[100% Pure Native:  PMMail... now for OS/2 and Windows (click here)]

The OS/2 Debate- by Dr. Dirk Terrell and Christopher B. Wright

Electronic software distribution versus Shrink-wrap

(Note: After you've finished reading what Dirk and Chris have to say, join in the debate for yourself by clicking on the link to the Hypernews forum where you can post your own ideas and respond to others.)

Since the early 80s, software has been traditionally sold in shrink-wrap packages on the shelves of stores like Egghead, Software Etc., Babbages, CompUSA, small-time retail outlets and mega superstores. However, it's always been extremely hard for OS/2 vendors to get their products placed on these shelves alongside the DOS and Windows heavyweights. The problems were compounded by OS/2's low market share, and OS/2 users soon learned not to bother looking for software at these places.

When OS/2 Warp 3.0 was released it was the first commercial operating system to feature a bundled web browser, and OS/2 users were some of the first to start making use of the internet not only for reading about the OS, but also to download software and purchase it from mail-order retailers that had an online presence. Now we have the mechanisms in place to bring the two together: payment systems, secure servers, and an internet fast enough to deliver applications up to five or ten megabytes. With a credit card you can purchase an application online, download and install it without ever needing to leave your chair or deal with out-of-stock items.

So, has the time come for OS/2 vendors to phase out Shrink-wrap and switch to electronic distribution? Our two debaters for this month are Dr. Dirk Terrell, creator of the OS/2 Supersite's Rapid Internet Purchasing system - a form of electronic software distribution - who will be arguing the obvious 'Pro' side. And Chris Wright - a technical writer and editor of the Desktop Communications web site, advocating the use of OS/2 as a publishing platform - is arguing against.

* * *

Wright: I am not opposed to electronic distribution -- in fact, I think it's a great idea -- but if "shrinkwrapped" software is cut out altogether, the end user will suffer. Cut out the shrink-wrap and you cut out an overlooked but very, very important component of complicated software -- documentation.

Complicated software packages (like office suites) absolutely require printed documentation in order for an end user to be able to be able to master them. Some software can get by with help menus and readme files, but the more complicated the program, the more necessary it becomes to have a printed document that an inexperienced user can refer to while he or she tries to learn the application.

Terrell: The software industry is changing quite dramatically these days, and electronic delivery will soon become the norm. Development costs are high, but distribution costs are too. For smaller companies to survive, electronic distribution is a must. I believe that for the software industry to flourish, we have to have a market where small companies can thrive in the midst of monstrosities like Microsoft and IBM/Lotus. Electronic distribution is one weapon that gives a small company an advantage. The time-to-market can be reduced and it is much easier for a company to deliver updated products. This obviously also benefits the customer. They get products at lower prices, and they get them faster and more conveniently. Of course, the limitation is the bandwidth available to the customer. Very few people would want to try to download a 170 meg office suite with a 28.8 connection. But most products are much more reasonably sized, and I believe that we are moving away from the "everything in one gargantuan package" model for software. But that is a subject for another one of our legendary debates. <g>

Wright: But moving completely to an electronic distribution system will ultimately be detrimental to users. Having to rely on help screens and readme files is not the way I want to learn to use software -- I want a book I can take with me and read through when necessary. Creating an online help system that is up to par with a well-written manual is very difficult and very expensive, because you can't just write a manual and put it in electronic format, it's a different paradigm.

Terrell: There will obviously be a market for books. If a software company wants to produce one, then they have an additional revenue stream. If I as a customer don't want the book, electronic distribution allows me that choice.

Wright: There are other problems involved with e-distribution, the most noticeable one being the time it takes to download, as you mentioned, but also there's the issue of archiving it in case it needs to be reinstalled. If everything is electronically distributed, not only are you paying for the program, but you're also sacrificing disk space to store the original file in case you need to reinstall it. Having the program on disk or CD (preferably CD) ensures that if your hard drive crashes -- a situation I have been very familiar with recently -- you still have a copy lying conveniently around (instead of having to go through backup archives to root it out).

Terrell: Well, technology is advancing in both bandwidth and storage media. With the current crop removable media products, I see no problem with putting it on something like a Zip disk. Most of the products we have on the Rapid Internet Purchasing system are small enough to be placed on one or two floppies. And even if the customer loses the original copy, it is a simple matter to enable them to download the software again.

