SIC 2006 Diary, Day Three

This is the last full day of the conference (this year).

I began the morning with a small breakfast (which is still more than usual for me), but the highlight was definitely not the food. Sherry and I sat with Michael “Doc” Callahan (Dr. File Finder) and several others, and a discussion of the SIAF awards started, providing a bit of a preview to Doc’s session later in the day. With the victory of shareware marketing, the majority of packaged software products having an evaluation version available, there is some question about what actually constitutes a “shareware company” and who should be eligible for the awards. As we did at breakfast, I will leave the final commentary until later.

With my presentation behind me, I was relaxed and able to attend whichever sessions appealed to me. For the first hour, I sat in Learning From Experience: From Programmer to Business Person. This was simply a panel of three successful professionals, Gary Elfring of Elfring Soft Fonts, Jerry Medlin of Medlin Accounting, and Ed Trujillo of Contact Plus, who each talked about business considerations in this industry, as well as some pitfalls to avoid. It was good to hear how these established developers face similar issues and learn about some of the decisions, and mistakes, they had made. This was definitely a worthwhile session.

We were actually going to skip the next session to socialize/network. One session sounded pretty dry: Differences and particularities of Distribution and Re-sellers Agreements in the European Union member states. Fortunately, I happened to be standing next to that room and noticed that session had been cancelled in favor of a relatively impromptu session entitled (I think), Networking 2.0, a sequel to a kind of communication workshop I enjoyed last year. It was presented (again) by Ronny Karl of SurfWare Labs and (for the first time) by Sharon Housley of NotePage. Of course, Ronny called on Phil Schnyder (of askSam), his copresenter from last year, to provide a truly impromptu story to illustrate a point, and that provided much amusement.

The opposite session, under the general category of “Different Approaches to Shareware”, was How to make Money from the 90%+ of Users who don’t pay for Shareware, and it was, ironically, the most discussed session of the conference. Alastair Rampell (of Rampell Software) presented a method whereby customers could “pay” for software by clicking on offers from other companies, who in turn kick back a referral fee to the publisher. Personally, I am not convinced that this is a positive or sustainable business model, but there were lots of developers who apparently were. In fact, I heard that several pointed questions got Alastair to admit that he was planning to offer a service in the future. [Note: The new venture, TrialPay, has since been announced and is currently in beta.]

The official lunch on Saturday was the ESC Luncheon, hosted (of course) by the Educational Software Cooperative, which Sherry attended. The ESC is traditionally less ambitious than the ASP in scheduling luncheon activities, and there was not much to report, except that the award for Outstanding Achievement in Educational Software was given to Harry Keller of ParaComp, and the People’s Choice Award for Best Educational Software went to Dick Bryant of Open Window Software for his WinFlash Educator product.

Meanwhile, I took the children offsite to have lunch, where were joined Patrick Bailey of 10×13 Software and his fiancee, enjoying the conversation right through most of the next session. Oh, well…

The next session I attended was the aforementioned, The SIAF Awards, led by Doc. This was not so much a presentation as a lively group discussion about the awards. Doc talked a while about the history of the awards and how they have changed over the years, and then he mentioned some of the complaints he has heard and changes that have been requested. There were some categories that will probably be axed for next year due to limited participation or, in the case of the .NET awards, a somewhat arbitrary division. Unfortunately, indications are that Best Action/Arcade Game will likely disappear, but the nomination of Unreal Tournament (released in 1999, last updated in 2004) indicated that at least some people were not taking this category seriously.

The most significant issue, really, was whether or not huge companies like Microsoft, Adobe, and Google should be allowed to win “shareware” awards, and likewise, whether freeware should qualify. There was some suggestion that the number of awards should be limited, but with Pretty Good Solitaire having won six times in the past, and being nominated again this year, I was not an unbiased participant. The bottom line is that shareware authors nominate/vote for the SIAF awards, so shareware authors must take responsibility for the results. It sounded like that was the common consensuss (though Doc always has the final say).

For the final session of the conference, I attended Develop for Windows Vista with Project Glidepath, presented by Michael Lehman of Microsoft. He had been promising a big announcement, which was Project Glidepath, a program for micro-ISVs that provides guidance in developing and shipping products using three of Microsoft’s key technologies, Microsoft Vista, Visual Studio 2005, and .NET Framework 3.0. It was a very interesting initiative, for which I applaud him, and it was good to hear. Of course, we have not yet chosen to whole-heartedly support any of these Microsoft products yet, so our participation is still in question.

