I’ve tried to figure out when a portion of software and application development started to truly hate its users.
First, we need to go back in time a bit, to 1983. IBM PCs are still sparkling new. Time magazine has made the personal computer “machine of the year” because of the effect it’s having. Comparatively, not a ton of people have personal computers but those who do are doing their best to work with them, and that includes bulletin boards. On the IBM PC, there’s a limited number of telecommunications programs. One of them is PC-TALK III, by Andrew Fluegelman. This program was a lifesaver if you were looking for top-notch terminal software for your IBM PC. And it was free.
It was not just free, it had very specific, very idealistic documentation about how and where it was free. The style is preceded by Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib and other sources, but for a bunch of people using personal computers for the first time, it must have seemed pretty weird but delightful. Here’s what was in the documentation:
FREEWARE user-supported software is an experiment in distributing
computer programs, based on three principles:
First, that the value and utility of software is best assessed by
the user on his/her own system. Only after using a program can
one really determine whether it serves personal applications,
needs, and tastes.
Second, that the creation of independent personal computer
software can and should be supported by the computing community.
Finally, that copying and networking of programs should be
encouraged, rather than restricted. The ease with which software
can be distributed outside traditional commercial channels
reflects the strength, rather than the weakness, of electronic
The user-supported concept:
Anyone may request a copy of a user-supported program by sending
a blank, formatted disk to the author of the program. An
addressed, postage-paid return mailer must accompany the disk (no
A copy of the program, with documentation, will be sent by return
mail. The program carries a notice suggesting a contribution to
the program’s author. Making a contribution is completely
voluntary on the part of the user.
Regardless of whether a contribution is made, the user is
encouraged to copy and share the program with others. Payment for
use is discretionary on the part of each subsequent user.
Will the user-supported concept really work?
Up to now, distribution of software has relied either on
restricting access (and charging for the cost of doing so), or
anonymously casting programs into the public domain. The user-
supported concept is a way for the computing community to support
and encourage creative work outside the traditional marketplace.
This is an experiment in economics more than altruism. Free
distribution of software and voluntary payment for its use
eliminates the need for money to be spent on marketing,
advertising, and copy protection schemes. Users can obtain
quality software at reduced cost, while still supporting program
authors. And the most useful programs survive, based purely on
Please join the experiment.
FREEWARE is the trademark of The Headlands Press for its user-
supported software, but we invite all software authors to
participate in this distribution concept.
We would like to publish a FREEWARE CATALOG of user-supported
software by program authors who are willing to make their work
available on a free, non-restricted basis. If you would like your
program listed, please send a description of the program
(including system requirements) and the address to which requests
for copies should be sent. Fulfilling requests and suggesting
contributions are the sole responsibility of each program author.
Listings in the catalog are free.
We welcome your comments about the user-supported concept.
Thank you for your support.
Like a breath of fresh air. Just soak up that historical, open-ended, loving text.
Certainly, it’s a shame that he trademarked “Freeware” but on the other hand the ability of just any company to then call its non-free software “freeware” is avoided. This was Amazon’s claim when they started taking software patents, and is also the thinking of the trademarking of “Linux”. There was even a situation like this with MAME, the arcade emulator, where a US company trademarked “MAME” to “protect” the name.
This blemish aside, Fluegelman is a pioneer in terms of framing the debate. He indicates not only that the software should be distributed freely (with attribution), but provides a way for people lacking access to modem programs (like PC-TALK!) could send him a disk and some postage and get the program for free.
Ironically, people afraid of Fluegelman’s trademark come up with an alternate name for their own versions of this approach: they call it “Share-ware”. The idea being that you share the files around, and if you want to, you can send payment in the form of a check or some cash through to the creator.
Inevitably, this leads to the usual problem: people download, use, and don’t pay. Depending on what you write, maybe the vast, vast majority do not pay. In some cases this is because your stuff is just so popular and ubiquitous that people don’t consider it a “product”, or sometimes your program is about 3 minor steps between someone doing it themselves and downloading your code. A lot of amateur/small-range software is this way: a program that goes through and finds all the undescribed files and lets you describe them. A program that lets you concatenate two files together. And so on.
So what do you do? Well, you could quit altogether and go pay. Or, your clever programming mind thinks: How about if I release a non-functional version of the program and tell people they can’t use it completely until they pay me?
This approach got an appropriate name very quickly: Crippleware. You download a program; heck, you waste credits or assigned daily time on most BBSes downloading a program, and guess what. It’s a word processor that won’t save, a telecom program that times out, a file sorter that won’t entirely sort. Broken. But the idea is that you’re temped enough by what you see, enthralled enough by what you get, that you’ll go ahead and mail the check that day and get activated, eventually, a week or two down the road when the floppies arrive. The best part of this is how everyone pays: the user pays in long distance and time, the sysop pays in electricity and disk space, the creator pays… wait, no, the creator doesn’t pay anything. He makes bank. He also, of course, changes his relationship with the users as well. They’re no longer really people they’re sharing information with; they’re suckers, people downloading what they think is a good program, only to find out it’s 1/3rd of a possibly good program.