Wright: The OS/2 Supersite and BMT Micro currently offer a CD-ROM with a collection of the latest IBM FixPaks for Warp 3 and Warp 4. Obviously, this wouldn't happen unless there was a perception that people prefer a physical copy of the software for convenience reasons.

Terrell: Given today's bandwidth, many people obviously don't want to download 20-30 megabytes worth of files. With the expansion of the Internet, bandwidth will only increase. Look at the number of people now connecting by ISDN or cable modem. Companies preparing for the future realize that today's bandwidth limitations are fleeting. But again, for many products, today's capabilities are sufficient to deliver the product to the customer electronically.

Wright: Sufficient, but barely so. I know many people who still use a 14.4 modem, which is not a good speed to be using when you're trying to download even a 1 meg file.

As bandwidth increases, I predict the average file size that gets downloaded will also increase proportionally, for the same reason that applications get larger as computers get faster. Call it a deviant corollary to Moore's Law, but bandwidth will always be a problem in e-distribution. Remember when Netscape/2 was first released, and how it was practically impossible to download without timing out because everyone was trying to get it at once? The same was also true with the Star Office 4 beta and the SmartSuite 97 beta.

Terrell: I suspect the number of people using a 14.4 modem is pretty small these days. Besides, if any progress is to be made we can't be too concerned with people who cling to long-outdated equipment. The industry will push forward and when people see the benefit of it, they will upgrade. As for the Navigator and SmartSuite problems, I suspect IBM could have alleviated the problem by assigning more servers, but those are not paid-for products so there is less incentive to do so. If someone pays you hundreds of dollars for a product and then gets time-out problems, you will be more sensitive to their needs.

Wright: OK; finally, businesses need to be able to prove that they're running legal copies of the software -- having a manual or a disk or a CD for each license is a good way to ensure that.

Terrell: A license could still be mailed or faxed to the customer. I see no reason to produce manuals and CDs as proof of license.

Wright: Well, they couldn't be faxed. In many states faxed documents cannot be considered legal or official in any capacity. But I see your point. Still, in one of the offices I worked in it was common practice to prove to auditors that they had legal copies of the major software by giving each employee with the software the manual that came with the disks.

Terrell: I really don't see this as a stumbling block for electronic commerce. Licenses can be mailed if need be. Auditors can check with the vendor to see that the customer is indeed licensed to use the software if they have to.

Wright: My ideal setup for e-distribution would be where a client purchases software online, downloads the files they need to start working, and then is shipped the "physical" version of the software later. That would be the best of both worlds.

Terrell: There is nothing stopping a company from doing so. However, they now have two expenses where before they had one. Larger companies will be able to afford this. Smaller ones, who drive innovation, will not. And for OS/2 users, it is the small companies that will be providing products for us to use. Electronic distribution enables them to spend more time and money on developing their product.

Wright: I agree that small companies will be playing the largest role in driving the OS/2 market forward. But I don't agree that providing components other than code is something different from developing their product. A software manual is every bit as much a part of a program as the code is, and is critical in terms of customer support.

If a software company wants to be able to continue to sell their product, they have to be able to deal with a very volatile area -- customer support. Small companies especially, need to be able to have as many options available to the customer before the customer contacts the developers as they possibly can, otherwise the small company will be spending all its time answering questions instead of enhancing its product.

Many products can get away with simple e-distribution -- I have many, many shareware programs that I've registered and use daily with no inconveniences. But complex applications -- word processors, databases, graphics applications -- require more than just the program if you want to be able to master using it.

Terrell: I don't see the problem with an electronic manual. If it's well done, it can be just as useful if not more so. This is an area where I think there could be a lot of improvement though. The nice thing about electronic documentation is that the potential customer could examine it before buying the software.

* * *

That's it for this month. If you would like to speak you mind on this topic, join in the debate through our Hypernews forum.

Christopher B. Wright is a technical writer in the Richmond, VA area, and has been using OS/2 Warp since January 95. He is also a member of Team OS/2.

Dr. Dirk Terrell is an astronomer at the University of Florida specializing in interacting binary stars. His hobbies include cave diving, martial arts, painting and writing OS/2 software such as HTML Wizard.


[Our Sponsor: WarpSpeed Computers - The Graham Utilities: the largest, most comprehensive suite of utilities for OS/2.]

Copyright © 1998 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696