Buying Software

I am not a pirate, neither in the fashionable political meaning nor when it comes to software. The latter may or may not correlate with rumors claiming that Mac users are a lot more willing to pay for software than users of other operating systems.

Being a software developer myself, I’d feel bad about not respecting the work and intellectual properties of fellow software developers.

Like I mentioned before, I figure this habit makes me an unlikely follower of the pirate party (which is currently booming here in Germany) although, with respect to many other personal traits, I may be predisposed to support the pirates’ approach to politics.

But I digress.

Back to software.

Back in the mid-nineties, I have (of course, after doing some research on the Internet) happily spent more than DM 600 on a copy of FrameMaker 5 to run it on my PowerMac 6100 for writing my thesis. Despite the price, this purchase easily counts as one of the best investments in software I have ever made.

These days, the kind of apps that I use to buy are in the lower price range anyway. And yet, I don’t take the buying lightly. There are some criteria that I’ll take into account before I’d even consider putting out my wallet.

Needless to mention, software can be very conveniently purchased directly from the Internet. And unsurprisingly, there is a huge difference in terms of how much care people take to sell their apps. Some presentations are really good and professionally made. In some cases you could get the impression that the developer and/or shop does not seem to care much about presenting their products.

Does this really make a difference? What distinguishes apps that stick with people in terms of potential purchases as opposed to apps that are rejected after a short moment of consideration?

What makes you look a second time and how are decisions finally made? Different people may have a totally different approach to this business. In this article, I’d like to share a list of aspects that I personally take into account (priority reflected by the order of appearance):

Feature List

A no-brainer. And still, it is unbelievable how many app developers simply fail to put a proper list of features onto their websites. Bonus points for screenshots of the key features of the app.

Release Notes

This may come as a surprise for some folks but in my opinion release notes are huge. In fact, this should be a no-brainer for everyone.

Publishing the release history is an indication that the developers take pride in their products and the time and effort they put into making them. For the potential customer, the availability of release notes conveys information about the history, release frequency, amount of new features for single releases, and so on.

Release notes tell a story about how much effort goes into a product and whether the product is consistently maintained or likely has been abandoned. Software is never really ready and needs to constantly adapt to changes in the underlying frameworks or else it will stop working at some point in time.

Turns out that there is a high correlation between apps that I bought or consider(ed) to buy and apps for which decent release notes are available.

Trial Version

Of course, everyone will want to give some piece of software a spin before even considering a purchase. After all, there is so much crap1 out there that it can be hard and time-consuming to filter out the failures and identify the real thing. Giving away trials for a given period of time shows that developers have confidence in their products and don’t shy away from pre-sales competition.

I’m always grateful for a trial version and I wish that the App Store would also come up with trials. Of course, it may be possible to download a trial from a developer’s website and (after the trial period expired) buy the product from the App Store.

Cross Platform

Let’s face it, cross platform software in many cases just plainly sucks on any given platform and at least is a pain in the eyes. For all it’s merits, KDiff3 is a canonical example for this category. That is, KDiff3 has a good reputation for it’s functionality, but as far as I’m concerned the UI2 is ugly on any of the supported platforms. Compare that to a (as of today) functionally limited, but optically appealing competitor.

Cross-platform apps, as a consequence of not being tightly integrated with a specific system, need to bring e.g. their own spelling dictionary instead of relying on a system-wide dictionary.

Recognizing that an app is cross-platform will probably make me have seconds thoughts about using it. But there are exceptions to this rule, obviously. Those (handful of cross-platform) apps that get past this filter3 will likely receive as much appreciation as a truly native Cocoa app.

Paid. In this category of apps the price is usually pretty limited and almost never worth the alternative of having to stare at random ads. God help us if there were entire operating systems out polluted with ads.

iOS Counterpart

A companion app on iOS makes sense in some cases and the availability of one is certainly a plus. But again, this will never be a killer since an iOS app does only make sense where assets can be shared across several machines and where the sharing does not require luxurious amounts of bandwidth.


I think Twitter is a nice opportunity for app developers to keep contact with their audience given that they use Twitter accounts wisely. Rule #1: don’t spam your followers.

But other than that, users will be able to not only get first-hand announcements but also, at least in theory, they have a decent chance of getting in touch with the developer(s), provide their feedback, or have a short correspondence. It has already worked in many cases that way.

Vibrant User Community

Not really. It is good to see that people are using a product enthusiastically, but for me this will never be a reliable indication for quality. Facebook, anyone?


So far, so good.

Let’s come back to the question of the App Store fits into this business? The reality is that most of the time, I just don’t count on the description in the App Store. In nearly every case I use to click on the link to the developer’s web site in order to get more information than what the App Store entry provides.

In other words, even in the times of the App Store I will mostly rely on the original web sites for information about a product. I will even consider buying the product from the original web site rather than the App Store in the vague hope that I may be in for an upgrade discount when the next major version is released. But that is a totally different story.

  1. Please excuse my Klatchian.

  2. Don’t get me started on that icon.

  3. Admittedly, Sublime Text 2 is a cross-platform app and (although it suffers from the mentioned problem regarding the spell-checker) still one of my favorites.