An excellent article by Eric Sink is out: The Tenets of Transparency. Thomas Warfield also has some good comments. If you’re a developer doing (or considering doing) shareware, you should read it.
I observe that buying software is closer to the “high trust” end of the spectrum. When people buy software from your ISV [Independent Software Vendor], they are expecting a lot from you, both now and in the future:
- They trust that your product will work on their machines.
- They trust that you will help them if they have problems.
- They trust that you will continue to improve the product.
- They trust that you will provide them with a reasonable and fairly priced way of getting those improved versions.
- They trust that you are not going out of business anytime soon.
Transparency is an ISV’s way of trusting your customers. By letting your customers see behind the corporate veil, you extend them your trust, making it easier for them to trust you in return.
He then goes on to list 8 ways of implementing transparency:
- Have a weblog.
- Offer web-based discussion forums.
- Don’t hide your product’s problems.
- Don’t annoy honest people.
- Offer a painless demo download.
- Offer a money-back guarantee.
- Share a little about your financial standing.
- Talk about your future plans.
I hope most of those sound familiar… . You’re reading the weblog now (#1), and there are discussion forums (#2) for each major product. Not that people take as much advantage of that as I hoped, but support over e-mail or AIM is often faster.
Don’t hide your product’s problems (#3): Eric takes this to refer to bug fixes and updates:
…But not only do users want you to keep improving your product, they usually care about specifically how the product grows and matures. They want to be reassured that your product will be growing deeper, not just wider. I define these terms like this:
- A product gets “wider” when it appeals to new users.
- A product gets “deeper” when it works better for the users it already has.
My bug fix and update policy is relatively simple. My freeware stuff is nearly all written for my own use too, so I try to keep it running on current releases, and try to keep it reasonably bug-free and functional. Beyond that, I’m open to suggestions for fixing stuff or adding functionality, but I can’t promise any huge efforts. So far, it looks like all my freeware will continue to work in the upcoming Tiger (10.4) release.
Regarding my shareware, which at present consists only of XRay, I of course try a little harder than that. If a paying customer complains of a specific bug I always try to fix it; if several customer declare they can’t live without a certain feature, I’ll implement it or (sometimes) convince them it’s not such a good idea. The latest release (1.1) is getting a little long in the tooth; a few minor bugs have surfaced, but on the other hand recent Finder versions have progressed to incorporate most of the functionality I originally wrote XRay 1.0 for, way back in the 10.1.x days; so fixing those isn’t on my high priority list anymore, unless more people suddenly start complaining.
Still, as I’ve mentioned before here, I’m working steadily on making XRay both wider and deeper, by recoding it from the ground up and calling it XRay 2.0. And at no charge to current users. However, I’ll be taking away some features that duplicate, by now needlessly, modern Finder capabilities.
Don’t annoy honest people (#4): I think I’m doing well on this. In fact, some users wrote in complaining that they couldn’t find any way to download the “real” XRay, without noticing that the serial number gets entered for them when they buy online… I suppose Eric also means this in the sense of not having any complex copy-protection or product activation. Rest assured I’ll never do any product activation on XRay, although this would of course be a defense against the bogus serial numbers and hacked binaries that are floating around.
Painless demo download (#5) is of course a given with shareware; just entering a valid serial number will convert the demo to the registered version. Eric says:
Nonetheless, although there should be no question about “if” you have a demo download, there are good questions to be asked about “how” you manage it. The high-trust path looks like this:
- Use time-limited demos, not feature-limited. (People who use “crippleware” as their demo are not willing to trust me, so I don’t trust them.)
- Don’t make people agree not to talk about your product. (People who try to prevent me from talking are trying to hide something, and are not to be trusted.)
OK, XRay is 15-day feature limited, and even after that it still has nearly all features; you just have to rerun it more often. I’m very puzzled at the last point… I want people to talk about my product, I can’t imagine someone requiring silence!
I’ve read conflicting views on money-back guarantees (#6); some developers don’t offer them, some tell horror tales about customers demanding refunds en masse. In practice, for me there has been only a single case of having to refund a customer’s money, and that was because he had paid twice because of a network glitch…
Share a little about your financial standing (#7):
When I buy software from a small ISV, I usually wish I could know all kinds of things about the company’s financials:
- Is the company profitable?
- How much cash does it have? How much debt?
- What kind of corporation is it? Who are the owners?
- Do they have outside investors?
- Is the founder still involved? Does she still have a decent equity stake?
I’ve never touched on this issue before, and I don’t release sales figures for a variety of reasons. However, I can say that sales have been more than I expected, that they’re not high enough to make a living from (although I probably could do so if I were able to work fulltime at shareware), and that I and my wife have independent income. We have no debt and never had; not even a mortgage. It’s not even a corporation; just myself… so, rest assured my software won’t go away because of financial issues.
Talk about your future plans (#8 ): I often do, right here… so stay tuned!