Trialware in a virtual world

My Windows world is totally virtual. My company Eigenworks runs mostly Macs, but we have VMWare Fusion Virtual Machines for various purposes. Just the other day, for instance, I needed to do some detailed pipeline analysis for a Win/Loss client, and needed to fire up a Windows-only app.

I now keep a few VMs on my machine for different purposes. I have one small, bare-bones VM, one VM with essential apps installed, and one huge VM that has a lot of stuff installed … I don’t restrict what I install there. Then I keep “virgin” copies of the VMs on a backup drive, and if something goes wrong, I simply blow away the wonky VM and restore it to its virgin state.

Something about having Windows run in a “window” is very satisfying. I sometimes wish I could virtualize other things in my life, like some of the people. But I digress.

What about licensing? Vendors who write software that is commonly run in virtual machines have a tough challenge, and there are various solutions for that. (A decent article about the issue is here.)

But my question is more about trialware for single end-users. Once upon a time I managed a product line (which we created here, then rebranded here, until it was acquired), that ran mostly on developer workstations on Windows. We had 30-day trial licenses, which could be managed easily because we were able to place a marker on the computer to disallow a user from reinstalling a trial.

That was in the days of physical machines running Windows. What happens now when anyone can simply clone a VM and start again?

Are you dealing with this problem? What do you do about it? Does it really matter, since most individual users don’t know what a VM is yet? Share your experience in the comments below.



8 responses to “Trialware in a virtual world

  1. I would consider a couple of options:

    1. If the “trial” bit is of real importance, the gaming industry has created an interesting model that forces users to register their product online (e.g. Steam). This has generated a lot of controversy among the gamers but somehow worked for these guys. Without internet connection, he user cannot use the product/trial at all.

    2. As a trial, you could also remove the time limitation but add a feature limitation. Download available for free so users get to use your product, talk about it to others and discover that the missing features are actually important… Upgrading then becomes a necessity to get these features. Up to you now to find out which features users would pay for šŸ™‚

    Generally I think I would opt for option 2 as the benefits for the users are in my opinion more tangible. Not being able to test the missing features would not be a problem as long as they are documented somewhere.

  2. Thanks for your comment Nathan. Taking #2 a little further, I also like the idea of graduated licensing, starting at a free version with some functionality. I’m using Basecamp and Highrise now, and I started both with the freeware version. In fact I’m still using the freeware version of Highrise, not sure whether I will go forward with it.

    Similarly I have used the free version of LinkedIN for 3 years at least, and just recently updated to the paid version at the lowest level of $20/month. That’s an interesting example of a service that needs you and me to sign up for free so that the real buyers (sales people and headhunters, and “highly motivated networkers”) find the service valuable.

    All those examples are services rather than installed software, and clearly services are free of the virtualization problem I described above.

    Generally I’ve not found a client-based trial with limited functionality that I thought was worth much. The “genius” of the services I mention above is that they provide pretty significant value for zero money, but you start paying (subscription … even better!) when you get very serious about the product.

    Any good examples out there of installed client software with similarly smart approaches to graduated fees?


  3. Alan, thanks for taking the time to share your virtualized Windows setup with your readers. We hope that you’re enjoying VMware Fusion 2.

    Your strategy of having different VMs for different purposes is an interesting one. Have you ever played around with keeping different snapshots of the same VM with different apps installed?

    Pete Kazanjy
    VMware Fusion Product Marketing

  4. Thanks for the comment Peter.

    I am using Fusion v2, but haven’t played around with multiple snapshots yet. I guess I just figure it’s worth having a baseline VM sitting around so that I can just zap a VM at any time and have a working copy again. It’s probably the brute force approach. I’ll check out the multiple snapshot capabilities.

    What is your response to the licensing dilemma caused by virtualization? There’s the general case of course, but what I’m talking about above allows me to get around time-limited trials, which isn’t really good for the vendor. šŸ™‚

    Of course I (eventually?) pay for any software that becomes a regular part of my business or life.

  5. Another version of this discussion isn’t on demos, but on running software that is normally installed on desktops and managing the licenses.

    My company partially manages this by optionally setting up central license servers, so that anyone can use the software, if the license is avialable (and the license server can be contacted). We’ve wondered how this changes if companies attempt things like virtualizing the license server. I don’t think we know, yet.

  6. As a company that has migrated its Windows-based products to SaaS (OnDemand) we find that creating an instance that the customer can use in a proof od concept works well, when managed.

    Support and IT provide the management and our SEs and Services team create the POC plan and do the rest. Once a POC has be won, we create a fresh instance for the new customer.

    While this doesn’t always answer the questions, it alleviates a lot of the hassle.

  7. Alan,

    I’m a PM for a $1B+ desktop software company. My product is used by average business users and makes much more than $100M+ annually. I used to manage our Trial product.

    It’s honestly not something we’re too concerned about. When your price point is $100-$500 (and your upgrade price is $100-$200), your customer would have to weigh the pain/expense of rebuilding VMs vs. just licensing the product. Plus, if your product has any interaction with other apps on the user’s machine (e.g. email clients, web browsers), your product becomes less valuable unless it’s on their primary system.

    We debated for a long time how much we were going to try to make sure that users weren’t extending their Trials. Finally we concluded (possibly due to our size) that it wasn’t worth it, that we should just try to keep the honest users honest, that if users really want to steal your software they will, and that our trial resources would be better spent giving users a good Trial experience which migrated them to a “Buy” experience.

  8. @Anonymous PM

    Hi there. Couldn’t agree with you more. The cheaters will cheat, and there are so many ways to cheat that it is virtually impossible to to stop them. Licensing should be focused on licensing the software and not policing. Those who will pay, should not be punished with complex licensing schemes because of the minority who will never pay a cent.

    And making the actual experience for the legit users is absolutely the right approach.