Category Archives: interview podcast

I was a guest on episode 21 of, the podcast of Andrey Butov and Ian Landsman. The discussion was very wide-ranging, touching on SAAS vs web, the Qt development environment, the royal wedding, A/B testing, capoeira, Adwords, the history of shareware, my new training course and lots more besides. I really enjoyed it. also has a thriving discussion forum at

Blog Blazers interview from 2008

Stephane Grenier is publishing an interview a week from his 2008 book Blog Blazers on This week he published my interview from the book. It was interesting to re-read it 5 years on. I never did quite reproduce the success of my early software award scam post, but I am still posting – albeit not very frequently.

Interview with a cracker

Through an unforeseen series of events, I have ended up corresponding with a cracker known only to me by a Hotmail address and the  pseudonym “CrackZ”. It quickly became clear that he knew what he was talking about, but was motivated by curiosity rather than criminality. Obviously crackers are a more diverse group than the criminal masterminds and script kiddies of popular imagination. To my surprise he agreed to be interviewed for this blog and I jumped at the chance to find out a bit more about the shadowy world of cracking.

*** I realize this is an emotive subject, but please read the whole interview before posting anything in the comments. ***

What is your background? How did you get into cracking software?

I graduated in software engineering about 10 years ago and started out seriously cracking software in my first year at University. It was the first time I’d had access to a fast, unmetered Internet connection and my interest became collecting software and then breaking it; most of my associates never proceeded much beyond the downloading lots of free software stage. Prior to this I’d really only ever had a casual knowledge of the piracy scene from owning a Spectrum, Commodore 64 and then an Amiga. Think tapes and copy disks being swapped in the playground and you wouldn’t be far wrong ;-). The first PC experiences I can recall were studying some very early Phrozen Crew cracks and the Quox virus that someone gave to me on a disk.

Do you also write software? Is your day job in the IT industry?

Yes and yes.

What is the motivation for cracking software?

Motivation for cracking really seems to vary. For me I think its always been mainly about the intellectual challenge, studying code, or ‘breaking the minds of protection authors’ as one correspondent so eloquently put it. For many there is also the ‘social aspect’ of being amongst a like-minded group of individuals (see some of the interviews with former members of famous groups e.g. PWA, DOD if you want to understand how powerful a *pull* the social element can be). Then there are also those who simply enjoy getting software for free or those who do it simply for ‘kicks’. Contrary to the various anti-piracy associations propaganda, very few of those I’ve ever been associated with have been motivated financially. That’s not a justification of course, but it might help if most authors realised that the person who cracked their software is more likely a bored 16 year old Chinese male than a future terrorist.

Is cracking an individual activity or is it organized?

The answer is both, but that is an oversimplification. Most of my cracking has been pretty much a lone-wolf occupation, although there have been times I have worked with others on group projects, expensive CAD/CAM applications for example. One only has to look at the scene to see that there are plenty of organized groups out there and some of the group infrastructures I’ve seen would rival small corporations in their sophistication. A lot of authors are often quite surprised to find their software on the cracking scene radar.

What is your attitude to intellectual property? Do you release cracks and keygens ‘into the wild’? What do you think of those that do?

I’ve actually gone full circle here; in my early years IP literally meant absolutely nothing to me, the value of the software didn’t matter and authors were inconsequential. I would happily release cracks and key generators under a variety of nicknames and scene groups and I didn’t lie awake at night thinking about the damage I might be causing to someone’s livelihood. Currently, I’m 100% in the ethical category (you can debate that). I haven’t been able to curb my interest in protection code, but have managed to channel my interest towards simply contacting the authors when I have broken their code. Sometimes I’ll even offer a little helpful advice; though I’m afraid that’s probably the ‘moral best’ I’m ever going to be. I don’t support those who release cracks and key generators. I’ve heard enough from authors to know how damaging it can be, but anyone who has ever experienced the scene can probably understand why it still happens and will continue.

I can understand the attraction of cracking as an intellectual challenge. But why do some crackers then release the cracks? What do they gain?

Respect amongst their peers and the ‘scene’ at large and dubious notoriety. I’ve known some who did so in order to get a job.

When people release cracks do they think about the effect they are having on the livelihoods of the people who write the software? Do they care?

My guess would be ‘probably not’ on both counts. I think this changes with age though and many get more considerate as they get older.

What is your opinion of people that add trojan horses and other malware to cracks?

I suppose I might be accused of some degree of hypocrisy ;-), but these really are the bottom-feeders and low-lifes of the world.

What types of software do you target?

Myself it has been pretty much exclusively Windows, with the occasional bit of *nix, but there is plenty of interest in virtually every platform out there, even groups dedicated solely to them. Nothing escapes attention these days.

What tools and techniques do you use for cracking?

My tools of choice are IDAPro (the best disassembler which also includes a debugger) and also a mixture of other debuggers depending on the target (e.g. OllyDbg, SoftICE, Syser and even WinDbg). And then there are other associated tools like a decent Hex Editor (Hiew, UltraEdit) and more specific utilities covering the various cracking fields. There are quite a few books out there on the subject of reverse engineering that list virtually all of the tools in most crackers toolsets.