Some BBSes hated this, and would delete this stuff on sight, and then advertise themselves as “Crippleware Free”. Here’s an example of a programmer having to make it clear they won’t be doing this to you:
SSSPCB15.ZIP: Shuttle Software Suite v1.5 for PCBoard. Contains 5 seperate PPE applications to enhance your PCBoard BBS. The programs in the package are: Internet Site List v1.7, Time Banker v1.4, Liners v1.4, User Alias Lister v1.1, and Numbers v1.1. All of these apps are fast, good looking, feature rich, and fully functional! Not Crippleware! Quality Shareware from Shuttle Software.
The disease is there, but not quite where one would have noticed it; the world was now a place where, when you downloaded software, you weren’t guaranteed to get software at the end. Your ZMODEM might have worked, your connection might have held, you would not have run out of disk space, but at the end of your efforts you had an advertisement and some broken code. In other words, you lost, with a clear decision, the inherent trust you had previously in downloaded programs. The result was a place a little more mercenary, a connection a little more distant.
This got worse quickly. As programs became network aware, and connectivity was a given, negative innovation began to rule the day. The best example of this period I can give were programs that had buttons for “Register”, “Later”, and “Exit”. Naturally, a person would be inclined not to click on “Register” anytime soon, so you would build a habit of clicking on the “Later” button. The solution was clear: Make the program switch the “Register” and “Later” buttons randomly. In other words, the interface was now being designed to hoodwink the user. If giving you a non-functioning version of a program wasn’t heinous enough, the expectation that the buttons would continue to be in the same consistent locations has been removed as well. The thinking, the poisonous conclusion, is that the users will purchase the program if they’re confounded into pressing a button that was somewhere else the last time they looked.
But this is all kid stuff, playground battles, compared to what happens next and what has continued to happen.
I want to say the real granddaddy of fuckery is Real, Inc., whose Realplayer programs (which allowed easier-to-stream access to video and sound) were masterpieces of deception. The goal would be to make you sign up for any of a range of aggressive sales and advertising. I recall checkmarks left checked and hidden away in tiny scroll windows, carefullly-worded selections meant to make you concerned for the viability of the environment without allowing Real to send you newsletters and spam. This was bastardry at a high level. You were now not just a hapless user being fed crippled software or misleading buttons: you were specifically being tricked into “falling for” whatever sleaze was being sold to you. This was considered acceptable, right, and positive. Winamp does it. Instant messaging clients do this. They indicate it would be in your best interest to give the companies that have made them a peek into your actions, interests, and choices. They promise you, as a sleazy salesman would, about what’s the right choice for you, which is really the right choice for them.
We let them into our homes this way, and now they think they belong there.
But I think the real crime against humanity, the actual bottom of the barrel which itself has an even more horrible bottom, is reserved for peer-to-peer programs and the insidious idea of “adware”. The only justification I can possibly see in this situation for what they do to you is this: you are a thief, so you deserve what you get. Like putting poison in your peanut butter that your roommate keeps swiping, or stringing up a gun to fire at whatever comes in through your window, the thinking is flawed, the potential for things to go wrong flung off the scale for its excessiveness.
Who thought Adware was appropriate? How could any developer, in his right mind, be it Kazaa or Bearshare or what have you, possibly imagine that it would be good to quietly install software that forces ads on the end user in areas outside of the program? What manner of thinking makes you think you are doing any good in the world, or treating your customers like something this side of dogshit?
You hate your users when you do this; you truly do. And they hate you for it. The fact that the software would go so far as to change the function of your computer to satisfy the requirements of charlatans, to jam open in the face of security and honesty any ports necessary to allow an endless channel of ads…. that’s not software any more. You’re not a developer, the users aren’t users. It is a place where the sociopath, having determined he can lift a wallet while ostensibly inside a home to do a service, determines it’s even more efficient to rape and kill the occupants. And maybe eat them.
We suck it up because a lot of people have a lot of tolerance for a lot of things. It’s the nature of people. The savvy among us will download programs dedicated to yanking these pony nuggets out of their system, while others do no such thing and wonder why their machines have slowed to a crawl.
I am reminded of this each time I interact with Limewire. If you hit the “close” menu on the item, the program does not end. In fact it shoves itself into the taskbar, hiding itself away, using your resources and network connection long after you made it clear you were done with it.
How deep we’ve gone. How dark it has gotten.
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