Shareware. Last night at the Innovators presentation at the O’Reilly OS X conference, Rael Dornfest brought up the old days of Mac shareware. (I immediately thought of Anarchie and MacHTTP; there are other great examples.)

The question got me wondering about the meaning of the word shareware.

I’m not sure what it means these days. My company may be small (my wife, me, and a fierce gray tabby), and we don’t have a physical box for our product, but I don’t think of our business as being fundamentally different from larger software companies. I’ve never called NetNewsWire a shareware app (though other people have, and it doesn’t bother me.)

Three types of companies

You could break software companies down into three groups if you want. One group is the very small—companies like mine, like UserCreations and Flying Meat Software. The next group is the small companies: Bare Bones Software, the Omni Group, and so on. The last group is the large companies: Adobe, Macromedia, Apple, and so on.

What’s common to all three is that they develop and sell software. Some companies have boxes and large advertising budgets, sure, but I don’t think that’s the difference between shareware and commercial software.

You might say that there’s a difference of culture. Many small developers have weblogs, they’re open and accessible, outspoken but also good at listening. (Being good at listening is perhaps the key attribute of a successful small developer.) They are, in short, not corporate.

But the definition of shareware has traditionally had to do with how the software was distributed and not the attributes of the developer. What I think has happened is that the Internet has made even large companies shareware developers. Not long ago I downloaded Adobe Photoshop Elements, evaluated it during a demo period, then bought the software. I did the same thing with Transmit by Panic, which is a far smaller company. The experience was the same.

Is Transmit shareware? Is Photoshop Elements shareware?


I prefer to think that Transmit and Photoshop Elements are, purely and simply, software. Software these days is often distributed online and has an evaluation period built in. Try before you buy. In that sense, I think the shareware model caught on all over the place, so much so that it’s now hard to talk about shareware as being different from the normal practices of software companies.

But… there clearly is something different about small developers. Something to do with weblogs and chat and talking and listening and sharing code and ideas. A community thing.

I just don’t know what to call it. Shareware community isn’t quite right (but I don’t really mind it, either). I’m not sure it needs a name, but maybe a name would be helpful? I don’t know.

Update: further reading

There are some good previous posts on this topic—here’s Buzz Andersen; here’s Slava of Unsanity: Shareware Is Dead. []