How long does it take you to crack the protection on an average piece of software?

On average shareware protections I’d usually be able to break them in a matter of hours, although understanding their intricacies might take a good deal longer. I’ve had some fall in minutes and others take full days of analysis. Perhaps as a small comfort, I’d say that each year the average protection seems to be getting a little more difficult to crack.

How long are you prepared to spend to try to crack a piece of software? Do you ever come across software you can’t crack?

In the past I’d be prepared to invest most of the hours in a day in one piece of software. I’d make literally pages of notes on paper and in the disassembler, naming functions, variables, structures, commenting fields etc. For many crackers time is a commodity they have in spades. I’ve met several targets that I couldn’t crack and several I simply didn’t bother completing because others had beaten me to it. Of the few I couldn’t break I did understand the reasons why (some need specific server-side responses). In some cases, several years later, users sent me the necessary hardware / information to enable me to break those targets.

Are applications protected by commercial anti-piracy software harder to crack than applications with home grown protection?

This is a tricky one; commercial anti-piracy software is pretty much exclusively written by ex-members of the cracking community and by default is protected better than many authors own creations. However, once a protector gains what I’d best term as a ‘critical usage mass’, its attractiveness as a target becomes that much greater. Experienced crackers are drawn to it almost like moths to a flame, since breaking an entire ‘protector’ can yield a lot of targets. Some of the very best and worst of the protections I’ve seen have been of the home grown variety. A lot of authors (IMHO rightly) conclude that improving the attractiveness of their software to potential customers is a much more productive use of their time than writing the ultimate copy protection.

Is software that phones home harder to crack?

Software that simply ‘phones home’ presents more of a nuisance than any real barrier to cracking. I’ve seen some that implement server license checking (mIRC is a widely available example) and it hasn’t stopped the cracks appearing. Several other targets have required decryption keys to be fetched from the server and these also haven’t presented any real problem. Its worth remembering that a cracker will often have access to a legitimate license with which to perform his study. At some stage a true client/server protection model over the internet will be a real possibility (MS has some stuff already like this), where all of the code is actually executing on a server. This will most likely simply move the goalposts, but seeing as a lot of the software I have been asked to look into was leaked to me by company employees the server model might not be as secure as it suggests.

Do hardware solutions (e.g. dongles) make software significantly harder to crack?

Hardware keys and, more recently, smart cards do make software harder to crack, largely due to the fact there is usually an element of hardware encryption these devices perform that can’t be easily replicated without access to the original device. However, over the years, I’ve met literally hundreds of disgruntled end-users of these devices, many of whom have sent me their keys and risked their jobs just to be free of them. A few eastern European contacts of mine sell ‘dongle emulating’ solutions and have archives of probably more than 10,000 individual dongles.

Is any method of securing software 100% secure?

Absolutely not, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

What are the commonest mistakes software developers make related to security?

In no particular order:

  1. Depending on commercial protection schemes for security.
  2. Directly comparing the license string entered with the correct one.
  3. Not using some sort of encryption/obfuscation (XOR isn’t *good* encryption).
  4. Using a single simplistic registration function that is easy to isolate.
  5. Displaying message boxes with helpful strings sending the cracker straight to the protection code.
  6. Not integrity checking against patching.
  7. Not updating the software once a crack is discovered in the wild.

Do you think software vendors should spend more time making their software harder to crack?

I’m pragmatic; I’d advise all software authors to invest time in a *reasonable* copy protection and keep abreast of whether cracks are out there, educating your potential customers can be worthwhile. Make your protection something custom and use some imagination by all means, but make it proportional to what you are protecting. There isn’t much point having a £million lock on a £100 product, you simply can’t defeat every single cracker out there.

Can you expand on “educating your customers can be worthwhile”?

‘Educating’ might be the wrong word, but appealing to peoples conscience can be quite effective. A few software authors have ‘crack catcher pages’ for the search engines that say things like “I work 60hrs per day on my software, please support me if you want me to continue adding features” etc. Its also worth pointing out that there are plenty of con-merchants and dodgy sites out there selling cracks that often do contain trojans/viruses. One could also appeal to the fact that ‘time is money’ for a lot of potential software buyers, so why invest several hours of their life looking for a crack if it’s more cost effective to buy?

Can you recommend any online resources for authors wanting to know how they can protect their software better?

There are several books and web resources on anti-debugging & protection advice, Google will find them ;-). There are also several mainstream books, Pavol Cerven’s springs to mind.

An interview with Terrell Miller of CattleMax

Software developers are usually so busy writing software for other techies, that they often forget there is a bigger world out there. Terrell Miller has a successful herd management software product for cattle ranchers. He generously agreed to share his experiences on what it has been like building a software business in a non-techie niche market.

Can you tell us a bit about CattleMax?

