New Life for Old Apps

Giving away earlier versions helps users-and vendors.

So youre a software vendor and youd like to increase your user base and spark interest in your products? My advice: Give your stuff away.

No, Im not talking about converting to open source. And I dont mean that you should give your newest releases away. But you should take all your old products that you no longer sell or support and provide them for free to anyone who wants to use them, with provisions to prevent commercial redistribution.

"No way, Jose," you say? Ask yourself: Just what would you be losing by doing this? You surely would not be losing sales of products that youre not selling.

Some will say that they dont want their old product to dilute the perceived quality of their existing product. Or, even worse, theyre worried that people will use the free old version instead of the new pay version. Well, if your new products arent clearly superior to your old ones, then you already have some pretty serious problems.

Whats in it for you? Your old products could become a very powerful sales engine for your current products. Imagine if Macromedia gave away older versions of Dreamweaver. Users looking for a capable Web authoring tool would try out the older versions and maybe even get some work done. And then, as they got better, it would be close to a certainty that theyd want to do more, and then they would upgrade to the current version.

This month, MIT officially launches its OpenCourseWare initiative (at With OpenCourseWare, which has been in pilot mode for one year, MIT has put a large amount of its course materials, including videos of lectures and classes, online for anyone to access freely. This is a brilliant win/win proposition for MIT in nearly every way. The school looks good to the world community for making it possible for people everywhere to enrich their educations.

Whats more, the quality of MIT is right there for anyone to see. Looking at the OpenCourseWare materials, you cant help but be impressed by the quality of the classes and the professors. If I were a parent of a current or prospective MIT student, Id be very comfortable with a university like MIT that isnt afraid to show the quality of its courses to the world rather than be angry at the institution for giving away something for free.

In another example, the BBC recently announced plans to make its entire television and radio archive freely accessible to anyone online. Compare this with networks in the United States that are trying to sell all their old shows on DVDs (and not even fitting whole seasons on one DVD). The BBC understands that what its doing will benefit society as a whole by disseminating culturally enriching information and entertainment—and the BBC understands that it will benefit by stimulating interest in BBC programming.

The BBC plans to give away the content that it spent billions creating. MIT will make the same courseware that goes with an education that costs well into six figures available for free. Both organizations are confident that doing so will spur interest in their current offerings rather than devalue them.

So why cant software companies give away the old programs they arent selling anymore?

Theres one more reason why releasing old software is a good idea, and thats to preserve the history of computing itself. How many great old programs are lost forever? If companies would release their programs for free as they become outdated or in cases of corporate failure, then it would be much easier for third parties to preserve these programs.

Currently, "abandonware" sites make it possible to download some of these orphan programs. But because many software companies would rather be right than do the right thing, many of these sites are tainted with piracy charges, as copyright can still apply whether a product has been abandoned or not.

And why should we have to go to an abandonware site when vendors themselves should be giving away the software—for the good of everyone, themselves included?

Jim Rapoza can be reached at