There was a break before the main evening event, the 2006 Shareware Industry Awards Banquet. Traditionally, attendees spend this time to get prepared for the banquet, and then at the scheduled start of said banquet, everybody lounges around outside the hall (many partaking of the cash bar) for between 30 minutes and an hour before the doors are opened and the guests can seat themselves. When everybody is seated, the meals are served and, toward the end of the meal service, an entertainer performs. This year, the entertainment was magician/comedian Gayle Becwar, who was definitely amusing to watch, picking on friends
and acquaintances in the audience. (My son, William, got to pick a magic card.)

After the entertainment, and a short intermission, the award presentations began. Our game, Pretty Good Solitaire, was nominated for an SIAF award in the Best Non-Action Game category. WE WON! Because Thomas Warfield was unable to make the trip to Denver this year, I went on stage to receive the award, where I was, on Tom’s behalf, able to thank his wife, the artist, and myself. In the moment, I forgot to thank Martha Seward of Freelance Works, who does submissions and ongoing marketing for the product, so I am doing that publicly right here.

When the banquet ended, I deposited the beautiful award safely in my hotel room and returned to the lobby, where the usual crew had gathered for a dessert run. Somebody had suggested “pie” for a change of pace, but the selected establishment had apparently ceased to be. Therefore, we proceeded undeterred to Bonnie Brae Ice Cream, the site of the gathering on the previous evening. Sherry joined the party for this final evening, and a good time was had by all, as we talked until the lights went out, literally.

It had been a very enjoyable day, and an excellent way to end the conference.

SIC 2006 Diary, Day Two

This is the “hump day” of the conference, and the day of my presentation.

The breakfast this morning was not omelets, so I mostly reverted to my standard operating procedure (i.e., no breakfast). I was running a little later than normal, so the socializing with friends and colleagues was minimal, though I was able to chat with Ellen Craw of Bits du Jour, a unique marketing concept that is getting some national media attention. This site offers a special discount on one product each weekday, providing value to customers and an effective marketing channel for software vendors. Check it out!

Upon looking at the schedule for Friday, I actually did not see many that I just had to attend, so that combined nicely with the fact that I still needed to finish my presentation. Fortunately, SophSoft had another attendee at the conference, too, so we were covered, though there was nothing earth-shattering to report. I spent the morning in my hotel room transferring my notes into PowerPoint (somewhat awkwardly).

For lunch, the ASP (Association of Shareware Professionals) Luncheon was scheduled. I found the food to be decent, especially for something that had to be explained to me, but that opinion was not widely shared. My wife and I sat at a table with many ASP officials, and the company and conversation were enjoyable. The highlight of the luncheon was the induction into the ASP Hall of Fame for Rob Rosenberger, of, and Kent Briggs, of Briggs Softworks. Volunteers for the ASP were also recognized with certificates; mine says “Voice of the ASP”, a reference not to marketing but to sheer volume. [Note: Audio recordings of the ASP luncheon are now available online.]

After the ASP luncheon, I again returned to working on my laptop in isolation, timing and editing my presentation (to be shorter, as usual). I emerged once to make use of the wireless internet available to SIC attendees in the hospitality area. It was there that I talked for a while with Christopher Williamson of DreamQuest Software and was shortly thereafter introduced to Barbara Hernandez of TechSmith, with whom I would be sharing the session later. Ironically, we both live in the same city, but we had to travel more than 1200 miles to meet.

The Good News was that I did manage to get my presentation finished, with time to spare (helped no doubt by having to lose material). I thought that the bad news was that I missed a session that would have been nice to attend. However, the real Bad News came when I went upstairs to my hotel room on the 9th floor to get my laptop/presentation, only to find that my key card had stopped working. Fortunately, it just took some extra elevator travel to get everything fixed in time for the session. The problem was, of course, a software bug.

With my heart racing, whether because of the scare, the additional exercise, or stagefright I am not sure, I arrived at the riser in the bigger of the two presentation rooms with enough time to test the video hardware before the session began. Fortunately, everything worked as expected (though the wireless mouse did not transmit far enough to reliably advance screens from the floor).