CattleMax is herd management software designed specifically for beef (meat) cattle, and helps ranchers keep track of their cattle records including births, purchases, sales, breeding history, measurements, lineage, and more. Having the records in one location enables producers to stay organized and helps them make better decisions – which in turn helps them be more efficient and profitable in their operation.

What was your background before CattleMax?

My wife Penny and I met at Texas A&M University while we were both in Undergraduate programs. My degree in Information Systems in the College of Business and family member’s involvement in cattle, along with Penny’s degree in Agricultural Leadership and years of showing cattle, proved to be a great compliment for us to start a business where we could work together.

How long have you been working on CattleMax?

I started working on the first version of CattleMax, which started out as a custom application for a local ranch, in July 1999 right after I graduated and have worked for Cattlesoft ever since. Penny worked at the local university on a full and then part time basis for 18 months before joining the business on a full-time basis.

What technologies and languages do you use to develop CattleMax?

CattleMax is developed in Microsoft Access 2007. Access has been a key ingredient to our desktop software’s success. A lot of developers don’t give Access the credit it deserves as a powerful and rapid development tool. We have done extensive customizations to our interface to differentiate from the Access default templates and many customers don’t realize we are even using Access.

If you were starting CattleMax from scratch today would you go for a web based solution? Or would you stick with a desktop solution?

That’s a hard choice to make right now in January 2011 because I think we are in a transitionary period.  Developers want to embrace the latest technology because it’s clearly the future. However, you don’t want to create a product that cannot be utilized by all of your customers (Internet in rural areas can still be spotty).  Though we are in the process of developing a web-based version of our CattleMax, I expect the desktop version to continue selling well for years to come.
While a desktop software offers a larger revenue up front to cover customer acquisition costs, a web app can potentially offer more revenue in the long run assuming you have good customer retention.  I think it’s easier to get started with a desktop app because you can use the up-front revenue to reinvest in marketing.
Why did you choose this market? How confident were you that it was a commercially viable market?

You could say the market chose us. Initially, we wanted to create a side project that involved both of our interests. Being students at Texas A&M helped open doors to talk with professors and experts about our product and ideas. Through these talks, we were introduced to a nearby ranch who needed an easy-to-use cattle record keeping system. They became our first customer and continue to use our software today.

How long did it take you you to get CattleMax to v1.0?

It took about 9 months to get CattleMax marketable and stable. Our first public release date was at a local trade show where we received great response. Being a student, we didn’t really have any income to replace – it was the ideal time for us to have started Cattlesoft and the software. We had little to lose and the rest of our life to recover from any business or financial mistakes made.

How technically proficient are your customers? Can you reach them with online marketing?

Our average customer is in the 45 – 65 age range. Over the years, cattle ranchers have become much more knowledgeable with technology. Our marketing is primarily online (PPC, SEO, direct website advertising) along with some print advertising.

The CattleMax user interface looks very slick and intuitive. Do you do any usability testing? Did you find the switch to a ribbon bar difficult for you or your customers?

In the beginning, I would go to a customer’s ranch and watch them use the software. By listening and watching how they interacted with the software, I was able to identify areas of confusion and see ways that we could make processes and areas easier to work with.

The ribbon was mandatory when we switched to Access 2007. While I was initially apprehensive about the change, I now see that the ribbon has made CattleMax easier to use, since it allows priority of certain menu items/common areas by giving them larger icons and visibility.

I see you have a Facebook widget on your home page. Have you found Facebook to be a useful marketing tool?

We use Facebook to post upcoming events, interesting articles and ask our customers for their feedback, plus it’s another way for customers to ask us questions. While advertising on Facebook allows for laser targeting based on interests, our in-house email list is larger than the number of ranchers on Facebook according to their PPC platform. Therefore most of our communications efforts are through our email newsletter and Cattle Management blog.

How did you choose the price of the product?

In the beginning, we chose prices that were comparable to other cattle software programs. We have two editions of our software, one for the commercial/beef producer and another for the purebred/seedstock producer. Each of these editions is available in a Small Herd (50 cow limit) and Standard (no record limit). We chose two editions so that it would be easy for a rancher to confidently choose the edition right for their herd. The two herd size options are so we can offer a solution to small herd producers while providing additional value for larger herds that may require additional support. See Camels and Rubber Duckies.

You have a generous 60-day money back guarantee. Do you have to give many refunds?

We may have one customer, at most, per year return the software because of dissatisfaction. We may have 5 returns a year from people who bought without downloading our trial and wanted a refund – a few of those reasons are receiving it as a gift and not wanting it, software not working on their computer (Windows 95 anyone?), or lacking a key feature. I highly recommend a satisfaction guarantee as it does help customers buy with confidence, knowing that you will stand by your product. No software company wants a dissatisfied customer who feels you “took their money.”

Do you charge for upgrades? Is this a significant source of income?

Our upgrades have been on about a 2-3 year schedule, and current customers can purchase them at half the price of the full version. While upgrade purchases are a double-digit percent of our business, we focus more on new sales. One of the challenges of making a good product is it takes an even better product for customers to understand the value in upgrading.

