Thursday, September 27, 2007

Is there such thing as free software?

The market is flooded with free software, or is it? Every software publisher out there is trying to lure the customers in with the promise of free software. So much has been the “free” aspect emphasized that it has created the illusion that software is cheaper than water – you don’t really need to pay for it unless you are too lazy to search! It is mind boggling to see the percentage of google searches (at least those that hit our site) that have the “free” word as the central piece: free sql server tools, free database comparison, free database deployment, free “anything”… Go to craigslist and you will be amazed at how many postings are soliciting free help to build a website or do some “minor” database work or whatever else. Not only that but some posters have the audacity to present those shameless solicitations as like they are doing a favor to the software developer who in their mind must be looking to “enhance the portfolio”.

Be that as it may, when you hear “free software” keep in mind that it does not always mean the same thing – often you may end up paying through your nose for the "free" software.

Let's take a closer look - there are 4 main categories of what's advertised as free software (not talking about open source here – that’s a whole other discussion):
- the spyware, adware, virus infested software developed by despicable low forms of life (I have strong opinions as to what should be done with those people but that is a subject of another discussion) – what is clear here is that you are paying a very hefty price for the “free” software;
- free version with limited functionality and no expiration – the intention of the software publisher in those cases is to let you “take a free bite” of that great dish that you could have for a price. The hope is that once you taste it you will not be able to resist paying for the dish. I think this is ethical and great way to lure the customers but is this really free software? Is a great free bike with a missing pedal worth much if to get the missing pedal you have to pay the full price of the bike? You can certainly see how great the bike is, you can even get on it and ride it pedaling with one foot but it does not cut it does it?
- fully functional trial with expiration – the intention of the software publisher in those cases is to let you have a “free lunch” in hopes that you will like it so much that you will want to come eat here everyday despite having to pay for it. Is it ethical – yes, I don’t see anything wrong with it. Is it really free - yes it is – you are getting the benefit of using it for 2 weeks, or whatever the trial period is, with no restrictions. Is it effective? It depends on the type of functionality that the software provides. In case of an infrequent task the potential customer may take the free trial and finish the job now and two months later when he needs it again simply gets another trial version under a different name, different hardware etc. – so it may never turn into a customer.
- free software with no strings attached – the intention of the software publisher in those cases is to build brand awareness and make you a customer albeit a non paying one. An analogy would be that of a grocery store deciding to give the milk out for free – yes there is a possibility that you may forever go to that grocer and get the milk but never purchase anything, but chances are that once you see how professional and courteous they are, how great their service is and how good their other produce is chances are that at some point you will become a paying customer. Is what you are getting in this case really free – yes, absolutely. Is it effective for the software publisher? It really depends on how much patience the vendor has – it will eventually pay off but it may take a long time.

So where do we stand on this? Well, just have a look at our product offering and you will see that we favor the “free with no strings attached” approach:
- our xSQL Object for SQL Server schema comparison and synchronization and our xSQL Data Compare for comparing and synchronizing the data in two SQL Server databases are free with no strings attached for SQL Server Express edition. You take them and use them – no annoying reminders popping up on your screen, you use them free and clear.
- Both of the above products are also completely free for other editions of SQL Server as long as the databases you are working with do not exceed certain number of objects. To continue the milk analogy this translates in something like: “if you don’t need more than 1 gallon of milk per day you can get it free always but if you need more than 1 gallon you will have to pay for it”.
- Our RSS Reporter for SQL Server, a great tool that allows you to get an rss feed with job status information or even have the results of any T-SQL query “fed” to you in the form of an rss feed, is also free with no strings attached for one SQL Server. Same analogy as above applies here.
- xSQL Builder which provides for automating deployment of SQL Server databases is the only tool on our line up where we have gone for the fully functional free trial approach.
- xSQL Script Executor which allows you to execute multiple T-SQL scripts in one big transaction is a completely free tool as is the xSQL Object Search which allows you to search for objects the name and /or definition of which meets some search criteria.
In case you want to check any of those products out the links are on the right panel.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Getting a programmer's attention – winning idea gets $1000!

Software programmers, database administrators, systems engineers etc, whatever the title may be, are somewhat different from the rest of the people. One can quickly build a social network of teenagers, college students, professionals etc. but try building such network of programmers and you will see what I mean! Most of the people I know from this group don’t have an account on facebook, linkedin or myspace – they are the people who build such systems but they don’t often participate as users in them. Chit-chatting, sharing feelings or otherwise socializing for the sake of socializing are not something that they enjoy much (I think). They are willing helpers and contributors, readily sharing the knowledge they have despite how much they may have invested to gain that knowledge. Recognition of professionalism and cleverness by peers is more important and enjoyable than any other form of recognition.

Now, of course we could spend years exploring the peculiar characteristics of this group and speculating about it but I would prefer to leave that work to professionals. I am interested in a much more practical matter, that is, how to get the attention of these people when you don’t have gazillions of dollars to “blanket” the relevant web destinations and print publications with advertisements?

Here is the situation in more concrete terms:

  • we at xSQL Software have spent years developing a few very helpful SQL Server tools – tools that can save the programmers and database administrators many hours of work and “tons” of frustration;
  • our licensing is very generous – we give our products our for free for SQL Server Express and also give them out free for other edition of SQL Server in case the database is within certain size limits. That really translates into the products being free for the majority of SQL Server users.
  • the people who do get to use our products love them

So what’s the problem? The problem is we don’t have enough people trying our products.

What I am looking for is an ingenious approach to tell them about our products without annoying them. What do I mean by annoying – here is an example, we once ran an attention getting banner on a popular SQL Server site; we thought the banner was very clever, it used falling blocks from the classic tetris game to get attention and then it conveyed the message that we don’t play games when it comes to our tools, but it backfired – it distracted the visitors from reading what they wanted to read.

It only takes 5 minutes to download, install and try our products but 5 minutes is a lot in today’s World – we may at best get a few seconds of their peripheral attention during which we have to convince them that those 5 minutes we want them to spend with our products will really be worth it.

Email us your ideas at the sales address – our domain is – the winning idea will get a $1,000 and more… (email us if you want to know what the more part is).