Barbara Hernandez gave her presentation first: Designing the User Experience: User Centered Design and the Software Development Cycle. Fortunately, despite minimal advance coordination between us, our topics were complimentary, rather than redundant. The focus of Barbara’s talk was the process involved in designing and, most importantly, testing user interfaces for customer usability. She spoke about how the process was applied to SnagIt 8, which was slightly ironic given that I was the programmer for SnagIt 2.1 more than a dozen years ago. I had to acknowledge that her PowerPoint garnered all of the style points.

My presentation was entitled, Practical Interface Guidelines: Things they did not teach us in programming class. As the (porcine) name suggests, I presented a large number of practical issues that should be considered when designing, implementing, and testing user interfaces. I deliberately went through the suggestions fairly quickly, in a successful attempt to keep within my time. We were finished with both talks with five minutes to spare for questions. At first, there were no questions at all, so I filled some time with one of the stories I had omitted earlier, and then we took a few questions that developed in the audience.

After my presentation came the reviews, the first (and worst) of which was from my wife and business partner. She felt that I could have done better with my speaking style (specifically, fewer “um”s). In retrospect, it is probably that she knows me so well that she can perceive my (otherwise masked) nervousness. I quickly sought an unbiased opinion from another programmer who I knew was in my target audience, and he said that he had not noticed, and that the talk was good. I got several spontaneous compliments throughout the evening, including from one person who suggested that the lack of questions was due to the audience still processing the large quantity of actionable information.

The activity for the evening was Exhibit Night, where attendees can visit booths of show vendors, as well as eat and drink (not necessarily in that order). Actually, the SIAF Board strongly encourages attendees to visit every booth by having a drawing for some nice portable music hardware; to enter the drawing, one needs to have ones “passport” stamped at each location. It seems to work well, as the event is always busy, even a little crowded. In addition to the SIAF giveaway, the DRM companies, the download sites, and the Digital River juggernaut, the ASP has a booth with regular (valuable) giveaways throughout the evening.

It was a great night for goodies. Several of the vendors had T-shirts, which some of us gratefully add to our wardrobe (and, yes, we do wear them). My son won a “goody bag” from the ASP, containing free copies of some member software and discounts on marketing services, fairly early in the evening. Of the three grand prizes from the SIAF, Sherry won one of the two 30GB Creative Zen Vision MP3/video players, the other going to the Thornton family, of Thornsoft, who also later won an iPod from one of the download sites. Our luck continued, too, as I personally won a copy of Borland Developer Studio 2006 Professional from the ASP ($1090 retail, courtesy of Borland).

After the exhibits closed down and we had all dumped our SWAG in our hotel rooms, we went on another late night ice cream run. This tim
e, though, Eric Issacson (ZIPKEY) had found a local store, Bonnie Brae Ice Cream, which in my opinion was far better than a chain joint. Most of the previous crew went, and we added Loren and Kim Brewer of Shareware Solutions. We did feel a little guilty that we had to leave without Mitchell Vincent of K Software, who had to disassemble the ASP display, but we enjoyed the ice cream nonetheless.

With my presentation behind me, I was able to relax and watch Monk on television before dozing off.

SIC 2006 Diary, Day One

Today is the first official day of the Shareware Industry Conference.

The morning started out as usual with an excellent breakfast provided by the conference. In this case, it was omelets made to order, which has been my favorite breakfast meal for every SIC I have attended. This is my sixth year attending, having gone to my first in 2000 in Tampa, recognized as the most luxurious SIC due to venture capital spending by adware companies (all now defunct), and missing 2001 (the first of two in St. Louis).

My first order of business was to find the supposed speakers meeting at 8:30am, about which I was informed by Paris Karahalios (Speaker Coordinator) the previous evening. At the prescribed time, but having no set location, I dutifully checked each room and found no meeting, nor any signs suggesting one. I then saw Paris in the registration room (obviously not in any meeting), so I found a table with a few friends who I knew were also speaking, figuring that we could make or miss a meeting together. None of us saw anything, so I am still not sure whether Paris may have simply been pulling my leg.

I got involved in a conversation with a couple of friends I know, only to realize that they had not met each other in person, despite having actually worked together online. Such is the nature of our business that it is possible to work with somebody but never actually meet. The great value of this conference is the ability to interact with associates and online friends and acquaintances on a more personal level (though the presentations are valuable as well).