Do you outsource much work?

We work frequently with independent contractors and freelancers. While we’ve had 6 or more full and part-time employees over the years, I find employee management and “keeping people busy” to be too distracting from working on the big picture. Having people working from their own locations gives us more flexibility, plus we are not limited to just our physical location/city for finding experienced workers.

Do you have any products besides CattleMax?

We adapted CattleMax into LonghornMax, a software for Texas Longhorn cattle that enables breeders to record horn measurements in addition. LonghornMax primarily arose from our connections with the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association where we were previously their official software program. We also raise Texas Longhorn cattle on our ranch near College Station, which is about 90 miles west of Houston. Another spinoff is EquineMax, a software program for horse owners to keep track of their horse records.

Stepping beyond software in 2010, we launched which is a website for purchasing cattle ear tags. In 2011 we launched which includes additional equipment and supplies for the ranch. Selling livestock supplies has proven to be a nice complement to our software as it helps us offer additional services and value to customers by offering them convenience and variety of selections, without them even needing to leave the ranch!

Would you recommend others to start a business straight out of college? Or should they work for other people first to gain experience?

The younger you are and the less commitments you have, the easier it is to get started, because your opportunity cost on your time is lower than it will ever be.  Also if your business fails, you have the rest of your life to recover.  I think entrepreneurs can have the best of both: starting their own business while gaining experience.  I’ve learned a lot through in-person networking as well as online communities like Business of Software, Hacker News, SEOBook.

Given that you started the business straight out of college, how did you learn all the business and marketing skills you needed? Did you make a lot of mistakes?

I learned much of my business & marketing skills through three sources: formal academic learning, informal discussions with other entrepreneurs and mentors, and of course personal experience.  Several years out of college, I realized that my business skills and not technology skills were holding me back, so I decided to return to school and pursue my Masters of Business Administration (MBA).
As far as mistakes, I asked one of my mentors about his biggest mistake and he replied “I’ve not made any mistakes, but I’ve bought a lot of expensive learning lessons”.  Many of my learning lessons have been as a result of losing focus and could have been avoided by asking myself “is this the highest priority and best use of my time?”.

Any advice you would like to give to aspiring software entrepreneurs?

I’ve visited with many software entrepreneurs over the years and frequently find an imbalance of priorities.  As programmers we tend to gravitate towards technology and automation.  However, once you’ve built a great product, often times the best return on your time and money is in marketing (blogs, PPC, SEO, print advertising, talking with customers).
Another bit of advice would be to embrace the lifestyle aspect of your business.  Owning your own business helps you be in control of when you work, where you work, how you work, and what you work on.  I consider it a good day when I can wake up in my house, walk down the hall to my office, work for a while, and then spend time outside on our ranch with my family.

Terrell and “Dude”, an 80 inch (200cm) tip-to-tip 2,000 pound (900kg) Texas Longhorn steer.

Donationware – An interview with Hillel Stoler of GetSocial

This blog is hosted on This has its advantages, but it means that I can’t use the huge range of add-ins that are available to those that host their own WordPress server. In my attempts to find a simple way to add social bookmarking to WordPress posts I stumbled across GetSocial, a Windows desktop program that generates the social bookmarking icons you see at the bottom of my recent posts. GetSocial is donationware – the author requests a small donation if you find the software useful. But the software is not crippled or time limited in any way and the donation is optional. I found the software useful so I made a small donation.

I use a number of donationware products. Human nature being what it is, I rarely get round to making donations – despite the best of intentions. It just never quite makes it to the top of my ever expanding TODO list. I have also heard various tales about how dismal the donation rates are. So I was curious about how well the donationware model works in this particular case. I emailed the author of GetSocial, Hillel Stoler, and he was kind enough to do this interview.

What was the motivation behind GetSocial?

GetSocial is not a business – it’s my contribution to the community. I needed a way to generate social bookmarking buttons for my own blog, and when I saw none was available I made GetSocial. I decided to request donations because I too was curious about the feasibility of donationware, and wanted to investigate the subject. I hate spammy “business models” such as installing Toolbars, embedding ads and so forth and wanted to make software that I would like to use.

Does anyone actually make a donation?

Surprisingly, yes. Many people donate, and I think all of them are glad to do so.

What is the average donation?

At the beginning I was only asking for a fixed amount (5 USD). The reason for this was that a fixed donation simplifies the donation process (because the potential benefactor needs to make one less decision). I’ve selected 5 USD because it was the lowest sum of money for which the PayPal commissions amounted to less than 10% of the donation.

Recently I’ve enabled donations in different currencies and variable amounts (but only on my websites, donations made from inside the application are still fixed). I’ve seen some decline in the ratio of donations per download (although it could be explained by many factors, and cannot be directly attributed to the added complexity of the process without applying proper A/B testing methods). However, the average donation has increased to 9.19 USD, and I’ve also received donations of over 20 USD. This is interesting because 19.99 USD is enough to purchase many commercial software products. To date, no one has donated less than 5 USD.

