Before You Buy That Software...
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.
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 the software.
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."
SUPER SUPPORT. 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 slim margins.
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 distributors.
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 be virus-free.
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.
For reviews of popular shareware, visit BWPlus! at www.businessweek.com or on America Online at keyword: BWEnterprise.