A Case Study in Crippleware

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The good news is that the free software that came with my Korg microKontrol finally arrived. I've been reluctant to start a new project using GarageBand, as GarageBand wasn't able to take advantage of many of the new features of the microKontrol; basically, only the piano keys were recognized as input. Korg is gracious enough to include feature-limited copies of two of the most popular music software packages available today, Reason 3 and Ableton Live 4.

I'm a relative newcomer to music software, but I've had a great deal of exposure to shareware and feature-limited demo software (called "crippleware") over the years. Many shareware authors have adopted the simple approach of nagging the user periodically to register the software, or simply restricting the number of days the software will work without a license. The limitations imposed by the authors of crippleware usually fall into one or more of the following broad categories:

  1. Disabling or removing key features
  2. Preventing the user from saving their work.
  3. Watermarking their output in some limited but undesirable way.

The authors of Reason and Live have approached the notion of crippleware in two very different ways. After trying them both out, I'm far more likely to use one of them than the other. Here's the breakdown on the two approaches.

Reason Adapted

The "Adapted" version of Reason 3 is a fantastic demonstration of the Korg microKontrol's integration with the software. Start Reason up, and the Korg automatically configures itself for use with the software. Change virtual 'instruments', and the keyboard changes to best control that instrument. All in all, a very slick package. Reason's interface is geared toward people who've used hardware synthesizers and drum machines before; you can even 'turn the rack around' and manually move patch cables to connect devices together. Since I don't have that hardware background, Reason is not immediately approachable for me - I definitely needed some tutorial work. Reason Adapted came with a single ten-minute video tutorial of a hip-looking guy who walks you through the basic features of the software.

During the course of the video, the speaker refers several times to ways in which the full version of Reason is better - unlimited instruments, chain them together in more ways, more modules, and so forth. There's no real clue from using the software that these capabilities exist; if you didn't watch the video or read their upgrade literature, you'd never know.

Ableton Live Lite

Live Lite demonstrates far less integration with the microKontrol - the user can upload standard control setups to the keyboard so that it works with Live, but there's none of the fancy automation that made the Reason software so impressive. Live's interface is very different than Reason's; without a tutorial, I'd never have had a clue how to use the software. The tutorials are shown within Live, rather than as a video - there are basically a set of instructions that display on the right side of the user interface that tell you what to do next, so you're actually using the software as part of the demo.

The demos use features that aren't part of the Lite version of Live; when I tried to use those features, I was shown a warning dialog box. If I agreed, the software would switch to 'demo mode'; I could use all the features of the full version of Live, but I couldn't save my work.

The Pitch

So, given all that, which one am I going to continue using? Which am I most likely to upgrade to the full version? Easy: Ableton Live. Here's why: Ableton was able to engage me as a new user. They accomplished this in a couple of ways.

  • By integrating the tutorial into the software, Ableton made the process of learning Live much more enjoyable. I was able to try different things in a particular tutorial step before moving on, for example. Demonstrating music software via a talking-head video is counter-productive - I have someone talking over the cool sounds I'm trying to produce.
  • Ableton's ability to switch to a full-featured Demo Mode let me experience the benefits of the full software. By seeing very clearly where the line between what I had and what I could have was, and seeing how it improved the music I was creating, Ableton made very clear the upgrade value proposition. Reason does have a full version of their software available for download - I believe it's a 30-day time-limited demo, and of course you can't save your work. I'm not sure if I'd have to uninstall the Adapted version to install the full demo.

There's an important lesson here for software authors. In fact, I'd say it extends to anyone who tries to attract new customers by offering a limited version of their product or service. It can be clear as day to the customer what's better about your main offering, but unless you engage them with the limited offering your conversion rate will suffer.

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This page contains a single entry by Grant Goodale published on March 4, 2006 9:41 AM.

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