What is the donation/download ratio?

First of all, please consider that GetSocial is upgraded frequently, and I cannot differentiate between a new download and an upgrade download. Also, I can only count downloads which originated from my own websites. That said, dividing the number of the donations by the total number of documented downloads yields a donate/download ratio of about 0.55 percent (e.g. a single donation is received on average about every 182 downloads).

Can you make any money out of donationware?

I do make some money out of GetSocial, but I’m far from making a living out of it. With the current donation/download ratio, GetSocial will only begin to become economically interesting when it hits the 500k download mark. It’s not impossible market-size wise (there are about 10 million bloggers in but it’s not easy.

The amount of money one can make with donationware is directly proportional to the number of people involved. For example, in the case of GetSocial, take a million downloads, divide by 182 and multiply by 5 dollars and you have 27k USD (before PayPal commissions). This amount of money can cover the development costs for many small software products.

That said, a million is a big number, even for free software. If you’re thinking about making real money out of a donation based product, I would recommend that you research the size of your market carefully. Getting those million downloads is not an easy task.

I personally don’t think that money is the sole motivation for doing things though. When discussing profits, we should also take into account the indirect benefits I receive from GetSocial such as incoming links, a user base, visits to my website, comments, world fame (or at least some publicity), and even fan mail!

And hey, the donationware model works for Wikipedia, doesn’t it?

Why did you choose a donation model instead of selling licences?

The reason I made GetSocial was that when I started (on a platform), I wanted to add social bookmarking buttons for my visitors. When I realized no one was doing that (there was an old text file floating around for manual use) I decided to make GetSocial. I wanted to attract visitors to my new blog, and I knew that distributing a hyped piece of free software would help me build credibility and acquire an international audience. It did.

Why did you choose donationware over freeware?

Out of curiosity, I guess. I wanted to know if one could make any money this way, and if people actually pay when they don’t have to (especially in cases where no one is looking). Today I can clearly say that I was pleasantly surprised. I think that Donationware is a beautiful (and very user-friendly) concept, and I’m glad it’s not just another web myth. Besides, I knew that people needed GetSocial, but to be honest I didn’t really think that anyone would actually pay for such a service at the time. In the end, I think that my potential buyers are also the ones who made the effort and donated, even though they didn’t have to. I’ve actually received some donations larger than what I could possibly charge if GetSocial was a commercial product!

Another important factor in my decision was the fact that I could do it rather easily. Recall the old days, when Donationware DOS programs asked you to kindly snail-mail some cash to a P.O box? That’s the kind of thing I would never bother with, especially when we’re talking about an international market.

Do you think you have made more money through donations than you would have through selling licences?

Absolutely! When I’ve received my first donation I was surprised (so people do donate after all), and as donations kept pouring in I realized that there is a donation culture. Selling licenses also meant becoming a part-time police officer, and that’s not what I was after.

What really amazed me, is that even in this very specific niche of social bookmarking for blogs (where I offer an industry grade solution for free) competition still sprung!

How did you promote GetSocial?

I didn’t. I’ve posted about it on the forums several times, and wrote about it on my website, Other people wrote about it too. No paid ads or anything like that. You’ll notice that I didn’t even include a link on the toolbar itself (the viral ‘Get one!’ link you see everywhere else) because it was important to me not to impose.

You now have a web version of GetSocial. How long did that take to create compared to the desktop version? How do the desktop and web version compare in terms of the amount of use and the amount of donations?

GetSocial Live (the on-line version) started as a weekend project actually. GetSocial is a Windows application, and many people wanted a Mac version. Since I don’t even own a Mac, I decided to make a cross-platform web service (currently, about 40% of GetSocial Live visitors are indeed Mac users). It was easy to make, because I copied some of the code directly from GetSocial. The images are all photos I took of the plants in my house. In the end it did mean additional costs (hosting, domain, etc), but originally it was hosted for free on (the late) Google Pages service.

Later on, I discovered that the on-line version made GetSocial much more flexible and dynamic. I can now post updates much more quickly and effectively. The web version is also much easier to upgrade and maintain because it lacks some of the internal complexity of the GetSocial application (things like self encryption).

Do you get any useful revenue from the Google ads on ?

As in the case of the donations, I was curious about AdSense. I know for a fact that I never click sponsored links myself, but I guess some other people do because Google makes a living out of it. I didn’t bother with A/B testing and other cash boosters, I just added a single ribbon of ads.

So far revenue has been disappointing (this is also the place to mention that the process of getting my AdSense account approved was very annoying and arbitrary, with zero support). There were some cases where I got more than 1 dollar per click, but I currently get more money through donations than through AdSense. Interestingly, the ratio of ad clicks per page view is similar to (though a bit lower than) the ratio of donations per download.

You can find out more about GetSocial here and GetSocialLive here. Hillel’s blog is here.

