Enter Stephen Becker

A few weeks ago I was surfing around the web (macslash) and stumbled across a post by AC (anonymous coward) who wondered if it was profitable to program for the Mac. My first thought was “those guys in MBU (Mac Business Unit) at Redmond probably do okay, then I realized he probably meant going the coder/producer/marketer route. I would have posted a follow up but I didn’t know the answer. This is not surprising because I don’t know the answer to most questions (“Do you think the laundry fairy comes and washes the clothes?” “Seems probable”). In this instance I wasn’t hopelessly befuddled, I had just been talking to that sort of guy and I figured he’d know the answer.

Enter Stephen Becker. Stephen knows a lot about Macs, he’s written various articles for MAcAddict, TidBITS et al and taught computers classes at the local college Stephen Becker also owns MacEase.com which produces some very nice Mac enhancements. MacEase also produces some very nice window enhancements so Steve has the all bases covered. I e-mailed Steve a few times to try to set up an interview, it turns out the interview had to be put off for a few weeks because Steve was working sixteen hours a day to get the latest version of WebPrint Plus ready. There’s one quick lesson for you: it’s not all sitting back and letting the checks roll in there’s also sixteen hours of day of hard coding.

First let’s cut to the chase, just what does it mean to be a shareware author?

“One thing probably a lot of people don’t realize is that developing software involves a lot more time and effort than just writing the code, which in and of itself is a pretty full-time job. A significant demand on my time is the need to constantly study and keep up with the changes that are taking place in both the programming languages I use and the operating system. But that’s only, unfortunately, a small part of the number of hours you have to put in because, for instance, in my case I have to create and manage my web site, I have to handle the marketing, I have to handle the registration info, I have to handle the tech support, and I’m responsible for the documentation. A couple of these things by themselves are relatively substantial, so to make a living as a shareware developer requires a lot of hours and juggling your time among all of these tasks. The bottom line is that being a serious shareware developer is a time-consuming job, so unless you really enjoy the work, it’s not something somebody would want to do for a living.”

Well, I can see why, it seems like the actual coding isn’t the main thing..

“Especially when there are so many good paying jobs for people with technical backgrounds out there. You have to really be committed to it, or just do it as a hobby and not look at it as a way to make money. But if you’re gonna charge for software, you have an obligation to support it and an obligation to do it right. And if you want to be successful at it, then you’re going to need to put time into the marketing and so on. So it’s a very time consuming job to say the least.”

Heck we’re going to have to decide just what is shareware and just what is commercialware. Heck, I bet Steve knows the answer:

“Right now there’s a narrowing of distinction between shareware and commercial software and different people have different definitions for it. Many years ago shareware normally included a free demo version while often commercial software didn’t. Early on, shareware was sometimes considered to be of a lower quality than its commercial counterpart, though it also frequently was much less expensive. In the way it was marketed, shareware was different, too, but the Internet has helped to provide shareware developers with better access to users. Also, commercial software used to usually include printed documentation and phone-in tech support while shareware did not. Now it seems almost arbitrary how people define shareware versus commercial software. Currently, commercial software usually is from a commercial corporation that’s got a fair amount of money behind itÑat least more than most shareware operations. They can afford to do advertising and to be in the retail channel, whereas often shareware is available only over the Internet and isn’t advertised. While shareware is still usually less expensive than equivalent commercial software, today many shareware programs are considered to be of equal or even higher quality than their commercial counterparts.

Now one wonders: Is going the Internet only route advantageous?

Steve sez:
“Well, it’s more a necessity. As an independent developer/shareware author I don’t have the resources for the costs that are required to do regular channel marketing. There are co-op fees which can be quite substantial, and it’s not unheard of for developers to actually make no money or even lose money when going through the channel because of the fees and the overhead costs that are involved with that.”

Holy Cats, you get a product on store shelves and you lose dough?! It’s an outrage! So the Internet provides much greater control, right Steve?

“Well there’s a control factor, but mostly it’s just a matter of pragmatism. There’s no viable alternative because of the financials involved with going into the retail channel. Shareware authors generally don’t have the resources to go into that market, which greatly limits the exposure of their products. This is exasperated by the fact that most computer magazines don’t want to commit their resources to reviewing shareware. But on the other hand the overhead is lower being a shareware author because you haven’t got the expense of: doing advertising, running a commercial office, and having to share revenue with the retail channel.”

Egads, this shareware thing is sounding pretty tough. Hey Steve can you make a living doing this?

“I’ve been fortunate in that my software has been well received and has sold quite well for shareware. Most shareware authors don’t do it for a living because they can’t make a living at it or they already have a full-time job. However, a small number of shareware products have become so widely accepted and recognized for their high quality, they’ve gotten so much exposure over the years, that they sell high enough volume that they can generate quite a bit of revenue. Two examples that come to mind are GraphicConverter and Interarchy. These are highly regarded and widely known products that have been very successful. That’s the exception, as most Mac shareware has a relatively small user base. The Mac has a small percentage of the overall market to begin with, and then cut that down because only a small subset of the Mac market is likely to ever get exposed to your shareware; well, only a very small section of the overall market may ever hear of even a very good shareware program, so most shareware programs don’t generate a large amount of money for their authors.”

Man, that’s a tough nut to crack. Shareware is tough…Steve?