As usual, the conversation lasted past the start of the first session. We attended Building the Automatic Software Company Machine, by Brian Leach of Steelray Software. It was interesting but perhaps not directly applicable to our company at the moment. There was discussion of a “depth chart” that had two (or more) people who could handle any task, which immediately showed that Steelray is a significantly larger company than we are.

For the second session, I attended the User Interface talks given by Sue Pichotta of icons-icons and Becky Lash of Epic Trends. Sue and Becky both discussed the new Microsoft Vista interface, which was certainly interesting. While I have a beta copy of Vista, it refused to install on my one (and so far, only) attempt, so it was my first look. Some of the seemingly arbitrary changes to Vista are directly contradictory to advice I would be giving in my talk.

After the session, it was time for lunch. Though there was no official event planned, there was a lunch at a nearby restaurant/pub for AISIP (Association of Independent Software Industry Professionals), which my wife, Sherry, and I both attended. In a reflection of the previous session, our host was Sue Pichotta, and Becky Lash sat at our table, along with Dave Collins of Shareware Promotions, who had also already spoken at the conference (and would do again). We had a great conversation about family, marriage, and all sort of issues not directly related to shareware marketing, but probably near the core of why we all work for ourselves.

I skipped the next session to get more work done on my upcoming presentation. Did I mention that I had never created a PowerPoint presentation before? I spent much of the hour getting the structure and outline for the talk down in data form, but I was filling in some of the content from my notes before leaving the hotel room.

The next session was Reviewing and Critiquing Attendee Web Sites, which I attended to get ideas as I plan a company wide rebuilding of our (more than a dozen) web sites. When the reviewers, Sharon Housley of NotePage, Ben Weintraub of Merit Software, and the aforementioned Dave Collins, asked for business cards, there were not too many takers at first, so I threw in mine (for the main SophSoft site). Eventually, many people volunteered but, alas, my site was one of the few selected for review above more worthy sites (and by that I mean those actually selling product). Sharon served as primary reviewer on my site, and suffice it to say, the review was not favorable. (If the 1980s are mentioned in relation to a web site, when the first web page did not even exist until 1990, that is bad.)

Instead of attending the final session of the day, the family went on a short ride to the store to pick up a few missing essentials to make the rest of the stay more enjoyable.

The event for the evening was a reception hosted by Digital River, which always tries to have some sort of spectacle. This year, there were motorized toilets racing around within inflatable track walls. (Last year, it was a mechanical bull.) The food was decent, and there was free beer; in fact, DR representatives tried to hand a bottle to my 17 year old son on the way in. Unfortunately, as with previous years, there was loud music for the theme, and as soon as it looked like people were actually having conversations, the volume was turned up louder seemingly to drown it out. They could really take a lesson from Protexis, who sponsored the networking event the previous evening.

A shareware gathering tradition continued when a small group of us, led by the fearless Eric Isaacson of ZIPKEY and Eric Isaacson Software, went out for ice cream. This evening, we went to a Cold Stone Creamery that we found last year, in lieu of a proper local store. We were joined by Brandon and Rebekah Staggs of SwordSearcher, Gary Elfring of Elfring Soft Fonts, Jerry Medlin of Medlin Accounting, Becky Lash (again of Epic Trends), and my two sons. (Tip: Since the group size is always limited by seating, having a car, as I did, is the best way to assure an invitation.)

It was a good first full day of the conference, but I am definitely looking forward to some sleep.

SIC 2006 Diary, Day Zero

The Shareware Industry Conference gets underway.

Today, the premier conference about marketing software online, the Shareware Industry Conference, got started in Denver, Colorado, with a reception sponsored by Protexis. SIC 2006 officially runs from Thursday, July 13th [tomorrow] through Saturday, July 15th, but with this opening event and a breakfast on Sunday morning, it actually encompasses at least part of five days.

The Shareware Industry Conference is presented by the Shareware Industry Awards Foundation (SIAF), and this is the 16th annual event. The SIAF Board of Directors consists of five people: Michael “Doc” Callahan (Dr. File Finder), Gary Elfring (CD Ship), Harold Holmes (Lincoln Beach Software), Sharon Housley (NotePage), and Paris Karahalios (TRIUS). They put on a great event each year.