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Interview for Shareware Radio

Mike Dulin has just uploaded an MP3 of an interview we did at SIC 2009 for In the 15 minutes we discuss marketing, how I got started with PerfectTablePlan, ads, the wedding industry, newsletters, the ASP, this blog and more. There are some problems with the recording levels, but hopefully that doesn’t detract too much.

Interviewed on the Startup Success Podcast

startup-success-podcastI was recently interviewed by Bob Walsh and Patrick Foley for The Startup Success Podcast, episode 25. We cover a wide ange of topics including: microISVs, conversion ratios, being specific, PerfectTablePlan, usability, the global recession, software award scams, ‘works with vista’ certification, and twitter. I wonder how much I have to pay them to edit out the ‘ums’?

Download the MP3

Interview with Craig Peterson of Beyond Compare


I am a fan of file and folder comparison utility Beyond Compare from Scooter Software. It is a very polished and powerful piece of software with a big following. But I was intrigued by some of the unusual decisions they had taken: competing in a market with lots of free alternatives; going 6 years between major upgrades; re-writing from scratch; releasing a Linux version; and having an extremely generous trial policy. How had they succeeded despite ignoring much of the conventional wisdom? Craig Peterson of Scooter Software kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Can you tell me a bit about your background before working on Beyond Compare.
I started at Scooter Software straight out of college.  I did a lot of programming for fun before then, but this was my first professional job and my first introduction to Delphi.

How long have you been working on Beyond Compare and what is your role?
I’m the lead developer and I started here in late 2000, a few months before significant development on v2 started.  Most of my time is spent working on the directory comparison and the virtual filesystem layer (ftp, zips, version control), but there are very few places in the program that I haven’t worked on.  My non-development tasks include managing the build process, interfacing with our component vendors, keeping track of any interns, and tech support, when there’s difficult questions or when the dedicated staff don’t have time.

How many other people work on Beyond Compare on the business side and on the development side?
There’s one other full-time developer, one part time developer, two in tech support, two in sales, and our president, who handles everything else.

There are lots of different file comparison tools. How do you manage to run a successful business with so many competitors, many of them free?
Competing with the free tools hasn’t been as hard as I expected.  The big advantage we have here is that people are paying us for the software, so we have strong incentive to provide good tech support and to provide the features they want.  We work 8 hours a day on it, which gives us more time to develop new features than someone doing it as a hobby, and we can afford commercial libraries that someone providing a free utility can’t.

As for the commercial competitors, it’s mostly a matter of providing something that they don’t.  In our case BC’s directory comparison is much more powerful than the alternatives, and we have viewers for other file types like images, binary files, and data files.  That allowed us to keep competing even when we were lagging in other areas.

What are the main methods you use to promote Beyond Compare?
We rely almost entirely on word of mouth.  We’ve had lots of customers tell us that they brought BC with them when they switched jobs and ended up getting their companies to spring for larger licenses.  We do spend some money on Google AdWords, and we hired a company to periodically submit our site to search engines and download sites, but we’ve never run a print or banner ad. has an enviable Google page rank of 6 and ranks second for “file comparison software”. Have you spent a lot of effort on SEO?
We had a company help with SEO for a lot of the 2.x lifetime, and they’d suggest tweaks to improve things.  For v3 we took a different approach and redesigned the site to make it more accessible to potential customers.  I’m sure some of those changes helped, since we ended up adding more descriptions and using more synonyms, but it was primarily a case of asking how we could make it easier to find the information someone would want and expanding on that.  We still have a fairly wordy page title though, and I think that’s entirely for the search engines’ benefit.

Are most of your customers programmers, or does the software appeal to a wider audience?
I’d say more than 50% are programmers, but there’s definitely a wider audience.  System administrators use it for migrating servers, web developers use it instead of a traditional FTP client, and non-techs use it for backups or synching their laptops and desktops.

How long do you allow people to use the trial version?
The trial is for 30 days, but it only counts days you actually run it, so if you use it infrequently you could easily go six months or more before it times out.

I used Beyond Compare for ages before I bought a licence. I would have bought it sooner if you had been less generous with the trial. Why did you go for such a long trial period?
That goes back to competing with all the other products out there.  If someone installs two programs to evaluate, and then doesn’t have a chance to really try them out until a month later, the one that works is more likely to get the sale.  It also makes it more likely that potential customers will learn the application and start relying on it, so when it does come time to pay they’re less likely to throw out that investment and switch to another tool.

I understand Beyond Compare v3 is a complete re-write. Why did you feel a complete re-write was necessary? Was it a good business decision in hindsight?
There were two reasons why we felt a re-write was justified: (1) we had a lot of features we wanted to implement that wouldn’t work in the current framework, and (2) we over-estimated the speed that we could re-write it.

In the text compare we wanted inline editing with dynamic re-comparisons and 3-way merge, neither of which would have been easy to integrate into the v2 codebase.  The directory compare had similarly major changes, though a lot of that is internal and in preparation for other features, so it isn’t as visible.  There was also all the work we did to get a Linux release out.  It wasn’t a complete re-write though.  Anything that didn’t need significant changes, like our reporting engine, was brought over mostly as is.

