posted by Eugenia Loli on Mon 19th Jan 2004 08:19 UTC
IconComputer users around the world while might be using different applications to do their paying job (e.g. a proprietary chemistry or biology app, or a high-end astronomy app etc) they all use the same "basic" applications in their daily lives: email clients, web browsers, IM, calculators, media players, image viewers, system utilities etc. Now these applications come for free with the operating system and there are plenty of completely free alternatives on the web too. But (especially younger) consumers should realize that once upon a time these "basic" free apps were costing real money. So, what happen to this software market of (basic today) applications?

This market is pretty much dead. While there are a few shareware around that make a "better media player" or a "better email client", the reality is that no one expects to make money out of such apps anymore. So, what happened? What made this huge software market (10-15 years ago) to fail?

There are two basic reasons that constituted the end:
1. Advanced Programming Tools.
The release of Windows95 and the Visual Studio back then, brought development into a new level. Almost everyone could reuse some COM objects, the RAD tools and the advanced debugger (at least compared to Watcom C++ or Borland Turbo C++ for DOS, up to that point in time) and put together a functional app in minutes. Give it a few hours and you had a small utility up and running. Give it a few days and anyone could craft a game, or calculator or an image viewer. As years went by the development tools and frameworks became even more powerful and matured and so operating system vendors themselves started to include such applications with the OS itself. When you install any recent flavor of OS today you get an email client, an image viewer and/or manipulator, a web browser and in some cases even a video editor and a full Office suite.

2. Open Source.
With the help of the #1 reason above, mostly on Linux, programmers around the world joined efforts to bring the GNU dream to life: create Free applications for everyone. GNU has succeeded so far creating worthy alternatives for almost all of these "basic" applications and in some cases superior products (e.g. Apache, Mozilla). In other cases though OSS development hasn't caught up yet with some applications found on Mac OS X or Windows (e.g. a usable video editor, a Sherlock-like app) or the OSS offerings are just not as polished yet. Even with some shortcomings, the OSS development community has offered and continues to offer valuable products to users, for free (and this includes even server software, not just consumer software).

Given the reality of the consumer software being driven to "free" status, software houses have moved their efforts to different products:
1. Shareware software that doesn't yet exist in this "free" world, e.g. DVD-movie editors and burners, special-purpose "basic" apps (e.g. a Rendezvous text editor, or system utilities extending the underlying OS)
2. High-end software that now needs to be more high end than before in order to distinguish of its free imitations. Photoshop now needs to lengthen its gap from Gimp and MS Office from OpenOffice.org.
3. New kind of software enters the picture in the consumer market, e.g. more and more people at home are interested in astronomy or pro-like video manipulation and music generation.

The conclusion is that the software market evolves. Twenty years ago people might had to buy extra an image viewer or a scientific calculator for their computer, for quite some respectable amount of money. Ten years later the software these would be easily accessible for much less via the shareware market. Give it 5-6 more years and you would get them for free, plus the user would have to select among many free ones.

This very evolution of the software market has probably killed a lot of companies in the process (companies that could not keep up with the evolution) and so many would sound sour regarding all this. However the fact remains that by offering for free the "basic" needs, the market itself "pushes" software companies to search for alternative products and in the process to (sometimes) innovate. The whole thing is probably a struggle for many software houses, but the thing is, it will continue to be. Market realities are not that different than jungle laws: the strongest and/or more intelligent will survive.

This trend of bringing more commoditized software to users for free will continue to happen (the same way a radio receiver/player device costed a lot of money in the 1940's, but it costs just about $3 today) and businesses will continue to push themselves to offer better products in order to make a difference. At the end, it is the consumer him/herself and the software science that ultimately win. And from where I stand, this is a good thing.

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