Today is the first day of MacHeist 2, an event where you can get 10 shareware OS X applications for $49USD (all the apps regularly priced at $343.75USD). That’s a pretty spanking good deal. This year’s heist looks pretty good… last year’s was better, but this year isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination.

So that got me thinking about shareware. There are essentially three schools of software: freeware, shareware, and commercial. For the mac user, there’s plenty of all three, same for the windows user. It seems like, by and large, the Linux crowd is stuck with two: freeware (ala open source) and commercial.

Being no stranger to shareware, I was struck today as to why there is very little shareware for Linux. We have an insane amount of “freeware” via open source software. There’s also plenty of commercial software… stuff like Oracle, VMware, and so forth come immediately to mind. However, it seems to me like the commercial stuff is marketed directly to the enterprise sector, and the the freeware stuff is for everyone (everyone else?).

This appeals to mid- and large-sized business who want the reassurance of support and longevity; I get why commercial software exists. It will always exist, whether you dream of a utopian all-open-source-society or not. Open source (aka freeware) appeals to everyone. When you think of the support options for open source, it’s by and large community-based or DIY (do-it-yourself). I can install a web application written in PHP and not worry if the developer takes off because I have the source (and the skills) to update and enhance it as I see fit. As a result, I like open source. But I’m the average user your typical Linux distribution is trying to target.

The lack of shareware is strange. When I look at the mac, knowing that a lot of the “guts” are open source applications, I see that right out of the box I get the commercial (the GUI interface and the apps Apple has written) and the open source (apache, PHP, perl, bash, etc. right there where I want it). However, were I a newcomer to the mac, would I immediately be looking for the open source stuff? The commercial stuff? The average person would be looking for the shareware and would wander over to places like MacUpdate or VersionTracker.

Yet as a newcomer to Linux, there is nothing like that for me. There are probably, what, less than one hundred shareware applications for Linux? Maybe two hundred? Quite possibly a lot less than that.

When you think about a mac, and the software you use on it, you’re thinking about some high quality applications. Yet most of those are shareware. Now, I’m not saying Linux is lacking in high quality applications — there is some damn fine open source stuff out there. But, coming from a windows or mac background, I dare say most of that isn’t desktop applications. The really solid stuff is the server-related stuff (samba, apache, perl, etc.). Some really good desktop applications exist, sure… Firefox and Thunderbird are nothing to shake your head at, and KDE and GNOME are good desktop interfaces. But what if I wanted a good RSS reader? Or a file manager? Or something like a really slick CSS editor? On Linux, I’m stuck with the open source; on a mac or windows, if the open source stuff available doesn’t cut it, I have options (shareware and commercial). This makes me think back to the “choice is good” mantra that comes with distributions shipping a dozen different text editors. If there is a half-dozen so-so RSS readers, and I happen to dislike or have issues with all of them, where then is my choice? Do I even have the option to look for something that costs a few dollars, where the developer has more than just “warm fuzzies” as motivation? (This motivation, BTW, makes some insane things happen… money is one of the best motivators a person can get). If we don’t have that middle-tier of application development (shareware), do we really have all the choice we could have?

I wonder if the zealotry behind “everything open source” is coming to bite us in the arse and scare off shareware developers. After all, it used to be that if you ran Linux, the perception was “free free free!”. Everything must be free. For someone to develop a quality piece of software and then ask for money, or make it available and cripple it until it was registered, I’m sure they’d be attacked by a virtual mob ready to kick them in the face. Why? Because this is open source, dammit! Your greedy mentality isn’t wanted here! Yeah, I’d yell some more, but I have to call the Oracle support staff regarding a problem with our Oracle database we were alerted to. Down with the greedy shareware authors! If you’re going to write something, make it open source! Yes? Hello? Oracle?

I’m well aware that for the last couple of years advocates have been proclaiming that this year would be the year of the Linux desktop. And every year it isn’t. Every year the desktops do amazing things, don’t get me wrong, so one has to wonder where the short end of the stick lies. Is it the kernel and hardware support? Lack of popular games? Not enough polish on the desktop interface? We’ve all heard the varied excuses as to why it wasn’t the time, or what needs weren’t met, etc. Sure, some of it is definitely true, but some of it is bunk. Not enough desktop polish? GNOME has a great interface… there’s a lot of polish there. It works and works well (I’m not a big fan of KDE, but I suspect it’s in the same camp).

I’m seriously wondering if all the “free free free!” foaming at the mouth has driven off a developer community that is moderately or even purely motivated by profit, but don’t have the resources to be “commercial software developers”. A lot of this really great mac software is developed by single individuals or small teams and they produce some high class stuff. And the funny thing… OS X is not very old, in the grand scheme of things. Linux has been around longer than OS X has. Yes, Apple’s control over the interface and hardware, the applications Apple has written, aggressive advertising, etc. have definitely helped propel OS X along to the point that it’s making more of a dent now in Windows sales than it ever has in the past. But there is still fundamental cost associated with it that Linux users can avoid. Having said that, it’s the developer community that drives Apple, and Apple makes sure (for the most part) to seriously acknowledge and foster that community. Without all of those third-party shareware applications, the mac isn’t much to look at.

We have a great open source development community around us. But can Linux really take on Apple and Microsoft with just a two-tiered development community? When the two operating systems that are the biggest competition both have large three-tiered development communities? Have we so focused on one camp to the almost complete exclusion of another that it can never come back? If shareware developers started developing shareware for Linux, would people even buy it? Or would the mantra of “free free free!” drive them, and their software, away?

I don’t know. I’m not a marketing guy. But it’s something to consider. Especially in light of events like MacHeist where in less than 24hrs, as of this moment, there have been 2648 bundles sold. This, and the fact that there is so much shareware available for the mac, tell me that shareware as a concept is extremely viable. I couldn’t even begin to count how much I’ve spent on shareware applications for DOS, OS/2, Windows, and more recently OS X. For 15+ years now I’ve been buying shareware. Sure, not all shareware is great (or even good — the motivation of money does not a good developer make), but the nice thing with it is you can try before you buy. If it doesn’t do it for you, don’t buy it. I’ve spent some hard-earned dollars on some fantastic software developed by very small companies and individuals, and I don’t see myself stopping. I’ve bought commercial software, but where a shareware solution existed that did as much, or close to as much, as a commercial offering, I’ve usually gone for the shareware stuff.

For Linux, I can count what I’ve paid for (other than operating systems (yes, I’ve bought boxed copies of Mandriva, SUSE, Yellowdog, etc.)) on one hand. I’ve bought Zend Studio, and I’ve bought VMware. Oh, and Komodo. All of those were commercial software, however.

This is just food for thought. I’m musing here, but I wonder if our two-tiered development community is what’s making Linux trip on it’s own feet when the Mac has a three-tiered development community and increases market share every year and Windows has the same three-tiered community and, while it’s market share may be (arguably) slightly on the decline, surely it isn’t enough for anyone to cheer over.

So… does Linux need shareware to compete? And if does, will the open source purists and zealots even permit that middle-tier development community to survive, much less thrive?

I guess at this point I need to add the obligatory “flame on!”, right? =)

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