I think it was a good business decision in that it allowed us to rethink and rework a lot of things without the old baggage, but it was bad in that it significantly limited what we could release in the meantime.  We ended up going 6 years between major versions and even though we were always busy adding new features, we couldn’t release them until we got back to feature parity with v2.

Beyond Compare is written is Delphi. What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of Delphi compared to other development ‘stacks’?
I think Delphi is still the best tool for developing a native Windows application quickly.  It’s very easy to mock up interfaces and then fill them in with code.  The resulting exes don’t have any external dependencies, which makes redistributing them easy.  The VCL (UI framework) ships with source code,  and that has permeated the community, so the vast majority of third-party components also include source.

On the flip side, it still can’t produce 64-bit executables and isn’t cross platform.  It doesn’t have a garbage collector or as large of a class library as Java or C#.  The community isn’t as large either, so there’s usually only a couple of choices when you’re looking for specific components, and if that vendor stops developing it, there aren’t as many people to pick up the slack.

If you had to do it all again, starting now, would you still choose Delphi?
Probably, but I would seriously consider C# or Qt.  In our case we have a lot of experience with Delphi and we know the libraries, so starting from scratch in another language would be a significant barrier.

Beyond Compare has a very slick user interface. Did you do any usability testing?
Not as such.  Our primary usability improvements come from using our own product.  We use BC every day, for every comparison we do, so anything that sticks out tends to get squashed quickly.  We also get alpha/beta versions into customers’ hands as soon as possible, and keep iterating until they’re happy.  V2 and v3 both had private beta tests that lasted over a year and a half, and some of the features changed dramatically in response to that feedback.

Beyond Compare has a nice integration with Windows Explorer. Was that difficult to do? Were you able to do it in Delphi?
The first version of it was submitted by a user, so it wasn’t difficult at all.  It has taken a lot of refinement to get perfect though, and we were changing it all the way through to the final 3.0 release.  It is written in Delphi, though I did rewrite it in C++ in order to get a 64-bit version working.  FreePascal has since started producing 64-bit binaries, so we’re back to the single Delphi version again.

You have Windows and Linux versions. What did you use to write the Linux version?
We’re using a heavily customized version of Borland’s now-dead Kylix product, which was Delphi for Linux.  It does allow us to compile both versions from the same source code, but it’s showing its age and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.  Our driving goal is to have the best Windows version we can, which means sticking with Delphi and using what’s available to produce the Linux version.  If OS X and Linux support outweighed that we would use a cross-platform option like Qt or Java, but we believe the Windows version would suffer in that case.

Do you sell many licences for Linux?
We sell enough to fund its development, so it’s a successful product.  It does introduce new challenges though, both in development and tech support, so if we were a smaller developer it probably wouldn’t be worth the overhead.

Do you think there will there ever be a web version of Beyond Compare?
I can see it as a possibility, and it would be interesting to explore, but it’s not something we’re looking into right now.  I think it would have a different audience than the current product, and would probably never be as powerful as what we can do locally.

How did you choose the price?
Our $30 standard edition is about the same price as our commercial competitors, and seems to be the standard shareware utility price.  The pro edition was priced based on our competitors, what our customers were telling us they’d pay, and what we felt the downward pressure of the freeware/opensource alternatives introduced.  We keep the price low in order to make our profits on larger quantities sold, instead of a larger margin per-unit.  We have increased our multi-user pricing considerably over the years though;  the discounts were very steep in v1 and v2, and the feedback we got was that it was just too cheap for what it provided.

I see some translator credits on the website. Is v3 available in languages other than English?
Not officially, but we have just released beta versions of a couple of languages.  The current credits are for the v2 translators, who are generally the same people working on v3 translations.

How important are resellers to your sales?
We get a lot of sales through resellers, but it’s generally from people who would buy it either way. Foreign resellers are a help to the customers though, because they allow them to order in their own language using the local currency.

Does Scooter Software have any other products besides Beyond Compare?
No, BC keeps us plenty busy.

Thank you Craig.

You can download a free trial of Beyond Compare from the Scooter Software website. I have no affiliation with Scooter Software beyond being a paying customer.

Interview with Mike Dulin

Mike DulinMike Dulin is well known amongst microISVs and shareware authors. He runs the Internet’s oldest software review site and attends many events, such as SIC, ISDEF and ESWC, to interview  industry figures for his podcast. I have turned the tables  and asked him to be the interviewee for once.

What is your background? When and how did you first get involved with the software business?

I got my first PC, a laptop with the check I got from the IRS (the US tax people) in 1994 or 95. They had come after me for back taxes.  After over a year of back and forth, we settled and they sent me money.

After I got my laptop I was left scratching my head while trying to figure out what to do with the $2,500 item. It was at this time that I discovered the Internet and the concept of Shareware.