“Yeah, if it’s your sole source of income. In my case I’m a consultant and a programmer, and I actually make a lot more money on an hourly basis being hired out at my hourly rate than I do writing shareware. However, I turn down many consulting opportunities because I enjoy creating shareware.”

Wow, Steve turns down the shorter hours consulting to write shareware. The programs are really good and stable, but why put so much time into developing shareware, especially at the expense of turning down lucrative consulting work?

“Well, my philosophy is that I don’t want to put something out there unless it’s really good. So I put much more time into developing and testing the software before I release it than most people can afford to or are willing to do. And that’s why, in part, the programs are as reliable as they are, but it costs me a lot more in terms of invested hours to do that.”

Steve on writing programs for the PC side:

“It’s very interesting writing for both operating systems, actually all three: the Classic Mac OS, Mac OS X, and Windows, and to see the different philosophies behind how those systems are implemented.”

Hey you use all three, what’s your preference?

“I’ve always been a Mac person first and foremost, and while I think Windows has evolved to the point where it’s got some nice user interface elements that the Mac hasn’t got, I think the Classic Mac OS is far and away preferable in terms of day in and day out use from my perspective as a programmer and also as a user. OS X has much potential, but at the moment I still prefer the Classic Mac OS as my main OS.”

I bet you have a programming philosophy, please share Steve:

“My feeling is that the OS should be designed to make life as easy as possible for users, and because users are individuals, they have their own unique approaches to what is intuitive to them. Software, including the operating system, should be designed to allow flexibility so as much as possible the computer conforms to the way a user thinks and works and not the other way around. When either a program or an operating system forces people to work in a way that isn’t natural to them it makes it more difficult for users. So when I come up with something, an idea for an application, I try to think in terms of what features are lacking in the OS that are fundamentally possible to implement and how to provide the user with easy access to those capabilities. When I developed PrintMagic, and for that matter iPrint and WebPrint Plus, the idea was to bring the potential of the operating system to users in a way that gave them flexibility in how they used these new tools so they could work in an intuitive way and be much more productive with their computers. Because of my lifelong concern for the environment, I also was very unhappy about ink and paper that’s wasted totally frivolously and unnecessarily because there was no way for users to extract only the information that they needed without also having to save or print totally irrelevant information.”

Hey, I probably deforested a chunk of America printing web pages in Netscape…

“Well, you consider the number of computers out there in the world among individual users, not to mention schools and corporations where they often have thousands of computers on a site, and the waste is just horrendous. Not only is it a waste of money on the part of the schools, corporations, and individuals, but it’s also a huge waste of natural resources. At the same time, the amount of productivity that is lost because of human working hours spent sifting through irrelevant information people are forced to save or print, and people trying to figure out why in the world they saved or printed something a week or two or a month or two months later on because they had no easy way to put relevant data and notes adjacent to their saved or printed information, and people wasting time trying to figure out which is the latest version of something they have saved or printed, well, this just seemed totally unacceptable to me. I felt that there should be a way to alleviate these problems, and that’s how I came up with my software.”

What’s cooking at MacEase?

“Unfortunately, I have more ideas for projects than I have time for. Currently, I’m in the process of bringing InfoManager over to OS X, as I promised users of the Classic Mac version I would do this, and I have a number of new projects that I hope to get started on sometime this year. I’m also almost always working on upgrading my existing programs.”

Which is harder: Coming up with ideas or writing the code?

“Ideas, actually, are pretty easy for me to come up with. Turning them into code isn’t necessarily difficult in the general sense, but dealing with the particular limitations of the operating system or various types of bugs that may be in the language I’m using or in the operating system, those often eat up a lot of time. The basic concept and the general implementation often is fairly straight forward, but refining the details is frequently where a lot of time and effort is spent. On the other hand, that’s part of the challenge, and this just sweetens the satisfaction when successfully completing a project. So, I mean like with anything there’s a trade off, and the amount of effort often has a direct relationship to the amount of reward in terms of a sense of accomplishment when you finish the program.”

So it’s not about the money, it’s about the accomplishment. How do you like being a shareware author?

I find having the opportunity to create products that can potentially make peoples’ lives more productive and easier while also benefiting the environment to be exciting and highly motivational. Also, I appreciate all of the positive user feedback I’ve gotten over the years. Apparently, users appreciate the fact that when they install my software it works for them and does what it says it will do. It makes a difference when users contact a developer to let them know they are happy with the program. A lot of time and effort does go into developing the software, and ultimately if the users weren’t satisfied, I wouldn’t be satisfied and I wouldn’t keep on doing it.

So there you have it kiddies, Mac shareware is tough. It’s not just late nights and caffeine; it’s marketing and self promotion. Sure you might hit a homerun ala White Knight or Ramdoubler but chances are slim. In short, if you’re programming in an attempt to get rich without really trying you’ll be sorely disappointed. If you’re coding because that’s what you want to do, you can count the extra dough as that rarest of all things: a paying hobby.

If you want to try out the latest version of WebPrint Plus head on over to MacEase.com. I’ve tried the new version and found it every bit as useful as it’s predecessor with some nifty new features. I don’t use WebPrint Plus to print (because I never print), yet I manage to get a lot of utility out of the program by using it to save interesting bits of info from around the Ônet. The program is particularly nice if you’re conducting research. You can use the project board to compile all you’re references into one very useful file without being forced to save any of the useless fluff.

Chris Seibold

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