Snareware

June 5th, 2007  |  Published in etc  |  2 Comments

“Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”

— Dennis the Peasant

Before you update a piece of software you’ve only ever received via download, move the current copy somewhere safe or make sure the developer keeps copies of older versions. Here’s a cautionary tale:

I’ve got a piece of software for my scanner, a CanoScan LIDE 30, which is a fine little scanner with the exception that Canon’s existing driver and the scanning software that came with it sort of suck, at least for Macs, and for later versions of OS X occasionally refuses to install at all. So after dinking around with it for a little while, I ponied up for some third party software that provides a better interface and works more consistently.

It was pretty pricey software, but I reasoned that a. it would be good for any other scanners I ever ended up purchasing and b. it was better than buying a whole new scanner to get at better software for it out of the box. In fact, when an upgrade came around, I plunked down half the price of the software again, which meant the developer was into me for the price of the original scanner + a few bucks. What can I say? I wanted the Universal version.

So far so good.

Today I needed to use the software to prepare a bunch of documents for faxing. I noticed an update was available to the scanning software (the software provided a helpful link to the update and thanked me for buying a license). It wasn’t a major release … just a second decimal point update … so I blithely downloaded it and installed, then fired up the new version. The software threw up a notification that told me it had been more than a year since I’d purchased my last license, so if I wanted to use the new version, I’d need to buy an upgrade for half the price of the original software.

I had a mild sinking feeling but figured it had something to do with just needing to reenter my license info. It provided a field that offered just that. So I entered my info then I got ready to scan.

I’m kind of hazy on the sequence of events at this point, because I don’t know if the software warned me it had rebroken itself into trial mode or not before producing scan output that was covered with dollar signs, or if I just opened my scan and saw that for myself. I think it warned me, not that it mattered: the old version was gone.

So the sinking feeling intensified, but not that much because hey … it’s usually easy to get an older version of a piece of software, right? I’ve dealt with other shareware vendors who keep older revisions around so users can roll back if something goes wrong with the latest build or what have you.

So, noting that he’s a very busy man who can receive as many as 50 messages a day, I dashed off a note to the developer asking for an older version, and providing my user id and serial number. He responded very quickly with this:

Unfortunately, I release [the software] too frequently for

it to be practical for me to keep an archive of old

versions that I can send to people. This would take

hundreds of megabytes of online disk storage.

I don’t actually keep old versions of [the software] on

my hard drive either.

Huh.

If I had to guess, I’d guess he’s paranoid that older versions respond to the compromised serial numbers most shareware apps have floating around. I wrote back and offered that perhaps a functional upgrade grace period for users who had, you know, proven they were willing to buy his software once or twice over might be polite, considering I was sitting here with a useless update and was effectively stranded.

I wrote back expressing my frustration (literally … by typing the words “this is intensely frustrating” and leaving it at that) and telling him that I couldn’t afford an upgrade this week. I also mentioned a few alternatives he might pursue in the future regarding warnings about expired upgrade licenses, etc. No response to that.

Fortunately, I did still have an older backup archive from when I was still backing up /Applications, and it had a usable version. I didn’t realize that until after I’d already figured out several other ways to get at older versions the developer himself can’t be arsed to maintain. Thanks Google. And no thanks to the developer.

Ed did some blogging about free vs. closed software, and this incident reminds me of one of the big differences between the two, as well: Free software never manifests a toll booth or mugs you to do something it was doing just fine yesterday. There are annoyances in the free software/open source models in terms of inconsiderate developers who spend their days chasing bleeding edge versions of libraries or radical overhauls of file & configuration formats, but you can always count on finding the source to whatever you’re dealing with somewhere and being able to back out.

All this is heavily qualified: It was my own stupid fault I didn’t think to check the license terms on the software that gave me such fits, and I should have read the ambiguously worded update message the software presented more carefully, though I don’t think even a very close reading would have tipped me that there was a potential problem.

On the other hand, timebomb licenses are pretty novel, at least in terms of the software on my machine. Everything else I’ve got is licensed by major version, and you know from the developer when you’re going to have to pony up for the newest release. For instance, all of these:

  • VoodooPad

  • NetNewsWire

  • BBEdit

  • CSSEdit

  • TextSoap

  • OmniWeb

  • OmniOutliner

Any time one of those come out with a new version a. the upgrade path is not based on the age of your license b. the developer site, consequently, tells you if you’ll have to pay before upgrading. If the developers didn’t maintain back archives, you’d still have room for trouble, but the license model itself is much less ambiguous and the developers make it a point to warn you if a new version will require an upgrade fee.

Self-blame is a large part of the reason I’m not naming the software that bit me. On the other hand, the developer definitely lost a customer. I’ve paid him over $100 in the past two years for software, and he’s unwilling to deliver even a basic level of customer support when it comes to delivering copies of something he has a legal monopoly on distributing (even though he seems to be ignorant of just how tenuous that monopoly is in practice or, again, can’t be bothered to point that out to a customer in trouble). He has no provisions for temporary licenses or timed but fully functional versions. It’s not that he necessarily did anything wrong so much as he can’t be bothered to do the minimum to take care of customers who’ve paid him a lot of money. So he’s getting no more of mine.

It’s also worth noting that Canon only recently (the last month or so) did release an update to its horrific CanoScan drivers/software. It’s still sort of ugly and un-Maclike, but it does the job better than it used to. After wasting my time with the developer of the other software, I was up and scanning.

Responses

  1. Mchael Burton says:

    June 6th, 2007 at 11:23 am (#)

    Urm, ya. When I think to myself, “Hey Self, you really need to find [x] software for free today,” my first incination is to go to a site called http://www.nonags.com. They have a really nice library of stuff, and their deal is it’s all freeware – not shareware, not nagware, not timebombware – so it’s a nice first shot across the bow on the PC side of the house. Then if it’s not there, I shuffle over to sourceforge.

    But ya… if I purchased something, and they blasted me out of the water with little more than an EULA note, then I’d be hoppin’ mad.

  2. mph says:

    June 6th, 2007 at 12:06 pm (#)

    That’s what really infuriates me about this particular developer’s behavior:

    He has a lock on decent scanning software for the Mac. There’s the SANE project, but its support isn’t nearly as thorough and it doesn’t have the same clean integration with OS X.

    So there is no competition, commercial, free or otherwise, and he seems to know it. From his perspective, there’s no apparent upside to doing more than he does, which isn’t much.

    I hate to lose the hard drive space to it, but I think from now on one corner of the network share is going to go toward archiving downloads and updates. Most of the stuff I use is provided by people who have more customer-friendly policies and practices, but it’s the exceptions that you never see coming that require the extra step.

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