Discovering the Internet was one thing – getting on it was another. I was at that time living half the year in Guatemala where I didn’t have a telephone – or the possibility of getting one in the near future.  So I made a deal with the next door neighbor who had a phone and we ran wires from his house to mine.

At this time Shareware was being uploaded to ftp sites – plus I was getting monthly disks of software sent to me. I saw the need for some place on the Internet for independent reviews of software.  So I started in late 1995 and early 1996.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the industry in that time?

The biggest one of course is the amount of software being developed.  This worked in conjunction with the Big Three:

1. More computers
2. Faster Internet
3. Cheap storage

Have you been involved in the programming side of the business?

I was slightly  involved in programming in 1962 while serving as a Radarman in the U.S. Navy on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.  We had the first computerized radar system in the Navy.

Do you think it easier for small software companies to make a living  now than it was when you first started?

Hard to say. Today the barriers to entry are much cheaper than they used to. However the competition is stiffer.

I understand you live between the US, Finland and Guatemala. Can you tell us a bit about your roving lifestyle?

I medically retired from being a air traffic controller at Chicago Enroute Air Traffic Control Center 1975 at age 32. Not too long after that I decided to hit the road in my 1959 VW Convertible. In August 1976 I ended up in Guatemala. Late that year I had to get out of Dodge with my new girl friend, She and I traveled around the world for 2 years and decided we wanted to settle down somewhere and we ended up back in Guatemala. And almost immediately broke up. I stayed.

I met my Finnish wife Aira in a restaurant in our village (Panajachel) in 1987. Our son Pat was born there in 1992.  The next year we bought another home in Finland. Aira and I traveled around Europe for months before Pat came along, since Pat’s birth, besides moving back and forth between Finland and Guatemala, we all have traveled extensively around the USA.

Two years ago I bought a houseboat on eBay that was in Minnesota. That summer my son and I traveled on the Mississippi River. Last year we put the boat on a lake in Wisconsin, my home State,

Can you get a reliable Internet connection in Guatemala?

Yes. In our village of about 10,000 there is Cable Internet, ADSL and my wife is there now using a new system that uses a plug in wireless card that covers most of the country.

You are currently President of the Association of Shareware Professionals. Can you tell us a bit about the ASP?

The ASP was founded in 1987 by the pioneers in our industry.  Since then it has grown to over 1,000 members from all over the world. It is the one place where developers and vendors new to the business can get help they need to make their businesses a success. This is mostly done by use of our private forums and the information gained by reading our monthly magazine ASPects. All for $100 a year, now there is a bargain!

How long have you been involved with the ASP? How has the ASP evolved in that time?

I joined the ASP in 1997. One of the big changes has been the involvement of more members worldwide. At first what was mostly an organization of people from North America has grown into a world wide group.  It has been interesting to see as the industry developed first from North America, like I said, the majority of members were from there, then when European developers and vendors got into the business our membership expanded to them. Then the Russian and old Soviet countries came on board and we got members from there.  Now we are getting Chinese members. So we have a very diverse group now.

Another thing that has happened is that some of our members have grown into mainstream businesses and also mainstream companies have joined the ASP. For example, WinZip has grown into the mainstream and Microsoft is one of our members.

The ASP pioneered the PAD format used by most download sites. Do you think PAD has been a blessing  or a curse?

Both. I have a constant running internal battle trying to get my head around it. While it has made it easier for developers to submit their software to many sites, Google has made this a case of good news, bad news. Google has made it possible for this myriad of sites to exist because of the advertising money they can get from Google – though this has diminished over the years with the increase of many more essentially link farms.

Managing programmers has been likened to herding cats. How do you get  anything done in an organization of busy, self-employed entrepreneurs?

Sometimes it can be difficult because of the differing viewpoints of people. But in the end we all are trying to work for the better of the organization.

A major role of the ASP has been to promote the try-before-you-buy model of marketing software. Do you think that battle has been won now?

Yes, of course, since almost every company now offers it.

The word ‘shareware’ is synonymous with ‘amatuerish’ to many professional developers. Do you see this as a problem for the ASP?

We are constantly fighting that fight.  It is the reason that most members won’t list that they are members on their site. Of course you can look at it another way, what difference would it make to the recruiting part of the ASP if members put up links to the ASP on their sites?  Maybe not much at all since most prospective members aren’t going to developers sites to find out what professional organization to join are they?

What benefits does the ASP offer to microISVs/Indie  developers/shareware authors today?

Big ones! Our members have the knowledge of what it takes to make it in this business and they are willing to share it and help out fellow members.

The other big benefit that most people don’t think about until after they join is the ASP’s member community. These are people who think like you, understand you and want to help you.  And not just with computer stuff…

Most of the ASP members are selling desktop software for Windows. Do  you think that it has much to offer for web, Mac and iPhone developers?

Like everyone else who stays abreast of current trends more and more of our members are looking at other ways of making a buck. This includes Mac, Web and iPhone development.

What is the next step if someone wants to join the ASP or ask a question about  joining?

Go to or email me at:

president { at }

Thanks Mike.