drop the word from the organization name.  Fortunately, the ASP can still use the same acronym. Words come and go from our language and the “Shareware” has had its day. The “try before you buy” model is now the most common way to distribute software.  As Rob Rosenberger said a few years ago “we won”.

Jerry Medlin, involved in shareware since 1984, founder of Medlin Accounting software

The ASP name change reflects a long-standing reality. This is the software industry, and ASP members use many different marketing methods. By adopting a broader, more inclusive name, we are not rejecting the past, we are living in the present and welcoming the future. Developers who feel that the term “shareware” is still an important part of their identity can go on using it with pride. But it’s not really necessary. “Try before you buy” is the norm and no longer needs any explanation or special terminology. The focus should be on the product, not on the marketing technique.

Shareware was always about the process of experimentation. From the very early days, developers tested different customer incentives, and over time adjusted their methods to better work with their evolving user base. The core philosophy behind shareware, try before you buy, has never changed. Steve Lee’s catalog used to bear the slogan, “Someday all software will be sold this way”. It was a bold statement at the time, but he was right. One by one, the biggest companies in the business started doing it our way. It was the small, independent developers who set the standard, and we continue to do so with benefits like niche-marketed products and personalized customer service that most large corporations still can’t match.

Rosemary West has been involved in shareware since ‘the late 1980s’, she has held various board positions in the ASP and ESC

Shareware is just a marketing concept and is as subject to change as software is. Just as my first CP/M program won’t run under modern Windows computers, shareware, as it was originally conceived, doesn’t work the same way now.
Shareware was developed as a way to market software by people or companies that had no other practical way to reach their target audience. With the development of the internet, the major barriers to directly reaching your customers, no matter what your size, have been removed. At the same time most software companies offer free trial versions of their software.  So for all practical purposes shareware as a marketing concept no longer exists.
The ASP lost the war to market the term shareware to the general public years ago. It was never much of a war in any case. The ASP never had a budget to practically address that issue in any case. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again- your customers don’t care what term you use to describe your software. Spend your time marketing your software, not arguing about what to call the method you use to sell it.”
I think it is about time for the ASP name change.  I don’ think “shareware” is a term developers should use. The term shareware can have one of three possible connotations in a customer’s mind:

  1. They have never heard of it so at best it confuses them.
  2. They have heard the term and have a negative association with the word.
  3. They have heard the term and have a positive association with the word.

Unless you believe that the vast majority of all people fit into class 3 above, you are better off avoiding the word altogether. If you don’t use the word at all you have no negative connotations or confused customers.
The original idea that shareware could not be limited or crippled in any way was an accidental by-product of the first meeting of shareware authors. This group of shareware authors wanted to keep a particular person out of their “club”. The rules that prohibited limiting a program to encourage payment were designed to keep someone out of the club. Things would probably have been better if those limits had never been imposed. No one now tells us how to market our software. We do what we feel is best for our businesses and our customers. Shareware is an idea whose time has come and gone.

Gary Elfring has been in business since 1979, he has held board positions in the ASP, SIAF and ISCF, he is founder of Elfring Fonts

I feel that my “way of life” may be changing. As one of the first shareware developers who started before we called it “shareware”, I still use the term in all of my software as well as in all of my marketing.  And since it is the well-known term for the try-before-you-buy method of marketing, I will continue to use it to let people know that we want them to try our software before they pay a penny. This is why we have 100% satisfied and happy customers, they didn’t pay until they were sure our software was what they were looking for. So I guess I will be a member of the Association of Software Developers, but will still sell my software through the shareware method of marketing.
If developers want to use the term “shareware” like I do, then they should be allowed to. And even when they grow through the years as we have in my company, if they want, they should be able to continue to use this well know term to describe the way they market their software.
Shareware definitely won. If you look on the web, most software companies including Microsoft now have trial downloads just like we do. And a lot of it is not limited at all with the exception that it stops working after a number of days exactly like we do with our software. We set the trend and now as you see, the rest of the software world is joining us, maybe not as members of the ASP, but as “shareware distributors”.

Paul Mayer wrote a number of Freeware programs in the 1970s for Heathkit computers, full time shareware author since 1991, President ZPAY Payroll Systems Inc

The role of the ASP really won’t change. What will change is the perception that people and companies might have had of the organization because of the word “shareware” in the name. The ASP will still be the organization that software developers, vendors and marketing people join to enhance their business.
The ASP’s private targeted forums are unique in many ways. Probably the best thing about them is they are where people and companies who have been in the business for many years will help out the new guy. The monthly newsletter ASPects always has articles that inspire you to do things, or make you think in new ways. The members only website too has great value. At $100 a year it is a real bargain, especially when you take advantage of offers that member companies only give to other ASP members.
Most importantly though, the ASP will remain a friendly organization dedicated to helping small commercial vendors thrive, whatever you may call them – microISVs, independent developers or shareware authors.

Mike Dulin, current ASP President, CEO  of and

Overall response from ASP members has been very positive. Personally, as an ASP member, I support the name change.  I avoid using the word “shareware” on my own product website. Most of my customers don’t know what it means, and those that do may view it in a negative light. I believe many of the aspects of early shareware, such as honour based payments and fully functional trials, were artefacts of the technology limitations of the time. The key concept of shareware was being able to try before you buy. It is easy to forget how radical an idea this was at the time. Before this software purchasers had to rely just on reading marketing materials from the vendor and magazine reviews of questionable independence. Try before you buy has been instrumental in improving the overall quality of software and providing a better experience for software purchasers. That was a battle that the shareware pioneers well and truly won, and they can be justly proud of this achievement. Does this mean the ASP is obselete? Not at all. The ASP still has a very important role in helping small, independent software developers to be commercially successful. Have you considered joining the ASP?

Shareware is dead – long live shareware!

Andy Brice runs a business selling seating planner software using the try before you buy model, writes a blog aimed small software businesses and provides consulting on marketing and usability to microISVs and other small software businesses. He would like to thank the many ASP members that contributed to this article with quotes or suggestions.