Before You Buy That
...Check out shareware -
it's cheap and it (usually) works
Dick Nethercot was in paperwork purgatory. The
Wichita entrepreneur had built Bill Griffing Painting Inc., the
40-year-old house-painting firm he had purchased three years earlier,
into a local powerhouse; more than a dozen men worked for him, and his
annual revenues stood at nearly $1 million. But success meant his
increasingly elaborate billing needs could no longer be handled
manually. So, in the spring of 1997, Nethercot began hunting for
software. After installing Intuit Inc.'s QuickBooks Pro, the leading
small-business accounting program, he decided it was too complex and
laden with features he didn't need. Instead, he chose a simple billing
program, Financial Freedom Billing
Manager Pro, from tiny M&R Technologies Inc. of Palm Bay, Fla.
''It turned out to be a slick little program that did everything we
wanted it to do,'' says Nethercot. Not only that, he was able to
download the program from the Internet and test it out before sending
M&R a dime.
( Note from M & R Technologies'
President: We are very pleased to be mentioned in this article. It
represents everything we are about, easy-to-use, award-winning software, at an
affordable price. I am happy to report that after many years in
business, M & R Technologies is
no longer "tiny". [smile] We fully support the
Shareware, [try-before-you-buy] marketing concept. )
As Nethercot learned, sometimes the best answer
to business software needs isn't on retail shelves. Instead, it may be
found in the class of software known as shareware, which is typically
sold directly by the software developers over the Internet or
distributed on CD-ROM. Some shareware, dubbed ''freeware,'' is gratis,
but other programs can cost anywhere from a few dollars for a simple
utility, such as a powerful onscreen calculator, to about $80 for a
sophisticated image editor. Some easygoing programmers work on the
honor system, while others build in automatic expirations after a
certain period if you fail to pay for registration.
The shareware concept harks back to 1982, when
two software developers, lamenting the paucity of affordable programs
for IBM's fledgling personal computer, offered their own handiwork to
friends and associates, asking for a $25 donation to cover costs.
Customers were encouraged to copy the programs and pass them on,
provided they kept the program--and the payment request--intact.
Checks started pouring in, and a new industry was born.
Today, you can choose from thousands of
shareware applications, from esoteric programmers' tools to
full-featured word processors, spreadsheets, and database managers.
Some admittedly seem like the primitive fruits of a college student's
all-night programming binge, but others match leading commercial
products on features and ease of use. Shareware users, by industry
estimates, spend some $100 million a year on registration fees--a drop
in the bucket compared to mainstream software purchases. But industry
experts also assume many users go uncounted because they never pay for
Low price was shareware's first big attraction,
particularly to small businesses on shoestring budgets. But that
advantage has largely evaporated as mainstream software grows cheaper
and more programs come preinstalled on PCs.
So why consider shareware at all? For one thing,
there's the try-before-you-buy option--so popular some big software
companies mimic it. Then, too, many shareware fans cite its personal
touch and populist appeal. ''Shareware still offers businesses a
chance to deal directly with the author of a program, instead of some
big corporate entity,'' says Richard Holler, the executive director of
the Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP). This can be
especially helpful because many shareware programs are
industry-specific: There are programs for real estate agents,
dentists, hotel managers, and accountants, among others. For a small
business unlikely to have the tech staff to write custom programs or
the clout for discounts on mainstream software, this in-depth industry
knowledge, coupled with accessibility, can make a real difference.
Take the experience of shareware loyalist Stuart
Levy, a Staten Island (N.Y.) accountant. For almost eight years he has
used Medlin Accounting, shareware written by Jerry Medlin of Napa,
Calif. The two are on a first-name basis. ''I've had a good rapport
with Jerry,'' Levy says. ''He's made many improvements to the product
over the years, some at my behest.'' When Levy suggested that Medlin
add a way to easily input recurring entries, the feature appeared a
few weeks later. ''I've dealt with major software companies,'' says
Levy. ''They're courteous and good at what they do. But it's difficult
to get them to add something specific when they're dealing with
hundreds of thousands of customers.''
Of course, not all shareware developers want to
be your friend. Some are weekend programmers with no time or talent
for pampering customers. But it's not unusual for shareware authors to
man support lines personally or dispense advice by E-mail. Shareware
users also benefit from a wide range of choices--from quirky niche
products to alternatives to the top office applications. Say you need
a tiny program that will monitor several E-mail accounts but won't hog
memory and slow other programs. Instead of going to a software
superstore, check out the TUCOWS shareware archive on the Net (table)
and you'll find more than a dozen such programs, ranging from free to
about $30. Low marketing costs allow shareware developers to create
these products, which large software companies often avoid because of
Shareware isn't for everybody, though, and it
won't likely meet all of your software needs. As Julia Pickar, an
analyst with Zona Research in Redwood City, Calif., points out,
downloading large applications can be a frustrating, time-consuming
process. And she advises against choosing cheap shareware just to save
money because of the added risk of problems with function or support.
Also, some shareware programs are released in ''beta,'' or test
versions that may have serious glitches. Unless you're particularly
computer-savvy, it's safest to avoid any program that has the letter
''b'' after its release number.
If you're still game to try some shareware, be
prepared to do a little legwork, since shareware developers rarely
market their programs. You'll have to sort through programs that can
vary widely in quality. But doing some reading can help. Most computer
magazines review popular shareware programs right along with leading
mainstream products. And the growth of the Net has led to dozens of
Web sites that specialize in shareware, ranging from shareware
authors' home pages to vast databases such as Shareware.com. If you're
not connected to the Net, you can usually order shareware directly
from a developer, but you may pay a premium for the disk and shipping.
Some shareware is also available on CD-ROMs packaged by software
What if you've searched the Net and come up with
more than one product that might meet your needs? No problem.
''Download as many as you like and try them all,'' advises the ASP's
Holler. (Don't forget to uninstall the ones you don't want.) You may
need to install some ''unzipping'' software first--most shareware
comes in compressed archives to cut downloading time--and make sure
you have a good virus-checking program on your computer. For an extra
measure of confidence, try some of the larger shareware Web sites,
such as the ZDNet Software Library, which guarantee their shareware to
The bottom line: If you're looking for an
alternative to that complicated database program, or a utility that
does nothing but print addresses, shareware may be your best bet.
Sometimes you can get more than you pay for.
By Marc Perton in New York
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