I arrived in Denver after 20 hours of driving, straight through, with my wife/partner and our two kids. We could have (possibly) made it a couple hours sooner, but toward the end of the journey we were stopping frequently in order to keep our circulation active (and my eyes open). The timing was just about perfect, as we checked in at the hotel immediately and had enough time for a nice lunch before registration (foregoing a nap).

Registration went fairly smoothly, despite a small, yet amusing, communication problem caused no doubt by my lack of sleep. We received our badges and “goody bags” and proceeded to our hotel room for much-needed showers. Getting registered before the conference officially begins is always more convenient, and it is especially nice when everybody at the desk knows you and has your stuff ready before you get there.

At the reception, we spoke with many friends and acquaintances (some call it “networking”) and generally had a good time. Protexis was a good host, allowing everybody a forum in which to actually talk, with good food, and at least in my case, ample drink tickets. I also got to meet for the first time, in person, a few online acquaintances: Dan Hite (Auction Sentry), Jean Cyr (Dillobits Software), and Association of Shareware Professionals Director Henk Devos (Whirling Dervishes), who made the trip over from Belgium. As usual, I ended up talking with somebody (Henk, in this case) until we were last ones at the party.

The SIC is truly underway now. I am looking forward to the whole conference, and am especially anticipating my presentation (Practical Interface Guidelines: Things they did not teach us in programming class) on Friday and the Shareware Industry Awards Banquet on Saturday night, when Pretty Good Solitaire is nominated for an SIA in the ‘Best Non-Action Game’ category.

Another Windows Update Gripe

I just got bitten by another Microsoft interface bug.

Since my laptop is not my primary development machine, I have it configured slightly differently than my other systems, to give me a better feel for the way that our customers would normally experience Windows. I left it setup mostly as it came from the manufacturer, albeit with much of the automatically launching software removed.

One of the things that is different with this system is that Windows Update is configured for Automatic Updates. When I turn on the laptop in range of my wireless router, it connects and retrieves any updates that Microsoft deems important. This is the standard behavior for many, if not most, Windows users.

Last night, I turned on my laptop and started a large file transfer. Of course, Windows Update decided that it needed to update my system at the same time (slowing the transfer). That was to be expected, and it was not really a problem. However, the system update required a restart of Windows to be complete, and that exposed another design flaw.

During the file transfer, a dialog box popped up:

Automatic Updates
Updating your computer is almost complete. Your computer needs to be restarted
for the updates to take effect. Windows will restart your computer automatically in
m:ss minutes.
Do you want to restart your computer now?

The m:ss was a minutes and seconds countdown, starting at 5 minutes. After I noticed the dialog box (having been working on my main development system), I ignored the ‘Restart Now’ button, since I was still transferring a file. I pressed the ‘Restart Later’ button.

Lo and behold! After only 10 minutes, the same dialog reappeared. The expectation of my previous selection was that it would go away and not bother me again, and I would restart it on my schedule. Since I was still in the middle of the file transfer (I told you it was large), I was forced to repeat my previous action, and to do it within a specific time period.

One of the fundamental rules of interface design is to maintain consistency of behavior and not act contrary to user expectation. A ‘Restart Later’ button on almost any other software update, including those from manually using Windows Update, dismisses the dialog permanently and puts the onus on me to restart the system. This action violates that principle.

It is not too difficult to guess what happened next. The transfer continued for ten more minutes before having the dialog popping up again, demanding unwarranted attention. At this point, I was very annoyed. In my mind, all I can hear is the sound of an obnoxious child from the back seat, repeatedly asking “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” You get the idea.

Another very important rule is to never perform a potentially destructive action without explicit instruction or confirmation from the user. This rule was also seriously violated…

If somebody in the above situation is using the computer for a time-consuming task, such as a large file transfer, and he is called away by, say, nature, Windows Update causes trouble. After dismissing the dialog box several times, one failure to be in the room for whatever reason results in the system rebooting, thus invalidating the process in progress. One may be forced to completely restart the task after having it aborted by an unwanted reboot, which hopefully does not corrupt anything.

With a company as large as Microsoft, and a product as comprehensive as Windows, it is not surprising that there are some areas of brilliance and some areas that are just lousy. It is, however, quite disappointing when one finds the latter, and worse when it has a negative impact on productivity. The best an independent game developer can do is to learn from both.

Well, that and complain.