Some years back my wife bought a PC and got a ‘free’ inkjet printer with it. It was a really lousy printer, but hey, it was free. When it ran out of ink we tried to get a new inkjet cartridge, but the cheapest set of cartridges we could find was £80. That was 4 times the price of other comparable cartridges at the time. Some further research showed that you could buy the printer for £20 – with cartridges! Their ugly sales tactics didn’t work. We threw it in the dustbin and bought an Epson inkjet, which gave years of sterling service using third party sets of cartridges costing less than £10.
When I started my company I had a thousand decisions to make. One of them was which software to use to create and maintain my new product website. It just so happened that my new ISP (1and1.co.uk) was offering a bundle of ‘free software worth £x’ when you signed up (I forget the amount). It included a web design package (NetObjects Fusion 8 ) and an FTP package (WISE-FTP). Hoorah, free (as in beer) software and 2 less decisions to make. I was weak. Instead of spending time checking out reviews and evaluating competitors, I just installed and starting using them. It didn’t occur to me that they might be using the same sales tactics as the manufacturer of the lousy printer. In this imperfect world, if something appears too good to be true, it usually is. And so it was in this case. I grew to hate both these pieces of software.
WISE-FTP was just flaky. It kept crashing and displaying German error messages, despite the fact that I had installed the English version. No problem, I just uninstalled and installed FileZilla which is free (as in beer and speech), stable and does everything I need and more.
NetObjects Fusion was flaky and hard to use. By saving after every edit I could minimise the effects of the regular crashes and I assumed that I would learn how to work around other problems in time. But I never did. By the time I decided that the problems were more due to the shortcomings of NetObjects Fusion as a software package, rather than my (many) shortcomings as a web designer, it was a little late. I had already created an entire website, which was now stored in NetObjects Fusion’s proprietary database. Some of the bugs in NetObjects Fusion are so major that one wonders how much testing the developers did. My ‘favourite’ is the one where clicking a row in a table causes the editor to scroll to the top the table. This is infuriating when you are editing a large table (my HTML skills haven’t yet reached the 21st century).
In despair I eventually paid good money to upgrade to NetObjects Fusion 10. Surely it would be more stable and less buggy after two major version releases? Bzzzzt, wrong. The table scrolling bug is still there and it crashed 3 times this morning in 10 minutes. Also, every time I start it up the screen flashes and I get the ominous Vista warning message “The color scheme has been changed to Windows Vista Basic. A running program isn’t compatible with certain visual elements of Windows”. Even just trying to buy the software upgrade off their website was a confusing nightmare. The trouble is that it is always easier in the short-term to put up with NetObject Fusion’s many shortcomings than to create the whole site anew in another package.
For want of a better term I call this sort of software ‘upgradeware’ – commercial software that is given away free in the hope that you will buy upgrades. This is quite distinct from the ‘try before you buy’ model, where the the free version is crippled or time-limited, or freeware, for which there is no charge ever. Upgradeware is the software equivalent of giving away a printer in the hope that you will buy overpriced cartridges. Only it is less risky, as the cost of giving away the software is effectively zero. It seems to be a favoured approach for selling inferior products and it is particularly successful when there is some sort of lock-in. It certainly worked for NetObjects in my case.
Norton Anti-virus are the masters of upgradeware. Norton Anti-virus frequently comes pre-installed on new PCs with a free 1-year subscription. The path of least resistance is to pay for upgrades when your free subscription runs out. By doing these deals with PC vendors, Symantec sell vast amounts of subscriptions, despite the fact that Norton Anti-virus has been shown in test after test to be more bloated and less effective than many of its competitors. And if you think Norton Anti-virus doesn’t have any lock-in, just try uninstalling it and installing something else. It is almost impossible to get rid of fully. Last time I tried I ended up in a situation where it said I couldn’t uninstall it, because it wasn’t installed, and I couldn’t re-install, because it was still installed.
I feel slightly better now that I have had a rant about some of my least favourite software. But there is also a more general point – ‘free’ commercial software can end up being very expensive. Time is money and I hate to think how much time I have wasted struggling with upgradeware. So be very wary of upgradeware, especially if there is any sort of lock-in. When I purchased a new Vista PC, the first thing I did was to reinstall Vista to get rid of all the upgradeware that Dell had installed (Dell wouldn’t supply it to me without it). You could also draw the alternative conclusion that upgradeware might be a good approach for making money from lousy software. But hang your head in shame if you are even thinking about it. It would be better for everyone if you just created a product that was good for customers to pay for it up-front.