Thursday, April 5, 2007

Too much stuff in the box

Twenty years ago, one of the functions of my local Mac user group was to sell floppy disks of shareware software. Some of the packages were truly shareware (honor payment), while others were reduced-functionality versions of commercial products. These got the nickname “teaseware,” “demoware,” or “crippleware.”

Many years later, a friend with a peripherals company said the internal name for the demo software that they distributed with their hardware was “stuff in the box” (except he didn’t say “stuff”). Lots of small software companies relied on such bundled demos as their primary way of getting their products in front of consumers, and my own company depended for several years on bundled fliers (but not teaseware) to promote our plotter driver.

This morning America’s most influential computer columnist, the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, lashed out at the plethora of crippleware packages loaded on his new Sony laptop:

I’m distinguishing these programs, sometimes called “craplets,” from the full-featured, built-in Sony software meant to enhance the computer, or from entire, useful programs Microsoft builds into Windows, such as music and photo organizers.

On my new Sony, there were two dozen trial programs and free offers. The desktop alone contained four icons representing come-ons for various America Online services, and two for Microsoft. The start menu and program menu had more items that I neither chose nor wanted. Napster, a music service I don't use, was lodged at the lower right of the screen.
[AOL floppy]Is bundling AOL software on the hard disk worse than a bimonthly mailing of a floppy (or CD-ROM) to every man, woman and child in the US? Certainly the bundling is better for the environment, even though it might be more expensive.

Still, Mossberg is outraged (or at least feigns it) over the principle of the thing:
The problem is a lack of respect for the consumer. The manufacturers don't act as if the computer belongs to you. They act as if it is a billboard for restricted trial versions of software and ads for Web sites and services that they can sell to third-party companies who want you to buy these products.
This is a reminder of the limits of such business models (both for distributors and the participating vendors). MBAs at Sony or Dell may have calculated the incremental benefit of each co-marketing deal, but not the cumulative effect on how consumers view their new computer.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Apple under Steve Jobs (in both the Jobs I and Jobs II eras) has relentlessly focused on the total user experience. Google thus far has been able to pull it off. Silicon Valley companies are populated with Apple refugees and admirers have long shown that this is not specific to one company. Don Norman has created an entire company around preaching this message.

So this isn’t rocket science. It just requires listening to the people who understand what’s going, and reining in the greediness for “found money.”

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