Learning From Shareware

I don’t remember the program, or the programmer, but I remember the interview.

My subject had made $4 million selling shareware on the Web, and I asked him his secret. He said the basic version of his program included ads on every screen, and since it worked through the Web he could target and update those ads regularly. Once someone paid him for the software, the ads came off.

America Online’s Netscape unit and Microsoft have taken this lesson to heart. The newest versions of both their browsers — Communicator 4.51 and Explorer 5.0 — have a new “default” e-mail message that comes up when you start the programs. The notes are filled with ads and links back to the companies’ Web sites.

Netscape has taken this some steps further, regularly prompting users to join its “Instant Messenger” service when it starts the program and redefining “home” as the page you reach when you click the “home” icon — this lets it occasionally default to another Netcenter page.

Sure, some users are going to get angry. The only real options most of us have for browsing are Netscape and Microsoft. But the fact is both are free downloads. They’re freeware. And there’s really no such thing as a free lunch — or free software. There’s software you buy and software advertisers buy for you. I’ll predict further there will eventually be software whose makers collect from both sides.

Few people will object to this too loudly once they understand it, and you can take this lesson to heart. If you’re giving something away — anything away — you can assume a right to add ads to it. Do you have any objections to this?

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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