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June 8, 1997

Honor system means authors
of 'shareware' won't get rich

By Timothy C. Barmann

Give it away and hope they'll pay.

So goes the motto of the computer shareware industry, which is bringing its annual convention to Rhode Island later this month.

Programmers and software publishers will be coming from around the country and the world to discuss how to develop and market computer programs known as shareware. (Details are in the computer calendar section below.)

Shareware is similar to conventional computer software, except that it is usually distributed for free under a try-before-you-buy system. Thousands of shareware programs are available through the Internet, local bulletin board systems and on-line services.

The programs often do many of the same things as commercially sold software, but for a fraction of the cost. Users are expected to pay a shareware author only if they plan to use the program after a certain trial period -- usually about a month.

There are no "shareware police" that will come and raid your house to see if you are using these programs beyond the trial period. Shareware authors have to, for the most part, rely on people's honesty to pay up.

If you think that seems somewhat nave, consider that a number of companies have been built on that honor system.

Among them is Rhode Island Soft Systems (http://www.risoftsystems.com), based in Woonsocket. RISS made a name for itself by developing creative and entertaining screen savers designed to protect computer monitors that were on all day from being "burned in." Most screens are no longer susceptible to that problem, but RISS has found a market for their products among companies who want their corporate logos used as screen savers.

The company's "Hey Macaroni!" screen saver is among the five most popular programs downloaded from the Ziff Davis shareware library.

Do people really send off checks to shareware authors?

"Certainly," said Eric Robichaud, Rhode Island Soft Systems founder and chief executive.

Robichaud, who organized this year's shareware convention, said he started Soft Systems with $100 nine years ago and the company has grown with the help of registration checks that continue to land in his mailbox. Today, the company has eight employees and did $400,000 in sales last year. Fifteen percent of its revenues were from shareware registrations, Robichaud said, but all of its sales were generated by its shareware products.

But if you are thinking shareware will make you rich, think again. Consider that only a fraction of people will pay. I know that from personal experience.

Programming is a hobby for me and over the past seven years, I have written a handful of shareware programs. Every now and then I will get a check in the mail for $10 from some honest soul who downloaded one of my programs from the Internet.

But one program I wrote about a year ago, which creates Web page calendars, didn't bring in any registrations, even though lots of people had downloaded it.

Usually there is no way to tell whether someone is using your program. But the program I wrote leaves some telltale signs. Since my calendar program creates Web pages, they would be cataloged by the Internet search engines if anyone posted them.

I did a little detective work by going to one of the popular Web index search sites and looked for key words I knew appeared in the calendars.

I hit pay dirt, so to speak.

There were half-dozen sites using the Web calendars, including an investment research company in Chicago, a bed-and-breakfast out West, a rock group in Pennsylvania, a scientific products company in Cincinnati and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. None had bothered to send in the $10 registration fee.

I dashed off polite E-mail messages to all of them, but only one -- the EPA -- sent a check.

Robichaud says shareware authors just can't worry about those who don't register their programs. He advises authors to try to get their programs in as many hands as possible. If your products are good, sooner or later you'll get some registrations. His success is certainly evidence of that.

But I just can't forget about those lost $10 bills. I learned that the rock group using my calendar program is going to be playing in Boston later this week. The event is listed on my calendar on their Web site. Maybe I'll go hear them play and see if I can get them to pay up.

I hope they don't have a cover charge.

Shareware sites

Computer calendar

June 26-29 -- Seventh Annual Shareware Industry Conference will be held at the Inn at the Crossings, 801 Greenwich Ave., Warwick. Registration is $99. For more information, see the conference Web site at http://www.sic.org/ or contact Rhode Island Soft Systems at 767-3106.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computer and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.